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Note: The Introduction (included below) explains the source and circumstances of the contents of this book and the material it contains. (Following Dad's death, Dorothy Moeller compiled the material in the book from, among other things, transcripts of his lectures to classes at the University of Iowa and to audiences elsewhere. Thus, (1) the material has both the advantage, and disadvantage, of listening to Dad's voice, rather than reading his writing, and (2) Ms. Moeller needs to be fully credited for her creative editing, months of dedicated focus on this task, and carrying the project through to completion. As I reread the book with the Web page in mind, each chapter, in turn, was my choice as the single chapter to post here. Because the last chapter, chapter 8, "Speaking the Language of Responsibility," is already included in another form, that means the last chapter I read, and ended up including, is chapter 7, "Venturing." It may be no better than any other, but it will give you a sense of the range of Dad's mind and the materials he drew upon when speaking, and something of the cadence of his speech. Hopefully, it may also give you a little more insight into "the semantics of coping" with whatever life has thrown in your path. As you'll see, I have also included the dust jacket copy, Mother's inscription to me, the table of contents, and Ms. Moeller's Introduction. Page headers (with page numbers) appear as in the book; the bottom of pages is indicated with a horizontal line. - Nicholas Johnson
"Coping with our common problems can be an adventure in creativeness." In that short sentence Wendell Johnson packs the yield of the experience of a lifetime devoted to learning about human trouble and trying to help people involved in it. And it is to that proposition that he speaks in this book.
Johnson, the well-known General Semanticist and linguist, has been dead since 1965. Dorothy Moeller worked with him closely for years, and she has now gathered a group of his writings which fall together to form a book of wide importance.
Why the great amount of dis-ease in our lives today? How can it be analyzed and understood? How can the individual, groups, states and nations cope with it?
Since change is inevitable, how do we adjust our lives in order to live at the highest degree we're capable of? Johnson says: "We create our work linguistically. How else?" And, "People don't go mad facing the facts. They go mad running away from them." He explores and attacks in this book outmoded tradition, unexamined loyalties, dogma, rigidity, prejudice, racism, absolutes, certainty, labeling, education, the penal system, suspicion, dread, fear, and many other negative responses and concepts. In spite of all this, Johnson remained basically an optimist, and this book ends on a positive note about the language of responsibility.
The book is short, pithy, concentrated. It will help the reader understand himself and others.
"May your father's words still bring you comfort, wisdom and pride."
[To which I would respond, today (1997): "Indeed, they do." - NJ]
Chapter 1Backing into the Space Age 3
Chapter 2 Living More Sanely 27
Chapter 3 Thinking, Talking, Doing 57
Chapter 4 Keeping Our Bearings 81
Chapter 5 Coping 113
Chapter 6 Understanding Understanding 145
Chapter 7 Venturing 167
Chapter 8 Speaking the Language of Responsibility 189
Appendix Suggested Readings 197
"Coping with our common problems can be an adventure in creativeness." In that short sentence Wendell Johnson packs the yield of the experience of a lifetime devoted to learning about human trouble and trying to help people involved in it. And it is to that proposition that he speaks in this book.
Literally he is speaking here, for this text comes from transcripts of tapes of hundreds of talks he gave during the decade before his death in 1965, by which time he had become nationally and -- through his prolific writing -- internationally known in his twin careers in speech pathology and general semantics and in his activity as a clinical psychologist, which seems to have nourished all else he did. Perhaps he was neither speech pathologist nor semanticist. Surely he was not primarily a clinician. Or perhaps he was these combined plus something else. He used to search for a word to describe himself more accurately. On one occasion, at least, he chose to refer to himself as a communicologist, meaning an individual who had somehow drawn out of his training, learning, and experience a new approach to human problems that is based on heightened awareness of that most human of all of our characteristics, our ability to make and use language and other kinds of symbols. His interest was especially in how we program ourselves by language, how we name and react to the names of things, how we react to the appearances of things and to what we call the meaning of things. And with this interest in the relationship of our language behavior and our other behavior he devel-
oped a certain craft, certain procedures, and methodologies useful in coping.
When you read this book, then, you are in effect joining one of his audiences. You may be that single individual who has brought a problem to him in the clinic. You may be a student in his classes at the University of Iowa where he was a pioneer in the two pioneer disciplines of speech pathology and clinical psychology, and where in 1963 he became the Louis W. Hill Research Professor. Or you may be an executive in industry or an administrator in a government agency, listening to him as a consultant to your enterprise. You may be in his audience at a public lecture, for he was much in demand by groups large and small and was extremely generous with his time. You may even be a member of the American Speech and Hearing Association or of the International Society for General Semantics, hearing his remarks as president of your organization. The subjects he is talking about range widely, but all focus in one way or another on human problems, human misery, and ways that misery can be handled to enhance the quality of living for the individual and the society. Taken together they offer a sampling of his thinking in his mature years.
He begins with the assumption that we all have problems, that problems are part of the human condition, hence they are the expected, the usual. He assumes further that although the details differ, our problems usually seem to involve in some measure the generalized distress of our times. He sees this distress as a large family of relatively universal problems. Members of this family he calls our anxiety-tensions, part of the price we pay for our civilization, for our new world that seems to be going too fast for most of us, and which by its very newness seems to be putting an unprecedented strain on us to do something about our old habits, attitudes, and beliefs which were built for a world that apparently no longer exists. He sees us as frustrated, fearful, and distraught, less rather than more comfortable in this age of so-called comfort, ill-at-ease in spite of our brilliant technical accomplishments in producing unheard of refinements in food, clothing, and shelter. He is perplexed by mounting private uneasiness, violence in the
streets, revolutions, racism, and debilitating suspicion. He is saddened by the misunderstandings dividing neighbor from neighbor, school district from school district, nation from nation, by the problems of poverty, war, peace, and too many people, too much noise, too many cars, and too much garbage. He wonders about lumping people together. After all, what is a category? How do we enter it? How do we leave it? What about prejudice? Is a prejudice about tomatoes the same as a prejudice against human beings? Is it possible to live more sanely than we now manage to live? Can we build more stately mansions for ourselves? And if we can build them, can we move into them without the uneasy feeling that we are losing our homes? His response is a guardedly hopeful "Yes" because he has seen enough individuals handle their problems well enough to give him that hope. His work in the clinic convinced him that most individuals would be quite likely to handle their problems more creatively if they had adequate information, if they could develop an understanding of the anatomy of human trouble, if they could build a framework in which to organize their thinking, and if they could come to regard change in themselves and in their world as adventure, not threat.
