Gender Trouble: Gender Feminism and the Blank Slate

| by Malhar Mali |

“There is no reason to assume that gender also ought to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it.”
Judith Butler

While visiting L.A. for Thanksgiving, I spoke to a friend — a women’s studies minor — who told me, a little proudly, about a feminist professor acquaintance from Yale who was raising her child as gender neutral. She was putting her son in dresses and discouraging “gender roles and ideas of being.” When I objected to this treatment and expressed that it troubled me, she responded with: “But as much as she tries, she can’t stop him from playing with trucks and traditionally ‘male’ toys.” Some might consider this as strange behavior from a parent, let alone a professor at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, but, as the adage went, “it’s 2016.”

In 1990, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was released. It’s main hypothesis? That gender is a performance rather than innate; that it is taught through the repetition of actions and engaging in gendered roles. Judith Butler made it clear that the body is not a stable foundation for gender expression and that gender does not necessarily mimic sex. Amongst her wilder claims? That biological sex is also a cultural construction — gender subsumes sex.

Twenty seven years later we have the collateral from this idea, widely accepted in the humanities and pontificated upon in the social sciences (upon which queer theory is built). Tinder, the popular dating app, lets a user choose among 37 genders. Facebook offers 58. A part of our culture has obsessed itself with debating gender fluidity and sexuality. If gender is a performance, then the next step is that it can be influenced by the way you act. Enter Tumblr and concepts like Aerogender:

“A gender which relies highly on their setting and/or atmosphere, which can be composed of a great number of things (ex. who they’re around, their level of comfort, the temperature, the weather, the time of day/year, etc.)”

Lest you think these ideas and discussions about gender exist in the radical fringes of our society, consider the thriving YouTube community of users who claim to be able to shift between genders; the pronoun wars taking place on college campuses (xe, xim, xers, shims; shers, they); Bill C-16 in Canada and Jordan Peterson; Transgender bathrooms; University of Oregon’s decision it might discipline faculty “for suggesting that there are, on average, biological differences in temperament or talents between men and women,” and the thousands of gender studies departments across the Western world.

These concepts are not out of the vogue. They are just starting to gain traction in the mainstream. Papers deploying variations of and building off this hypothesis — that sex and gender are socially constructed — are frequently published in the social sciences and humanities. Judith Butler herself was invited to Yale’s prestigious Tanner Lectures in 2016.

Where have these concepts sprouted from?

The elephant in the room (the one which is tip-toed around because any criticism of it equals misogyny for its ideologues): feminism. While strains of feminism exist which do not make claims about the cultural construction of gender and sex, dominant ideologies within Anglo-American academic feminism do. This idea — that gender and sex are a social construction — was created for a noble purpose. Many Anglo-American Academic Feminists believed (and continue to believe) that it is the distinction between sexes which has led to historical discrimination against women. It is a distinction they wish to move past altogether. But they have held onto this ideology in the face of mounting evidence. Feminists who hold this view, and their divergence from equity feminism, are best explained by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate:

“Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive — power — and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups — in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.”

Gender feminists believe that gender is a social construct and all distinctions between men and women we see in life are simply culturally  and socially constructed — biology plays no part. Ergo all differences in distributions we see between males and females are simply the result of discrimination. If this is the case, they believe we can achieve equality of outcome through quotas, teaching men to be less dominating of women (the articles you might read about “toxic” masculinity), and dismantling the hetero-patriarchy and gender binary. Other than the tyrannical thought of instituting outcome equality, it is basically the idea of biology vs. the blank slate; biological imperative vs. social constructionism; nature vs. nurture. Gender feminists firmly believe that it is all nurture. The consensus in the scientific community is the opposite: Cultural conditioning does play a part, but biologically we are a dimorphic species.

