Ideological Underpinnings of Vegetarianism - VeggieBoards
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#1 Old 10-30-2016, 09:25 AM
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Ideological Underpinnings of Vegetarianism

I am a vegetarian. I eat vegan almost all of the time, but to compromise with all of the people around me (who are all omnivores), I'll eat cheese in social or work settings--like, sharing a cheese pizza with friends. Also, once or twice a year, when traveling with my (omni) wife, we'll go out to a nice breakfast and I'll have eggs.

I'm totally comfortable with this. I'm doing far, far less harm than 97% of the population. I don't see the need to be absolutist about the problem of suffering among farmed animals, while not being absolutist about the other problems in the world (everything from exploitation of workers in the developing world who make the products we buy, to global warming which we contribute to by driving).

However, I'd like to clarify the ideological underpinnings of being vegetarian in today's world, when veganism is so much in the news and the vegan community is so active and empowered. In particular, we all (I assume) know the abuses on dairy and egg farms, so if we're cutting out meat for ethical and humane reasons, why is it logically consistent to eat dairy and eggs (and/or honey)?

I sometimes think to myself, when sharing a cheese pizza with friends, that I might as well get the salmon plate, because the suffering caused by dairy farms is as at least as bad, if not worse, than that on salmon farms. But, I remain a vegetarian.

Here are the three reasons I've come up with for being a vegetarian, rather than a light meat eater: (1) it helps to draw a bright line. Once you start eating flesh, like salmon, it seems easier to go from there to eating other types of flesh, like pork, then if you're limiting yourself to cheese. (2) being a vegetarian makes a statement that you care about how animals are treated. This is a statement made to omnivores/meat eaters by one's dietary choice of abstaining from flesh. The omnivores who see this might start thinking about animals and move in a veg direction. These gains wouldn't happen if one were to be a light or occasional meat eater. (3) eating flesh seems more gross. Although this isn't an ideological reason, it's a personal reason that I've noticed since I stopped eating meat.

So, my question for others is: what are the reasons that justify and support a vegetarian lifestyle, as opposed to being a meat-eater (to whatever degree) or going all the way to veganism for the animals?
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#2 Old 10-30-2016, 10:30 AM
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So, my question for others is: what are the reasons that justify and support a vegetarian lifestyle, as opposed to being a meat-eater (to whatever degree) or going all the way to veganism for the animals?
The broad definition of vegetarian is refraining from eating things that are directly killed. Vegetarian cheeses would be made from vegetable rennet, or enzymes, as rennet is often made from parts of pig stomachs. We all know that the dairy and egg industries cause indirect killing, as well as suffering, but just avoiding meat is a really big deal
The more people who stop seeing flesh as food, the fewer animal products will be in foods. The animal by-product demand will suffer significantly. It is, after all, a way to get rid of what would otherwise be garbage.
More food and medicine without gelatin, feathers, stomach contents.... The more vegetarians will focus on the harm dairy and egg cause, esp. with having more options.

Esp. when a minority I feel it's so important to stay true to your choices. I completely understand giving yourself the choice of dairy or egg when faced with certain situations. There are always meatless choice in every situation, so there is really no area that I could see needing to succumb to meat. I simply wouldn't if it came up- Ive never starved

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#3 Old 10-30-2016, 10:50 AM
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Silva, I generally agree with what you say, but please be aware: I'm not asking for reasons not to eat meat. That's not my point. My point is to articulate the ideological basis of vegetarianism. I completely respect veganism, and my diet is very close to vegan. However, all of the ideological and ethical arguments I see on this board and elsewhere are in support of veganism, not vegetarianism. That makes perfect, since veganism is the purist position to take. The vegetarian discussions I see are usually about other things, not ethical issues. That makes sense, because there is an inherent ethical contradiction in vegetarianism, since meat was given up to avoid harming animals, but dairy and egg remains in the diet, to whatever degree, despite those industries being as harmful to animals.

In sum, I believe that vegetarianism, as a dietary choice, is in trouble, because of its ideological and ethical inconsistency. If you look, for example, on meetup, usually all you'll see is vegan meetup groups, not vegetarian groups, at least in my area. I think it's because of the problems within vegetarianism. In fact, vegetarianism, imo, is far more accessible than veganism, and is more likely to attract a larger swath of omnivores than is veganism. Vegetarianism can then either be a temporary stage for some of them before moving on to full-blown veganism, or can remain a middle ground, preferably with low use of animal products.