It is about these matters that he speaks. He gives us the formulations he managed to work out in his ongoing search for sane living. These he shares as current thinking, not as the best or the preferred, but as a restructuring on the way to something better. For he always and in all ways (if such an "all" statement can be permitted) speaks on the side of adventure and venturing and changing. He stresses over and over again the need for a strong sense of process. Everything is change. We change. All around us changes.
His orientation, he once remarked, is for people who have a "fondness for frontier life. It is for people who want to do something better, who want to learn, who want to change. It is not for those who are fearful or who are satisfied with what they know and who defend what they know as the best there is to know."
And his formulations, through years of revision, stand here in great simplicity. He was constantly changing them to strip away irrelevancies, to discard ideas that are less productive for those
that are more so. He saw "no particular virtue in using a hundred tools when you can get the job done with a pair of pliers. Simplify. Make no unnecessary assumptions. Make your theories no more elaborate than you have to. It is not unusual to find that we talk ourselves into more problems than we have."
The spirit in which he spoke to his listeners, and in which he speaks here, seems characterized by a sense of discipline and a sense of process. It was with these words, for example, that he opened the first meeting of one of his classes at the University: "Pink pills are no substitute for thinking and I have none to offer you. I have some observations to share, some information. All I am trying to do is set an example of a man who is carrying on some kind of a struggle to understand. I hope you join me. I hope you will spend the rest of your life trying to find out more and understand it better. I think there is nothing more fun than learning, nothing more exciting. We can always learn if we propose to.
"But I think it is not good for us or anyone to read writers or hear speakers who pretend they know things. For then we end up with the notion that there are final answers and that it is desirable to know them.
"Well, this is a disease. This is delusional. We do not know anything for sure. We don't know anything completely. We just keep trying to find out. And we try to do a little better every day. But it is the difference between thinking we are done and knowing that we never will be that is important.
"You have to start out with something you are rather fundamentally thinking about your problem, something that begins with the demonstrated fact that you are changing all the time and so is everyone else. But once you have established that framework, in harmony with that reality, you can begin to observe, to see what stares you in the face, to find out what your problem really is, what you can change, how you can change it, what you cannot change, and so on. Then you can proceed to work to change what you can change. The number of people I have seen who can do this sort of thing is, to me, amazing. And the degree to which they can do it, the things they can do, astonishing.
"On the basis of everything I know from all kinds of sources, I
think this is the best assumption I can make: We talk to ourselves. That is what we do largely when we think. It is largely what we do when we feel, when we say we are emotional. I think there is no essential process difference between being emotional and thinking. They both involve talking to ourselves. That is the basic process. And the point is that what we tell ourselves is what we react to. When we tell ourselves something we act accordingly."
On another occasion he explained, "I have seen individuals wasting their lives fighting phantoms that they make out of words. We create our world linguistically. How else? We can make a world of constant combat with the shadows. We do this with language. Or we can create a world of peace and harmony and efficiency of progress. We do this with language. We eliminate almost all of the human frictions with people who know what they are talking about, whether they are talking about themselves and their feelings and the world they make for themselves inside their skins, or whether they are talking about the world outside. They know which are their feelings and which are their facts and they know the difference. It seems to me that an understanding of how we make and use words and other symbols is the most important approach to an understanding of the human being that anybody has ever tried to use. We haven't learned to use it very well yet."
And so he would tell his students, even those who had speech impairments, that the important thing was not whether they could say "Communist" or "delinquent" or "war" or "peace" or "black" or "red" as fluently as the most fluent. The important thing was that they knew what they were talking about when they used these words and that they tried as hard as they could to make as sure as they could that their listeners understood what they were talking about. "I want you to be as unlike sleep talkers as you possibly can be. I want you to know what you are talking about as you never have known before. That is my purpose,"
This purpose seems to have grown in him from his very early years on the Kansas prairies. As far back as he could remember he had a speech problem -- stuttering. Until he worked his way out of that particular paper bag he was almost speechless. And it was
through this experience that he learned something about language that he never forgot: Almost all of our important contacts are on a language basis, and language is "the warp and woof of human relationships."
Out of his stuttering came two further experiences that, coupled with his stuttering, seem to have set the course of his life. The first was what he carted his white-rat experience at the University of Iowa and the second was his encounter with a Polish count by the name of Alfred Korzybski. Dr. Johnson came to Iowa as a farm boy to get his stuttering "cured." He arrived just in time to be one of the first laboratory subjects in the speech pathology laboratory being opened there. Eventually he became a speech pathologist because, as he used to like to say, he needed one.
It was at the University and through this experience ~n the pioneering work in speech problems that he first learned about scientific method. He saw it in use in the laboratory He watched scientists handle problems creatively, according to certain rules. He was fascinated by their matter-of-fact preoccupation with reality. And, at the same time, because speech pathology still was not an entity but a kind of blending of speech and that new science called psychology, he found out what a psychological clinic was like and what clinical work involved, or rather what its promise was, because in that earlier day the clinical branch of psychology was only beginning to take shape.
This combining of a feeling for language with scientific methodology and clinical procedure became basic to his thinking and seems to have prepared him for Korzybski, a controversial figure who then was working out his science of man, which came to be called general semantics. In this system Korzybski linked the human symbolization process to scientific method to produce what might be termed a design for living with change. Dr. Johnson found this point of view particularly congenial. He attended the Korzybski seminars, became very much interested in the new approach, and in fact introduced at the University of Iowa one of the first college-level courses in general semantics. This became a so-called name course that he taught for more than two decades
and for which he wrote, as a text, his classic book entitled People in Quandaries.
As the years went by he used less and less of Korzybski's terminology and specific formulations, and more and more of his own, with a considerably greater emphasis than Korzybski's on the clinical application of the ideas. Thus, though he was pleased to acknowledge his debt to Korzybski, his formulations seem to have become more and more his own, though with a general semantics orientation, that is, an orientation in which the programming effect of language and the everyday usefulness of scientific methodology were fundamental considerations.