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Professor Judith Butler

Tell a biologist or evolutionary psychologist that gender and sex are a social and cultural construct and you’re sure to receive confused looks, incredulity, and even outright contempt for your stupidity. If men and women are socialized to like certain things and behave in different ways, then why do newborn male and female children, who haven’t yet been influenced by social and cultural factors, show a distinction in what they find interesting? Male infants show a stronger interest in the physical-mechanical-mobile while female infants show a stronger interest in the face (the proxy for “interest” here being the time of fixed gaze). These exhibitors of biological dimorphism also emerge in rhesus monkeys, with toy preference paralleling those of human children.

If men and women are simply socialized by culture to like certain things and behave in different ways, then why do men and women in 55 different countries show clustered patterns in the big five personality traits — with women reporting higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than do men across most nations. You would think if men and women are only socialized to behave in a certain way, the results from this survey would produce wildly variant results. 

These contrasts also extrapolate into adulthood. Now consider how these sex differences impact what interests men and women have when choosing careers and jobs and you get a fairer understanding of phenomena like the “gender wage gap,” more men in STEM fields, and more women in caring, social roles. Sex differences are biological in origin — Butler’s idea of “performance” plays little to no role.

In fact, when social stigmas and roles are removed and populations are the most free — for example the Scandinavian countries — this is where we see the most divergence in what men and women choose to work in. People pursue what they’re adept in. And men and women are naturally adept, on average, in different things. None of this is to say, of course, that women are of more value than men or men are of more value than women. Only that we are different. And that these differences play out in different ways in our populations.

The objection to all this is: “Gender and sex are not the same thing, you bigoted transphobe! Gender is socially constructed and if a person is born a particular sex what’s stopping them from being a different gender?”

Of course there are social expectations like pink being considered a feminine color and blue masculine, or women encouraged to take more domestic roles while males are guided into others. There are cultural norms which encourage men and women to conform to certain behavior. Some individuals want to break free from these norms — more power to them. I suppose I don’t even mind if someone wants to identify as Vibragender (a gender that is usually one stable gender but will occasionally change or fluctuate before stabilizing again), my issue is when you start forcing myself and others to comply to inarticulate beliefs with pronouns and disciplinary action.

Specifically, though, the claim I am addressing is the one that cognitive, psychological, and behavioral differences do not exist between the sexes and are all culturally taught and socially programmed. They are not. Biological sex determines and influences how individuals behave (their gender, if you like). In this way gender and sex are inextricably linked.

Let me hedge: there is a part of our population who do not feel comfortable with the sex they’ve been born into. Data by the Williams Institute found that 0.3 % of Americans identify as transgender and exhibit signs of gender dysphoria. David Schmitt, on Psychology Today, also makes a compelling case that sex/gender should be viewed as “dials not switches,” positing that there are many dimensions on which individuals range — but even his position is rooted in biological realities of the specific individual’s natal developmental conditions, activational effects (such as puberty), and genetic effects.

Socialization plays a little to a small part.

But when confronted with this information, and studies that show non-socialized sex differences in cognition between men and women, social scientists, gender scholars, and gender feminists have a tendency to deny, obfuscate, downplay, and deflect like the most devout of believers. What do they believe in? The blank slate. That we are all born, in Lockean terms, tabulae rasaes. Or, they refer to relativistic ideas about “scientism” and posit that it’s not possible to “objectively” know these things.

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Activists campaigning to “destroy the gender binary”

Interestingly, esteemed publications have jumped into this debate as well. National Geographic released a piece titled “How Today’s Toys May Be Harming Your Daughter.” The article mentioned the gender difference in toy preference but failed to account that sex is the reason for this occurrence. Could it be that girls naturally prefer looking at faces, are better at fine motor skills and manipulating objects, and boys have an aptitude for mental rotation and spatial processing?

National Geographic’s print issue also featured a nine year old transexual girl on its cover, Avery. Nine is too young to make a life-altering decision of such magnitude — especially when, and as sex researcher Deborah W. Soh notes, the relevant literature shows that 61% to 88% of gender dysphoric children desist and grow up to be gay adults. Soh writes:

“… ignoring the science around desistance has serious consequences; it means some transgender children will needlessly undergo biomedical interventions, such as hormone treatments. Even detransitioning from a purely social transition can be a difficult process for a child. In one 2011 study of 25 gender dysphoric children, 11 desisted. Of the desisters, two had socially transitioned and regretted it.”