So, I believe that some work needs to be done building up and articulating the ethical and ideological basis of vegetarianism. I mentioned three reasons that I believe support this dietary choice, but I'm interested in hearing other reasons. I think, Silva, you mentioned one reason:

The more people who stop seeing flesh as food, the fewer animal products will be in foods. The animal by-product demand will suffer significantly. It is, after all, a way to get rid of what would otherwise be garbage.
More food and medicine without gelatin, feathers, stomach contents.... The more vegetarians will focus on the harm dairy and egg cause, esp. with having more options.


However, I'm interested in hearing from other vegetarians (and/or vegans) regarding reasons in support of vegetarianism.

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#4 Old 11-02-2016, 09:57 AM
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IMO the best and most compelling argument for vegetarianism is the environmental angle. You're right - it's tough to make an ethical argument for vegetarianism since the egg and dairy industry is pretty bleak, but vegetarianism is significantly better for the environment than being an omni, and is really the only option for the sustainability of our planet and the animals we share it with.

If you did want to make an ethical argument for vegetarianism, I would say that the best way is to focus on the questionable ethics of torturing and murdering sentient beings for sustenance. Most people would be disgusted at the thought of eating their dog or cat, but what really is the difference between that and a pig or a cow, or a chicken? All animals feel pain, as do fish, and the harsh reality of factory farming is that it is incredibly cruel and unusual punishment that most people turn a blind eye to, believing farms to be some sort of happy idealistic sanctuaries. Once we lift the veil and see that our choices are directly causing pain to innocent beings, it's pretty hard to continue to justify it when there are lots of reasonable alternate options.
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#5 Old 11-02-2016, 11:18 AM
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IMO the best and most compelling argument for vegetarianism is the environmental angle. You're right - it's tough to make an ethical argument for vegetarianism since the egg and dairy industry is pretty bleak, but vegetarianism is significantly better for the environment than being an omni, and is really the only option for the sustainability of our planet and the animals we share it with.

I disagree. I never said "it's tough to make an ethical argument for vegetarianism." I said there is an inherent ethical contradiction with vegetarianism, which is true. In fact, I am technically a "vegetarian," and I only care somewhat about the environmental angle. I care mostly about the ethical/animals rights angle. The fact that I don't do everything possible from a lifestyle standpoint to help animals doesn't mean that I'm doing nothing to help animals. As I mentioned, I eat vegan all the time at home, but when I'm out in social or work situations, I'm occasionally willing to eat cheese. The reason is that I refuse to submit myself to the social hassles of veganism for the very slight extra gains for animals that would ensue from eliminating the last (small) amount of animal products from my diet.

My concern, to reiterate, is that because of the inherent contradiction in vegetarianism (eliminating meat to help animals but still consuming dairy/eggs), there is a ideological vacuum and ethics is rarely discussed on the vegetarian forum. I would like to change that. Currently, most of the energy is with veganism, not vegetarianism. This is despite the fact that, first, there are three times as many vegetarians and vegans and, second, every self-described vegan that I know personally is technically a vegetarian, because at the holidays or whatever they'll have some cheese.

So, I think we need to talk about vegetarianism. It seems to be about harm reduction, not harm elimination, and as I said, it's more accessible to most omnivores. Incidentally, I certainly agree that veganism is the purest, least harm position to take. But taking almost that position is very good for farmed animals as well, imo.

I also note that the only two people who responded to my post were vegans coming at this from a vegan point of view. That's fine. It's good to hear all points of view, as far as I'm concerned. However, it kind of proves my point that discussions of the ethical angle are, in general, lacking among vegetarianism and, specifically, in this vegetarian forum. I would like to change that. I listed three ideological arguments in my original post, and Silva listed one additional one.

Feel free to add more, everyone.
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#6 Old 11-02-2016, 01:29 PM
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My apologies for paraphrasing you, rather than quoting you word for word; I assumed the point was the same. However, I'm wondering if you even read my second paragraph? Because I did address an ethical standpoint from which vegetarianism can be argued; namely that it is difficult to justify the killing of sentient beings for food if one claims to care about animals. That is the fundamental difference between ordering the salmon plate or occasional pork dish, or sticking with the cheese pizza. Sure, there are ethical concerns with the cheese, but in order for the fish or pork to get on your plate, a living being had to die to put it there.