Since I address you after Dr. Johnson's death, perhaps a bit of background information is relevant here to explain my part in the production of this book and to suggest limiting factors that the reader may wish to keep in mind. I had been writing and editing for many years when I became assistant to the editor of the Journal of Speech and Hearing Research of the American Speech and Hearing Association. In that capacity I began my professional contacts with Dr. Johnson, who was then editor of the Association. After I completed my Journal work I accepted his invitation to join him in projects he was undertaking. We were supported by the Louis W. and Maud Hill Family Foundation which meant that his teaching load was lightened, allowing time for writing and studying. My services were available to him for such research, writing, and editing as he might wish me to do.
One of the projects on his list was this book. It was to be in the nature of a progress report in which he would try to set out his current thinking about creative coping. I was to go through transcripts of his recent talks to select likely material. He would then write from this, using what suited him, discarding and amplifying as he saw fit.
But other projects took our time. His final illness came before we could even begin this particular one. My responsibility shifted to organizing his papers for his personal archives in the University Library. I quite gave up the idea of the book. But the more familiar I became with those papers, the more the vitality of his ideas asserted itself. Eventually I decided I had to try to do what I could to make these ideas available in the way he had intended.
So I proceeded to cull from the transcripts, choosing that which seemed to me to serve his purposes as I understood them. I chose one talk in its entirety-a commencement address-which became the final chapter in this book. For the most part, however, I chose relatively short segments, sometimes a series of paragraphs, more often a single paragraph, or even a single sentence or phrase. These I synthesized to develop the other chapters of the book. But always the ideas and the words and the structure of thought are his. In a very real sense it is he who is speaking to you throughout the text, quite as he did to others at other times and in other places. If I am present in the text at all it is in silence as the arranger. I speak only in these introductory paragraphs.
Dr. Johnson often made a bargain with his listeners. He would invite them to challenge everything he said. "You must be free to do your own thinking. That leaves me free to do mine. Besides, you will act on the basis of your own thinking, not mine. Nobody can move your muscles for you. Nobody can do your thinking for you. And it is my perhaps disheartening message that each of us must think his way out of his problem. Each of us has to do this for himself. Each of us has to plug in his own cortex and go to work." Those were the ground rules. And I have a feeling he would like them to be known as he speaks to you here.
Many friends, including those in the circle of my own family, have helped to make this book possible, and though I shall mention by name only those with quite specific contact with the project, I trust that the others will know how they delighted my heart with their unselfish giving of that wondrous commodity we call moral support. Those I name I prefer to name alphabetically, for to me there is no "last but not least." My warm personal thanks, then, to James F. Curtis for the hospitality which he, as head of the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, showed me during my years with Dr. Johnson and in the years following, when I was organizing the Johnson papers for the University archives; to A. A. Heckman of the Hill Family Foundation for his friendly encouragement and to the Hill Family Foundation for its support; to Robert Hedges of the University archives for his fine cooperation; to Edna Johnson for her loyalty and deep understanding; to Wendell Johnson for the joy of
working with him and his ideas; to Voras D. Meeks of Harper & Row for his interest and unending patience; to Frank Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of The Des Moines Register, and to the Register and Tribune Company of Des Moines, and Kenneth MacDonald, editor, for their generosity in permitting the use of two Miller cartoons as illustrations in Chapters 3 and 4; to my husband, Leslie G. Moeller, for the wisdom he let me draw upon, for the great good humor with which he tolerated the author-in-residence situation, and for his gracious giving of time and writing and editing skills in critical appraisal of the manuscript; and to Varena Wade who brought to the production of the typescript her characteristically thoughtful, kind, and highly disciplined performance. Errors of judgment or balance or fact are, of course, my own. I only hope that, in spite of these and such other infelicities as may be discovered, the progress report that constitutes this book may be seen as an expression of Dr. Johnson's own "ennobling sense of loyalty to all mankind."
Dorothy Moeller Iowa City, Iowa
Behind the troubles I have seen there has lurked, in practically all cases, the quest for certainty -- a preoccupation with unanswerable questions, questions asked in absolute terms about a world of relative "facts" -- a concern for neat and last-word statements about a reality of continuous process. Einstein has expressed very well this general notion: "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." I suggest that this is equally true outside of mathematics. Probabilities are sometimes very great. One will be very nearly certain that somewhere tomorrow the sun will shine. Death and taxes are highly probable. But even about such matters one speaks from one's own experience or the experience of others. And experience has the tantalizing quality of incompleteness Even in those rare instances of great probability, there remains at least a small gap between the highest probability and absolute certainty.
So, if no two things are the same to begin with, and if nothing stays the same, and if we can never know everything about anything, then we shall have to search high and low and I think we shall not find a valid defense of the quest for certainty. If we accept these three premises then, as I see it, we must accept also the working principle of uncertainty. If we insist on certainty in any absolute sense, we must reject these three premises. Just how anyone is able to do this is his problem. And what he would hope to gain by doing it is a question he must answer very clearly.
The uncertainty principle, which to me seems fundamental to the process of living comfortably and creatively with change, represents simply a recognition of all this. It sums up the wisdom that "truth" is tentative, because all things change, even though some things change slowly and by imperceptible degrees. In a world of process, prediction can be made and reports given only with some degree of probability, not with absolute certainty.
Yet to what degree do most of us most of the time live with such a sense of process and change? How much do we feel we must cling to the so-called certainties of our folk thinking? How much do we dare to leave them for venturing? How much do we give ourselves to the joy of living in midair? I have found two books particularly interesting as I wonder about such questions. One is our old friend, the book on etiquette; the other is by the arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. It is called The Standardization of Error. Strange choices? Perhaps. But perhaps not.
Again I suggest that if you haven't looked at your etiquette book lately you should go back to it but this time as a person interested in what this book tells you about the society in which we live. I think this book is one of our most important sociological documents because it is designed to describe the norms of behavior in our society -- what are taken to be the "right" things to do, the "right" things to say. I think to get the most out of it you would consider the ideas we have been discussing and you would want to inform yourself as best you can about the work that is done by scientists, laboratory people, research men, good doctors, and anyone else whose work involves investigation that is conscientious and careful, and who tends to base diagnoses, conclusions, work plans upon the best information obtainable. Then read your book on etiquette. And I think you will find that in our culture we value friendship and love and being a good guy and a nice person much more highly than we do a new idea. And we place very little value on communicating much beyond social purrings. Asking, "What do you mean?" "How do you know?" "What then?" would upset the nice static system, you see.