Soh paints a disturbing picture: one of hardline transgender activists and gender feminists ignoring the science in favor of their ideology. Who suffers? The children they profess to want to help.

The David Reimer and John Money case also comes to mind. John Money was the father of gender theory who introduced terms like “gender role” and “gender identity.” David Reimer was part of a pair of twins. His penis was lost in a botched circumcision which is where Money stepped in and suggested gender re-assignment — because in his view gender was only a learned identity. Long story short, David Reimer had a troubled childhood, eventually transitioned back to a man, and then killed himself. This is not to say that Avery’s case is not legitimate. But stories such as the Reimer case should serve as a tale of caution of forcing ideologies onto children.

Where I would posit that this is a political affliction rather than a real condition is with individuals who claim to transition from Caelegender one day to Genderwitched the next. I’m sure transsexual individuals exist on both sides of the political aisle while individuals who shifts from Trigender to Hydrogender (a gender which shares qualities with water) or claim to be Otherkin (people who identify as dragons, lions, wolves, etc.) are only found on the political Left.

But those who believe in the blank slate are everywhere — and working to promote the idea that it’s only nurture which impacts us. To them, if we’re born blank slates, then the next step is: what we’re attracted to is a social and cultural construction as well. Michael Shermer wrote an article for Scientific American in which he exposed right-wing attempts to hint at homosexuality being a choice as opposed to an innate attraction. From this mindset is where you get abominations like gay therapy camps — which advocate that you can simply “teach” homosexual men and women to find the other sex attractive.

My friend, who is a gay man, also informed me about the criticism he receives because he’s attracted to masculine men over feminine ones. He forwarded me an article in which its author, as well as accusing gay men who are attracted to masculine men of exhibiting “internalized homophobia and misogyny,” revealed the social constructionist and gender feminist — nurture over nature — mindset that is so popular with young writers these days (Think Huffpo, Salon, Jezebel, Everyday Feminism, Bustle, MTV, etc.). The author stated:

“We are all products of the societies that we live in, and so are our ways of thinking — even what we find to be attractive. We are all imperfect in this way. But we must constantly question the systems of power in our lives.”

These writers pathologize our sexuality through the lens of social constructionism and fail to account for the biological markers human beings look for when seeking healthy mates. If we really are a blank slate and what I’m attracted to is taught by society and culture, blank-slaters would have to entertain the idea that the only reason I find Elsa Hosk more attractive than Lena Dunham is because I’ve been socialized to feel that way.

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Lena Dunham & Elsa Hosk

I hope even they would see that as a laughable leap.

In part, I don’t blame these writers for their views. They are being brainwashed by some university and college departments and certain media outlets in the Western world to believe that gender and sex are social constructs. If you buy into that concept, then you buy into a series of cascading and even more ludicrous notions.

While we rightly condemn and laugh at the right-wing creationists who seek to teach our children debunked ideas like the world was created in six days or that human beings and dinosaurs lived alongside each other, why do we turn a blind eye to these science denying ideologues when they have free rein to indoctrinate our children in universities and institutes of higher learning?

I think a few reasons:

There is a genuine worry that the existence of differences and distinctions between sexes and races could be used to justify maltreatment, denigration, and “social darwinism.” Jerry Coyne succinctly summarizes this view:

“These claims [that there are no differences between sexes and races] are based not on biological data, but on ideological fears of the Left: if we admit of such differences, it could foster racism and sexism.  Thus, any group differences we do observe, whether they reside in psychology, physiology, or morphology, are to be explained on first principle as resulting from culture rather than genes.”