Stefansson is, in a way, concerned with manners too. He is sharing with us some of his basic wisdom about human behavior
and human institutions, particularly our attitude toward Truth, and this is Truth with a capital T. He asks whether or not we should teach the truth. I think to raise that question is to raise eyebrows for most people. Why of course you should teach the truth! Always tell your child the truth. That's the rule, isn't it?
Let's examine this a little bit, Stefansson suggests. First, is it possible to teach the truth? One of the very great problems in medical education today, for example, is what to teach. I don't know what the last count was, but there are several hundred medical journals published every month. What do you mean by truth? The best information that comes from the laboratory? Are you going to teach all this -- all of it? Well, it's impossible. If by teaching the truth you mean all the truth, then no, of course not. It would be utterly naive to think you could do this. But if not all, what part? And how do you choose it?
There's another question (let's stay in the field of medical education): What is the truth about cancer? About leukemia? About muscular dystrophy? What is the truth about the relationship between diet and heart disease? Don't tell these medical students anything but the truth. Now what are you going to tell them about these things?
If you had gone to college when I was a boy or when I was quite well along, and you had majored in speech pathology, had studied about the problem called stuttering, had studied very hard, had read all the books assigned, had been able to write good examinations, had earned high grades, and had learned exactly what to do according to the books in working with stutterers, you would have become highly informed and highly skilled in error. You would have made high grades in doing the wrong things. Don't think this is peculiarly true of this particular little area of human concern. I think this is a statement that could be generalized to a very high degree to cover a great many fields. I think of physics as another dramatic example. Knowledge changes.
Have I said enough? Do you have some doubts now? Well, Stefansson, I think, probably would intensify any doubt that I may have faintly suggested. And he has a
solution to offer. There is a way to handle this -- it is just to teach standardized error. I have read quite a lot of students' reactions to the book and quite a large proportion of them think that he is pulling their legs. I don't think so. He is just a good writer. And it is possible to have fun and still be serious.
He says that, for one thing, the truth is too raw; it is too awful and you wouldn't want to teach it to children. It would have a demoralizing influence. Much better to teach what we do teach about George Washington -- not the truth. Let's have some heroes; they're character building. Besides, for better or for worse -- and I think there is a great deal to be said about this and to be investigated about it -- whatever the facts are, we live in a culture in which the majority of people seem to feel the need for certainty. They want to have something they can depend on, they say. They have to have something they believe, they say, and so forth. Well, as we know, truth is a very variable sort of thing if we mean by it the most recent highly dependable information we can get. It changes. And if we are going to teach the truth, we then have to teach people how to come to terms with uncertainty. And there are many people who doubt the wisdom of this. You know this. So Stefansson thinks that it is probably better to let people have what to them are certainties. Let them have things the way they think they are. How do you feel about this?
Then Stefansson gives us some examples of standardized error in our culture. He tells about a movie that was made in Hollywood that called for some Eskimos. So the producers sent to the northland, got some Eskimos, and brought them down to Hollywood. When the Eskimos saw the igloos they were to live in, they were delighted. They had never seen any. Standardized error.
In another movie, based on one of Tolstoy's novels, a character dies of a heatstroke in northern Siberia. This wouldn't do. In the movie, they had the fellow freeze to death. Standardized error. And if you were a moviemaker and you were responsible to the stockholders, what would you do? Have him die of a heatstroke in Siberia?
I think the most delightful part of this book is about wolf
packs. (I know I'm spending too much time on this but he makes the point so elaborately and so beautifully about standardized error). He was a great naturalist. He had been in the north woods a great deal, and he knew wolves. Now and then he read a story in the paper about a pack of wolves attacking people. And he always felt there was something a little bit fishy about these stories. He had never personally seen a wolf pack. He had never seen wolves attack anybody in a group. What he had seen were families of wolves, the mother and father and cubs. But they were temporary groups, they were not packs, and they were not attacking anybody. Sometimes the wolves would go through a mountain pass and a number of families would get there about the same time. So anybody around at the time would see a lot of wolves but not a pack. Each was going his own way and they just happened to converge a while. Stefansson started a little investigation which he kept up for years. Every time he saw a news item or heard a tale about a wolf pack he investigated it very thoroughly. He never was able to verify a single one. Standardized error.
So much of our folk thinking is standardized error. I think one of the most difficult kinds of learning that there is to be done by young people going into the professions is that they have to learn that the folk thinking, what they have known all their lives, what they have taken for granted, what they have thought without really thinking about it, is likely to be wrong. Oh, I suppose that in every loaf of legend there is perhaps one raisin of fact, but not much more.
All of us in some degree, I think, share the dilemma of these young people. All of us have grown up with folk thinking. It's been around a very long time, while the idea of the scientific approach is relatively new. So to cope with the relationship between past learning and new learning is a problem all of us face.
The idea that we live in a process reality, that everything changes, that change is to be understood and adjusted to and used creatively, is still a little foreign to our thinking. The language of learning and learning to learn is almost a foreign language. And so I think most of us slide back and forth along the continuum that is bounded by folk thinking -- the magical orientation -- at the one
end and scientific method at the other. We decide, not once and for all but every few moments, how magical or how scientific we shall be. The more sanely we live, the more time we shall be spending at the scientific end of the continuum. Of that I am convinced. And I am not overlooking the loneliness of the lenser, the disruptions in personal relationships that are very dear. I am not unaware of the discomfort of learning. I would go beyond that. I would say it seems to me that if we learn anything new, if we are really learning, if what we are learning is to change the course of our development, then for a while at least we have to say and we have to do what seems strange to us, unfamiliar, a little wrong. We are a lot like the pilot in training who is learning to fly by instrument. The only way he can do this is to do what feels wrong. I think this is one of the best definitions of education I have ever heard: If what we are saying and what we are doing do not feel a little wrong, in that sense then, we are not learning. We are not changing. We are just doing what we are used to doing. And that is not education.
I marvel at the neglect of the learning process, as such, in our educational system. Almost everybody is woefully ignorant of it. And this makes for confusions and distresses that it seems to me would not occur otherwise. I strongly urge my students to take all the courses in learning they can, to learn all they can about motivation and positive and negative reinforcement, et cetera. I urge them to read widely in that field. All of us can do this. There are many books available. I urge them to learn to learn, to get in the learning habit, to get used to the idea of learning all the time.
For years I have taught a college course in communication processes and problems and the relation of these to our behaviors and social institutions. And in this I try to get my students to think, not just to memorize something I write on the board. One person may know ten times as many facts as another and still be less informed. I try to get my students to challenge what we discuss, to evaluate it, to organize the data they find valid, and to integrate these data into their thinking and doing. And this is difficult. They tell me that they are not used to this. They do not appear to have been exposed very much to the intellectual herit-
age of the world they live in. There is something terribly wrong in our not stimulating them to learn, terribly wrong and terribly pathetic, I think. We are guilty of allowing mental starvation in the midst of plenty.
In our either-or folk orientation I suppose there is a certain sick logic to that starvation: We are smart or we are stupid -- if we have to ask questions we must be stupid and if we can answer them we are smart. And this is all very artificial and cockeyed but people live by it. It is a pretty poor frame of reference in which to learn anything. We almost have to pretend we don't need to learn. We sort of learn surreptitiously, behind the barn.
I am a thousand-year optimist, however. I think by that time we are going to have a kind of education that will encourage us to learn to learn, that will tend to be designed for adults, the kind that will be designed to make adults out of young people, children, and all the rest of us, instead of maintaining immaturity. If we didn't have examinations and grades, and the elaborate bookkeeping system that we call the registrar's office, then somehow we would have to be able to assume that students are going to take advantage of the situation to learn and are going to prepare themselves responsibly for the things they are going to presume to do when they leave school. Examinations and grades and the registrar's office add up to a way that society has found to protect itself from irresponsible and immature people who will not do anything that they are not required to do. But in the very act of deciding to require them to do these things, society tends to maintain the immaturity of individuals. And this is sad. This is a great tragedy. And we live with it. It is far worse than polio ever was and is far harder to deal with. There is nothing like the Salk vaccine to use for this. It is not that simple. Meanwhile, it seems to me that we are conditioned to learn only what we have to. And that isn't enough, ever.
In a world of such unprecedented change in what men know and understand and believe, I see both a great advantage in learning and a compelling necessity to learn and to learn how to learn. I believe, however, that most people find learning upsetting. They resist it. They try to avoid it by seeking out things to read and
speakers to listen to so as to leave their own established body of information and misinformation and their previously arrived at beliefs and opinions not only undisturbed but positively reinforced. They don't see the new or talk about the new enough even to wonder about it. They are not investigative. They are the rigid; they are old before their time.
But then there are the others. In my classes, and in society in general, I think, they are the minority. They are the free souls who enjoy and are greatly stimulated by thinking and learning and by the kind of disturbance that these involve. They like to venture. They are the mountain climbers. They like to see new things and do new things. They like to revise, to change. They like to make new friends, read new books, and visit new places. They like to try new foods and new ideas. And they seem to be positive geniuses in getting the most out of their relationships with other people. They seem to welcome each day as a new day. For them the next tenth of a second is the important one. The last one is history. The one next after next will depend on what they do with the next one. They truly engage themselves in the improvement process. They want to do it. They come running, as it were. They don't back into it. They are reflective and thoughtful. They work out their own standards and goals. They are like an artist polishing a stone. He knows where he wants to polish a little more, where he wants to polish not quite so much, and so on. And there is nobody in the world smart enough or no machine or technique cleverly enough designed to do this for him. This he must do for himself.
These venturing souls have learned the great art of listening, and I would hazard the guess that in the practice of that art they probably learn more than in any other way. And one thing especially they listen to is criticism. They go looking for criticism. They hunt it out. Then they listen to it. They work it into their thinking. This is good, as I see it. We all should do this. All the time. I suppose this takes a certain amount of security, of feeling that it is all right to be learning, that we have not learned everything. Well, I suggest that one way to become more secure is to accept criticism.
I would wager that a man from Mars would write in his notebook, at the top of his list, the fact that we never listen and we have an almost epidemic resentment of criticism. People around here don't like to be told. It's strange, isn't it, how we compartmentalize our constructive behavior in this regard so that in certain places and at certain times we do listen and we accept from someone else, with the "right" kind of title and authorization, that which otherwise we would call criticism and would resent. We even pay a fee for the privilege of having somebody tell us. That's what we do when we go to school.
I have never understood why we don't listen and I think our resentment of criticism is not to be taken for granted. Its effects, as I see them, are usually disadvantageous, wasteful, and divisive. And I think its roots, like those of so many of our problems, go back to our either-or folk orientation. We are praised or blamed and somehow criticism slides over into blame and so there is something negative about criticism and it becomes the opposite of praise. And so we reject it or we avoid situations in which we are likely to find it.
People who enjoy learning seem to be able to learn what stares them in the face. And this is a rare ability, I have observed. They learn from everybody, not only those who are more intelligent than they are but also those who are less. If we can't learn from somebody less intelligent than we are, we are handicapped I think. Anybody is. So it follows that in that case the more intelligent we are the more handicapped we are because there are more people we aren't able to learn from.
Learning is the horizon we never get to. It will always beckon. And this is adventure. This is tremendous. We can always learn if we propose to learn. We have never learned anything completely, finally. We can always learn more, evaluate, revise, change. To shut ourselves off from this is really the worst way to kill ourselves before we die.
There have been some fascinating experiments on what happens when we are cut off from normal stimuli. In one of these a man was suspended in a tank of water, the water moving very slowly. He wore a mask that kept out the light but allowed him
to breathe. The essential principle involved the greatest possible reduction of all incoming stimuli. For the first hour or so he found it relaxing and tended to doze. Soon he got onto a train of thought, however, and he couldn't get off. He went round and round and round He was literally thinking in circles. And I suppose this could go on until there were lasting effects to mind and body.
The Russians have used a darkened quiet room instead of the tank of water. And the results were quite the same. Shutting ourselves off from learning and venturing is as good as using a tank of water or a darkened room, and much easier to carry around. I suppose it's this kind of mechanism some people use who travel thousands of miles and never leave home. And I rejoice that there are those who can go around the world while sitting in their armchairs.
There is nothing more exciting than learning, or more fascinating, it seems to me. It is better than any mystery story. Writing that goes by that name is pale and insipid beside it. There is no limit to how we can change, revise, and refine our hypotheses, your working hypotheses and mine, all the way up to scholarly ideas -- the atomic theory, for example. This is something no one can exhaust. Learning is a process for which there are no fixed end results. The mode becomes revision. The norm is revision.