This might be true. But it might also be true that uncovering these differences does not compel us to make moral judgements or ascribe policy based on these results. Learning the minute contrasts that characterize humans could actually be helpful in looking for certain medical conditions in different populations, or applying divergent methods of treatment for men and women. Perhaps this fear also comes from a time when LGBTQ+ citizens had little to no rights and protections — but the moral panic I’m witnessing over these issues is out of proportion. For a political side so concerned with living in a post-truth world, it seems the truth of biology is being overpowered by ideology.

The second is that any opposition is akin to victimization. If you claim the idea of gender and sex being a social construction is false and incoherent, you are tarnished with the brand of bigot, homophobe, and transphobe. Colin Jost found this out when he joked on Saturday Night Live about the 37 genders Tinder offered. Jost was quickly accused of being transphobic and condemned in a series of left-wing publications. This instance is demonstrative of a worrying trend taking place which equates words with violence.

This whole “my gender is a social construct and what I feel inside” movement shows we are increasingly valuing what we feel as true over what is true to the best of our knowledge. We, as a culture, are placing mini-narratives above and beyond the concept of a meta-narrative. Worse, whenever anyone pushes back against a mini-narrative the knee-jerk reaction is to clutch at victimhood, persecution, and oppression.

The French postmodernists are probably laughing at us from their graves.

Judith Butler, a postmodernist herself, says in an interview with Big Think that her ideas have been quite controversial. While she’s only a part of this bigger puzzle — comprised of gender feminists, social science and humanities scholars, science denialists, gender studies, women’s studies, etc. — I would go further and say that her ideas have been downright wrong, idiotic, and have promoted dangerous obscurantism in our society.

The blank slate myth still thrives and persists.

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Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali or via email at malhar@areomagazine.com 

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10 Comments

  1. GC

    I’m a Gender Studies / Sociology / Anthropology undergrad and I am wrestling with the ideas you put forth here, every week in class and in my readings. This article is very timely for me and has really stuck a chord. I am not of the Butler school, believing gender is entirely socially constructed, as you say, there is too much scientific evidence to the contrary. For me, differences in gender (and the subsequent status they afford) comes down to a combination of biology AND socialisation. If the starting point is “yes, boys and girls are different” we then have to enquire as to why women have been historically subjugated, relegated to the fringes of public life, their ‘biological’, ‘feminine’ qualities silenced and undervalued by broader society while the ‘masculine’ is championed and rewarded. This is the line of enquiry I am following in my degree.

    I am not cocky or learned enough to profess to know where biology starts and socialisation begins (obviously the absence of conclusive proof is why we’re having this debate). Sure babies show different interests, and that is valid, but they are tainted by external cultural forces as soon as they begin to absorb information. To follow your line of reasoning, once a person reaches adulthood, they have been exposed to two decades of external cultural influence. Thus despite large numbers of men ‘choosing’ to work in X profession and women ‘choosing’ to work in Y – it is ignorant to say that these choices were made independent of any social conditioning. (Take this as a small but pertinent example https://img.apmcdn.org/c721266de032890589e16e9f927af9a32fc363d3/normal/c5762a-20160923-girlslifeboyslife.jpg)
    For all we know typically gendered traits occur largely due to external influences. Or perhaps not. I aim to dig deeper into this. At the very least, professors raising their children to be gender neutral will be an interesting experiment to examine the convergence of biology and socialisation.

    One reason I semi ascribe to biological essentialism is so I can say that I think men (read: masculinity) have near ruined the world. Sure, look at the progress but look at the devastating cost. Men have been in control for thousands of years, how many hundreds of millions have needlessly died in the last century alone, for what? How poorly are we treating the planet? Historically men are driven by ego, are reckless, lack empathy and compassion. They have had a completely unbalanced, unchecked stranglehold on civilisation (be it it’s driving force – save the unpaid women rearing the next generation at home). They commit the majority of the world’s crime. History is a story of male violence, aggression and greed. These views may sound extreme but they need to be answered for and something needs to change. A solution here is providing balance, giving women and other minorities a voice, a say and a stake. It is an interesting thought exercise to wonder how differently history could’ve played out – and could be playing out now – if women were the ones in control. What would a feminine leadership look like? On women’s terms, parameters set by women – not acting out historically masculinised leadership roles.