What we learn is of the moment. Again, we must put a date on it and not be held accountable for it tomorrow because, if we are learning, we will have revised it by then. This puts an end to dogma, to the last word on anything, to what people call basic principles. It means we have to sound almost like Gertrude Stein if we are going to talk sense, because if something sounds pat and usual it can't be very right. When there is so much new to be learned, our old knowledge and skills are soon out-of-date and when they are they are a nuisance to us and a menace to our family and friends. Knowledge and skills do not stay fresh long these days, yet no one so far has designed an intellectual freezer chest to keep them from spoiling. And I think even the freshest produce from the research garden should be inspected carefully before using.
So that you and I may understand each other better, let me say that I am proceeding on the assumption that you are indeed wondering about learning to learn, that you do have an interest in venturing. I am assuming that you are here to discover yourself a little more fully, that you are here to find out what you would say if you were to try a little harder than you might otherwise to say what you mean, that you are here to get over the embarrassment of learning, to gain what someone has called "the courage of your stupidity," to learn to live publicly with your doubts and feelings of limitation. I think it would be very fine if you could manage to experience sort of a movement away from enslavement by any obligation to feel certain, if you could learn to acknowledge that the something you cling to -- something that you have always felt you needed -- is really an anchorage in your past that has kept you tied, and you can now free yourself from it for the adventure of self-realization.
I think we wildly underestimate the difficulty of what we are setting out to do. Unless we are paragons of adaptability we should not expect ourselves to do this without a great deal of self-reminding. And I would hope that we would be very tolerant of what we might call our relapses and extremely accepting of our best efforts. As I see it, the venturing of which I speak is a more or less full-time, lifelong undertaking that calls for courage and a pitch of alertness which are definitely out of the ordinary. Yet I think it can be done. I would like to think we can relax and settle in to what is to be done with a tremendous feeling of confidence that the doing of it will prove to be quite possible and the results very worthwhile.
No matter how far we venture, however, I think we must remember the hills that are scattered over the face of the earth, artificial hills such as the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico. Obviously hundreds of people had to work together to build these hills. Then, it seems reasonable to speculate, hundreds of people gathered at these hills for certain reasons that came to be recognized within a group. And so the hills became a kind of means to communication. The people held festivals, acted out their feelings, buried their dead there, and through all this eventually developed
the powerful symbol systems that hold people together in groups, people who share some very, very basic convictions about their natures and their relationships to other natures. They share assumptions and beliefs and general orientation. They may not be taught but somehow they learn to do as those around them do. They learn to think as those around them think. They learn to be afraid of certain things, they learn their handicaps -- even as you and I do. They learn to see the world in a certain light. And out of these processes come groupings by family, clan, religion, interest, political conviction, occupation, geographic location, and so on.
In a sense, each of us lives by a hill. And it is there that we are engaged in doing what we are doing, believing what we are believing, exercising the skills we have learned and the attitudes we have acquired. We are engaged in this not alone but with others who reinforce by their reactions -- their approval and disapproval, their rewards and punishments -- what we are doing. These are our families, our close associates, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, our teachers perhaps, our authority figures. I think good relationships with them are very important. And I think it would be highly irresponsible for anyone to advocate that we abandon them just to be different. The reactions and the interactions involved are very complicated. And one way to be selfish is to give them no thought.
Yet, I think if we are to take our places as significant members of the human caravan we cannot stay either, not all of the time, not if we are to realize ourselves. We must get on our horses and ride to Denver. We must visit other hills -- see the world, as they say. We must learn what is out there and evaluate it. We must test our ideas against the best and widest variety of observations we can make instead of against old and ready-made assumptions. I am convinced that in this kind of venturing we are likely to broaden our understanding of some of those great questions we wondered about earlier -- for example, what the moonshots mean to us, what our new mobility means, what the electronic revolution means, what the whole array of today's revolutions means, what these mean not only in terms of methodology for
coping but also in terms of life and living, as individuals and as a society.
Our venturing will tend to make us members of other and special groups, in addition to our home groups. And by joining some of these groups we are likely to find ourselves members of minorities, perhaps of several. And all of this experience will change us. We shall begin to think differently. We shall begin to do differently.
Personally, I am driven to take account as best I can of such differences, of the difference between what I think, and the way I think, and what others think. I can only assume that I have borrowed much of my originality from others. I share the folk thinking and the special-group thinking. I share what I believe with others. My image of myself is in part a function of my beliefs. I have in some measure learned through some sort of combination of inadvertence, felt purpose, and reinforcement to think as I do. And I try to allow for this so far as it may be true. I am a member of a tribe.
It seems to me that if we are going to live sanely then we must respect and be sensitive to differences, realizing that no two individuals are alike and that if we really understand someone we understand how he differs from us. At the same time, however, we must be aware enough of our folk thinking to be free of it, that is, aware enough of it to attain a significant degree of freedom from the of-course-ness of our time. This means we must recognize and challenge what we are taking for granted.
To me the most significant meaning of the unconscious is not the Freudian. The Freudian meaning of the word is the repressed, that which you are no longer considering because you have repressed it. It was too painful to keep in consciousness and so down in the basement it is up to mischief. It is down in the basement throwing dust in the air fans, and so forth. Well, there is a meaning of the unconscious that is like that, that can be validated.
To me, however, the most significant meaning of it is the taken for granted, the unrepressed, the habitual, the saying, "Honesty is the best policy," over and over again as though this
were no longer to be challenged. We stop thinking about it. But we say it. We are like sleepwalkers. Or sleeptalkers?
To be aware of our folk thinking requires of us, in our day- to-day and even our moment-to-moment behavior, a high degree of awareness of the difference between the folk or magical orientation and the scientific orientation. That difference can be summed up, I think, in terms of awareness itself, that is, in terms of lack of awareness -- in the folk orientation -- versus high awareness -- in the scientific orientation -- of abstracting, and of what is involved in abstracting, of how it can be done well and poorly, and of what are the variables related to it. Korzybski used to urge us to see consciousness of abstracting, that is, consciousness of perceiving and symbolizing and projecting, as the biggest part of consciousness. I think this was one of the main things I learned from him.
It has been my experience, in teaching my university course in language behaviors and problems, that about the middle of the semester some student will say that he is discovering he is growing more and more different from his own people and that every time he goes home he finds it harder and harder to communicate. "What can I do about this?" he will ask.
This is an enormously important question. We can get global about it. We so desperately need that ennobling sense of loyalty to all mankind. How can we maintain understanding even though we are very different from each other? And when the use of the scientific method makes some of us increasingly different from many of those around us? This is the universal problem of living with differences. As I see it, this in essence is the problem of world peace. This is the problem we have in the United Nations and in the whole field of international relations. It is the problem of races. It is the problem of this side of the tracks and the other. It is the problem of the student and his family.
This is a puzzling sort of problem. I think we need to develop a sympathy for people who find it very, very puzzling -- for example, people who are bothered by the fact that children are taught these days in some schools about the United Nations. This bothers some people. They think that to support the United Na-
tions isn't good Americanism: After all, America is the best country and we must teach this. Well, in Russia they are teaching their children that they are the best. And this can get dangerous. Somehow, as far as I can figure things out, we are going to have to learn, going to have to teach our children, to live with people who are very different from them, or we are going to blow ourselves to bits. And it seems to me that this learning is important enough to work on. I find it odd that some people do not. There is this attitude, you know.
After Hiroshima, I made my own little poll. There were many people who were very happy: "Hurrah! Hurrah! Look what we've done." And there were many who were suicidal, who said, "Now look what's happened. Oh, well, what is to be, will be." And then there were the thoughtful ones, the minority, 15 or 20 percent at the most, who were thinking. They weren't tossing their hats in the air. They weren't despairing. But they were recognizing that we certainly have a problem. Not only on this sort of global scale but also as individuals, from moment to moment, and in daily life. How are we to live with people who are not like us at all? When I have asked my students that question I have found that their response, more often than not, is silence, an eloquent silence which, as one of them explained, " . . . only points up the difficulty of the problem. There are no ready answers."
What would you do, between now and noon, if you were going to make yourself the kind of a person who lives with differences more graciously, who is very likely to contribute to keeping the peace, to making that peace more and more constructive, creative, and effective, in your family, in your neighborhood, in a world like this? What would you do, now, between now and noon, that you have not been doing? This is the kind of itch inside your scalp that is hard to scratch and I hope you spend your life trying to scratch it. I hope, I say. This is not a comment about the world. It is a comment about how I feel.
What would happen if we got a new frame of reference? What would happen if we began to talk about differences in the way we have learned to view differences in the process of ab-
stracting? One thing that would happen, I think, is that we would talk about differences as differences instead of best and worst. We would talk about variety instead of superiority and inferiority. We would observe differences so that through them we could know an individual or a situation or an experience as unique, not lumped in a category that is largely formed and colored by folk thinking We would seek out differences. We would try to be different ourselves, ever and always, when to be different would be to improve, to live more fully. We would become, I hope, less and less tolerant of the traditional, the accepted, the usual, the taken for granted. All of the lovely things we have come by we have gained through wisely directed intolerances and all the future flowering of the race will depend on it. Or so it seems to me.
The emphasis that Korzybski put on differences in every effort to try to make things better -- on being attentive to differences, on trying to make things different, on trying to behave differently, think differently, proceed differently -- was way beyond anything I have ever seen in print or observed in anybody else. This practically became for me a theme of creativity, of coping, of personal growth.
The mystery of how our brain works seems to involve a matching procedure in the sense that the input appears to be matched to a model that the brain has available. John Z. Young has written about this in his amazing book, Doubt and Certainty in Science. This is a book you may want to read. I have been reading it and lecturing from it for years. Every time I go back to it I find it is a different book. I understand things I hadn't understood before. A good book serves this function, I think. It helps you measure your growth. Young suggests that if we accept the matching-procedure explanation of the workings of the brain, then we can expect the brain with the better inventory of models, the greater variety and so on, to operate over a wider range and to make finer distinctions than the brain with the smaller inventory or an inventory of less variety.
In some such terms as Young's we can talk about people being more or less creative. In this kind of language we can say that creativity lies in increasing the number and variety of models
we carry in our brains, that is, creativity lies in trying to learn everything we can, trying to expose ourselves to learning situations as much as we can -- with as little prejudice and personal bias as we can manage. With our models we can become more sensitive to the uniqueness in any input, more aware of the difference between John and John, between you [yesterday] and you [today], between the kind and the individual, the classification and the description, et cetera, et cetera.
Back in my student days this general notion was brought down to cases for me by my professor and friend, George Stoddard, who was really my academic godfather. You may have heard of him in later years as Chancellor of New York University. We were talking about learning, and trying to get new ideas, and being adventurous in our thinking, and so on. And he asked me if, as one way of going about this, I had ever tried to be really experimental with what I was saying. "Do something like this," he said, "just take what people say all the time and turn it a round. You will be amazed how often it sounds better that way, and makes better sense." So I tried it and I have been doing it ever since. This can be an exciting adventure but you better be prepared to defend your position. You probably will stir up some discussion. Again, take "Honesty is the best policy." Let's turn it around. Let's say, "Dishonesty is the best policy," and see what happens. Risk it. Experiment with it, and try to validate that. Or maybe you'd rather turn it around another way and say, "Honesty is not the best policy." Try it. Try to defend that. What do you mean? How do you know? What then? Experiment. This is a way of keeping your mind alive. This is a relatively simple exercise though it is not easy. It has to be disciplined. It is a way of evaluating old ideas as well as new. It becomes a really serious activity of trying to figure out different ways of thinking.
We say, "It pays to make a good impression." Can you defend that one when it is turned around? Can you support the position that it pays to make an impression that is not necessarily good by ordinary standards?
Or you might like to work on the old classic: "It's what you are that counts." We have been paralyzing ourselves with that one
for as long as I can remember. Well, let's challenge it. Let's say, "It's not what you are that counts, it's what you do," and see what happens. Maybe we can trade that old chant for some new instructions.
I would like to see parents, teachers, counselors, and clinical workers encourage adventuresomeness in every possible way, starting with helping a child at least to taste every food he says he doesn't like, even at that level. Rejection of the unfamiliar is a kind of behavior which involves habits that serve like a blow on the head to keep us from having new experiences. It has the effects of a form of paralysis. In terms of its effects on your eating habits, having a prejudice against a class of foods is comparable to having a physical incapacity. It amounts to about the same thing as having an ulcer. It keeps you from eating the foods.