    I’ve digressed slightly. I’ll finish with this:
    What you say here is incredibly true –
    “There is a genuine worry that the existence of differences and distinctions between sexes and races could be used to justify maltreatment, denigration, and “social darwinism.”
    Where you lose me is
    “This might be true. But it might also be true that uncovering these differences does not compel us to make moral judgements or ascribe policy based on these results.”
    IT HAS. FOR EONS. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.
    Think female subjugation, the vote, slavery, colonialism. Women and ethnicities have historically been tarnished as biologically inferior and treated as such. Feminists mean to change this. Genuine progressives mean to change this. I agree if we are looking to the future we must acknowledge and study biological differences but make damn sure we do not regress to a power system wherein (dare I say) white men consider themselves to have biological monopoly on competence and relegate the rest to the fringes (as history records). It’s high time that feminine input becomes valued, the two sexes can use their strengths to complement each other, working together to forge a better world.

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  2. Austin

    @ GC: “At the very least, professors raising their children to be gender neutral will be an interesting experiment to examine the convergence of biology and socialisation.” Interesting experiment? What are you, a utilitarian?

    Don’t rely on your gender studies classes to give you the full story on any of the topics you have listed. You mentioned the vote. I wonder if you are aware of the history of male suffragettism. Look up Vanessa D. Fisher’s Youtube series “Feminism & the Angel of the House”.

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  3. lvlln

    @GC

    ‘There is a genuine worry that the existence of differences and distinctions between sexes and races could be used to justify maltreatment, denigration, and “social darwinism.’
    IT HAS. FOR EONS. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.
    Think female subjugation, the vote, slavery, colonialism. Women and ethnicities have historically been tarnished as biologically inferior and treated as such. Feminists mean to change this. Genuine progressives mean to change this. I agree if we are looking to the future we must acknowledge and study biological differences but make damn sure we do not regress to a power system wherein (dare I say) white men consider themselves to have biological monopoly on competence and relegate the rest to the fringes (as history records). ”

    The fact that it has doesn’t mean it has to again. In the past, in much of Western society, whites and men have dominated and used their power to use social Darwinism to justify their power. Today, we’re building and have built a fairly robust moral baseline that states that race, gender, sex, sexuality, etc. do not inherently make someone have more moral worth or deserving of more power than another.

    If someone says, “men and women are biologically different, and therefore men deserve more than women,” the proper response is, “HOW DARE YOU! BEING BIOLOGICALLY DIFFERENT DOESN’T DETERMINE AND CAN NEVER DETERMINE WHAT THEY DESERVE, YOU BIGOT!” Not “HOW DARE YOU! MEN AND WOMEN ARE BIOLOGICALLY THE SAME, YOU BIGOT!”

    Because the latter is making a specific empirical claim. And besides being of questionable accuracy, it is setting us up for failure: we can’t suppress the empirical testing forever, and people WILL figure out whether or not it’s accurate. And if it’s not accurate, the people who will listen to them aren’t likely to have such strong baseline moral beliefs about how biological differences can never determine moral worth.

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  4. Jumping to Confusions

    Great write-up of what is a complex and sensitive issue.

    I agree that Butler’s views on gender are utterly wrong. The idea that gender is a social construct appears to intellectually deny the very existence of the binary nature of the human sexes. I readily admit that gender is NOT sex, or vice versa, but it seems apparent (to me) that the physiological differences between the two sexes yields the starting point for a much more diverse collection of gender constructs that are created and informed by environment and experience.

    I really have very interest in reading positions from sociologists or anthropologists who don’t take scientific information into account when constructing their arguments. I don’t mean to disparage those disciplines at all; I think they are critically important and fascinating, but I think the age of single-discipline perspectives is over, especially considering the accessibility of information nowadays.

    The ever-growing number of gender classifications is burgeoning to the point of meaninglessness. Let me clarify: I think it is perfectly fine to self identify in whatever way yields maximal self-happiness and personal meaning to an individual or others who self-identify in the same way, but I think it’s unreasonable to suggest that others should be able to derive some sort of meaning from that as well. I don’t know if I’m capable of understanding what it means to be gender-queer since I don’t identify that way. I will happily listen to or read perspectives from people who self-identify as other-gendered and I would never suggest that those perspectives aren’t valid, personally, but the best I can offer is intellectual understanding and tolerance; I don’t think it should be expected that people shouldn’t find those demarcations strange or alien.

    As you quoted: “These claims [that there are no differences between sexes and races] are based not on biological data, but on ideological fears of the Left: if we admit of such differences, it could foster racism and sexism.” This comes from a good place, but this is unfortunately a typical reaction to even academic discussions of sensitive issues. Holding a contrary opinion or simply discussing a different opinion does automatically imply bigotry. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

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  5. Peter Jay

    Feminists and sociologists tend to ignore reality in other countries and the facts and data put out by their colleagues in law schools and biology departments.

    But it doesn’t matter – schools are increasingly becoming victim arenas where expensively educated white girls (the majority on campuses) declaim that they are being raped at rates approximating those found in war-torn Africa. That a dirty joke traumatizes them, and that they are discriminated against in a country where the majority of private wealth is held by women, women are the majority of the electorate and women receive lesser sentences for the same crimes committed by men.

    Oh well, it was a nice society while it lasted. Meanwhile the moron social science Lysenkoists continue their tenure-insured careers of insulting males and spreading thinly-supported (at best) liberal arts tenets.

    At least we don’t have to marry the women anymore (the heteronormative gender binary = rape!!) and the emasculated men of the millennial generation are too timid to compete for good jobs.

    Game over.

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  6. flies01

    First, gender is a social construct by definition. Sex is what you’re born with, gender is what you make of it. You can argue that this definition is fruitless on the grounds that gender supervenes on sex, but this argument is obviously false as understandings of masculinity and femininity depend so obviously on cultural/historic context.

    Is sex also socially constructed? If you want this feminist’s view, the answer is, “not really.” In some limited sense, sex is socially constructed, but that’s only because knowledge is not the same thing as reality. Knowledge is a human product; reality is not. So, there is something “real” (“not constructed”) about sex, e.g. y chromosomes, meiosis etc. There are facts which we group together in our heads as “sex”.

    Hard-line social constructivists like Judith Butler are indeed in the minority. The common position among feminists is that there are biologically driven differences between men and women (including psychological differences), but that it’s very, very hard to distinguish them with any certainty because you can’t do controlled experiments. You only have retrospective evidence, which is obviously confounded by social influence.

    So, in summary, by starting with Judith Butler and adding “aerogender”, the author is seriously muddying the waters. I wouldn’t say it’s a straw man, exactly, since Judith Butler is a real person, but her view, radical social construction, is not mainstream.

    As an aside, the term “gender feminism” is a red flag. The term is more commonly used by anti-feminists such as Paul Elam or Christina Hoff Sommers than by mainstream feminists. When I, a feminist, read an article about feminism with “gender feminism” in the title, I am put on my guard. Obviously, this doesn’t invalidate the argument, but you’re poisoning your own well by using this term.

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  7. bj

    GC:
    “One reason I semi ascribe to biological essentialism is so I can say that I think men (read: masculinity) have near ruined the world.”

    And there you have it.

    “Men are in power and therefore responsible for the world’s ills,” is not an intellectually honest statement unless it’s also paired with, “Men are in power and therefore responsible for the world’s progress.” Anything less is selectively gathering facts to support a bias.

    In the end, these gender wars do nothing to help anyone. All they do is divide people into buckets to turn them against each other, so as to win their votes. It’s a political strategy, not a sound philosophy.

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