I would like to see the child encouraged to read at least the opening page of the book he isn't interested in, to talk at least a minute to a person for whom he has no time, to try to make every day different, even in a very small way in the beginning, from any day he has ever had before. The individual who does this sort of thing tends not to bog down in what we call maladjustment.
There is a wonderful line in one of A. A. Milne's stories. One day Winnie the Pooh comes to Piglet's house, calls and looks in and says, "Is that you, Piglet?" Piglet answers -- and I think it is one of the great lines in literature -- "Let's pretend it isn't and see what happens." You see, let's experiment. Let's be conscious of the possibilities of being what you can call really experimental.
As I see it, the most important thing by far for a teacher to give his students, for parents to give their children, for those who would be helpful to give those who need help, is a kind of education or training or insight that would prepare them for the exciting adventure of not just being present but of living in the twentieth century.
Years ago when I was struggling with the problem of stuttering, I devised an experimental procedure with language that I still use now and then. I would go into my little office, sit down at my typewriter, and actually type out a dialogue with myself, a
dialogue between Me [speaker] and Me [listener]. Or I suppose you could say between Me [counselor] and Me [counselee]. And I found it was a splendid way to clarify my thinking. If you try this, just write down what you think your problem is -- don't worry about the exceptions, or the mass -- but your own particular problem at this particular time. Then ask yourself the what-do-you-mean, how-do-you-know, and what-then questions in whatever form fits your situation. The more you do this, the more ingenious you get, it seems to me. Write it down. Most especially do not assume that there is nothing wrong with your thinking. Check that. That may be your problem. But write it all out. Be really experimental about it.
Or for a period of time that you choose, a day or an hour or whatever, just estimate roughly the ratio of answerable to unanswerable questions in what you say and what you hear. This is particularly revealing to me, especially when I remind myself that we have to think our way out of our problems and that we think mostly by asking answerable questions.
Or, again in a chosen period of time, try not to use the words and expressions you have somehow formed a habit of using. All of us seem to get to saying certain things in more or less constant ways. Well, try to change that. Every time I do this I am surprised all over again at how very little I practice freedom of speech.
Or set a tape recorder going while you talk, for an hour or so, just your ordinary, everyday talking. Then play the tape. Nobody needs to tell you what to listen for. You will know that. And you may come to agree with me that the tape recorder is one of the most powerful revising machines ever built.
Or look critically at some of the labels you tend to use frequently. When, in the clinic, I find students referring to children as brain-damaged, I ask them what they mean and then on occasion I tell them about my father. He was kicked in the head by a horse. We put him on a sheet on the dining room table and our old family doctor took a cupful of bones and stuff out of his skull and closed the hole. Well, eventually he was up and around again, riding his horses, running the ranch. He lived fully and for many years. Brain-damaged? Well, what do you mean?
Or your might try just a good old semantic asepsis, the way we do in the clinic when we encourage the counselee to try to increase his positive language and decrease his negative language. His progress in doing this is almost a measure of his progress in coping. He speaks more and more frankly, he becomes more helpable, he listens more, he uses criticism, he does a good deal less sleep-talking and a good deal more analyzing of his pet explanations, et cetera, et cetera.
Or take a good new look at the diagram of the abstracting process, the one in this book or the one you have drawn. Then, with a subject of your choice, swing around the circuit in a rather leisurely fashion, paying more attention than usual to where you are, what level you're on, what level is next, what awarenesses you are developing as you move along, what changes you see on a second trip around, or a third.
Or for three minutes just observe a familiar scene. Look out of the window or up the street or at a corner in the garden -- whatever strikes your fancy. You will probably be amazed, as I always am, to see what you hadn't seen that was there all the time. It is indeed a rare knack to see what stares you in the face, as any husband can tell you when one evening he notices that his wife has been wearing a new dress all day.
Are these exercises trivial and am I being flippant in introducing them here? Am I urging something like autosuggestion in a sort of Sunday-supplement sense? Am I talking Pollyanna talk? No. I believe these procedures involve sound scientific methodology and are in harmony with learning theory. What they amount to is an approach to language revision. And language revision, as I see it, is at once a very fundamental and a very threatening undertaking. It is fundamental, I think, because once we get our language in order, everything else follows. It is threatening because it challenges the taken-for-granted by sharpening our awareness of it.
Then there is something else here that may not be immediately apparent. After this much study you may have the impression that as a semanticist you will be very much interested in using language meaningfully, in serious ways, to cope with problems, to live comfortably with change. And of course you are interested in this. You are tremendously interested in this. But I
think the more you study the more you become aware that one of the most delightful effects is the development of a certain kind of sense of humor, a kind of linguistic playfulness. Here are some lines to illustrate. I worked them out one time when I was trying to illustrate the "greenness-is-in-your-cortex" idea:
"Is purple the color of red roses?"
"Would one person call a rose purple although other people call it red?"
"Would a rose look red in one kind of light and purple in another?"
"Is purple the color of red roses?"
There is a melody to language as well as what we call factual meaning. You can mentally dance to its rhythm. There can be beauty to expression. You can make pictures so your listener can visualize what you are talking about -- don't be afraid of analogy and metaphor -- it's like following a bird instead of an outline. I think you will find yourself reading more. I think you will read more poetry as your understanding increases. You might even make more puns. And write poetry. Language has more possibilities for delights of all sorts.
But our central interest, of course, is in meaning. And this is a very serious matter. It seems to me that the most important consideration of all is the measure in which we realize our humanity through intelligent and creative use of our apparently unique ability to relate to our worlds and each other by means of symbols. I think we reach some sort of peak in our humanness when we get our abstracting functioning well enough to be able to be really experimental, truly inventive. This is human, this inventiveness that is made possible by the symbolic function, by abstracting.
Through disciplined venturing of the kinds we have been discussing here I think we deepen our sense of process, we deepen our feeling for change as the reality we live in and are a part of and are ourselves. We become more and more comfortable with
differences because the new and the changing are the expected, the norm. We get more and more the feeling that we and our world are always in the process of becoming. We do change and we can change. And that is the foundation for hopefulness. What has been is the key to what might be. What might have been is the blueprint of what might yet be, providing we do not mistake what we have been for what we still can be.
I entertain the hope that in our venturing we shall get addicted to wonder and know the joy of constantly feeling something a little new. The land frontiers are almost gone, but in the vast continent that lies within us we have scarcely left home.
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