I agree with you that vegetarianism is a much more approachable and attainable goal for a larger group of people, at least for the moment. Socially and in dining out situations, it's much easier to be vegetarian than vegan, and I would rather see someone choose to be vegetarian than give up entirely because veganism is too extreme for them. If we can make a compelling argument for more people to do so, then I'm all for that.
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#7 Old 11-02-2016, 02:03 PM
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I think that veganism has the strongest moral argument and vegetarianism in general, assuming it includes large quantities of say, eggs, isn't the best thought out moral argument unless it's a compromise. However, that being said your points 1, 2 and 3 are pretty good.

Drawing a "bright" line is helpful for promoting vegetarianism. When someone says to me one day in the future "So you haven't eaten meat once for years" I want to reply "Not once, and I've never missed it or felt I've needed it and I feel great." A response which might be good in making vegetarianism seem like something that they should try. But, if I reply, ""Well, that was this one time when there was a small piece of ham in a pasta salad and I just thought sod it, and this one time my son had leftover chicken and it was going to be thrown away anyway..." then it is going to make vegetarianism look weaker. So, that is part of my reason for drawing a very firm line on meat, fish, and eggs.

I think you will find vegetarians staying away from the moral debates precisely because their moral position that allows them to eat eggs and dairy isn't as well thought out, and I think vegetarians are more likely to have other reasons too, health, ickiness of eating flesh, and so on. Where it's a moral position my suspicion is that a vegetarian's moral position is more simplistic rather than the result of thorough research, i.e. don't like thinking of eating cute animals, wouldn't want to kill an animal themselves. Whereas vegans have a well thought out moral position that they are rightly confident in, and know they won't lose the argument, and therefore more likely to jump into the debate.

One argument in favour of vegetarianism rather than veganism is that the intensity of suffering for animals being killed is much higher than the intensity of suffering for dairy products, since cows are large so less animals badly treated and killed per unit food, and also cows often have a relatively better life than pigs or chicken. However, for this argument to work, you really have to stop eating eggs even if you continue to eat dairy.

In my first month of being mostly vegan, when I was basically still in a transition, I went on holiday and most eating places didn't have any vegan options except something really boring like constantly eating chips or salad. I decided no to seafood, but yes to cheese options at the time (both of which were plentiful), but I had to admit, it didn't make a lot of sense. That was my last month of eating cheese. Since then I ate cheese once when it was the only food available and I had a sod it moment, and once when I ordered a pizza without cheese and they sent it out with cheese.

Even veganism, even a strict veganism, is about harm reduction rather than elimination, although a strict veganism may eliminate all deliberate, direct, conscious harm. However, even a vegan can be, say, in favour of something like building a new factory to produce mobile phones, even though it might say require destruction of a forest to build the factory which may cause many animals to die. So in that sense it's possible to argue that we are all drawing the line between morality and convenience or our own desires to some extent.

However, in 100 years it's possible that eating cheese occassionally in social situations might become perceived quite differently, the kind of thing that would be frowned upon by most. Could happen, attitudes change.
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Last edited by Jamie in Chile; 11-02-2016 at 02:06 PM.
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#8 Old 11-03-2016, 09:46 AM
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So, my question for others is: what are the reasons that justify and support a vegetarian lifestyle, as opposed to being a meat-eater (to whatever degree) or going all the way to veganism for the animals?
Location. Definitely location. I live in the South and location plays a huge role in my choice to be a vegetarian rather than a vegan or a meat-eater. I am fully aware of the animal cruelty that takes place in the meat industry. I know that me consuming eggs and cheese still contributes to it, but to a much lesser extent. The reason location plays a big part in my being a vegetarian is that I have a hard time already as it is to find vegetarian cheese or food products that don't contain animal enzymes or other things such as beef extract, flavor, gelatin etc. I would have an even harder time finding vegan choices.

Location also plays a big factor when it comes to eating out. There are only about six fast food/ restaurants at which I know I can eat at as a vegetarian. Of those, I could only eat at one if I was a vegan. This presents a problem because my family loves to eat out. Since becoming a vegetarian we eat out less, but we still eat out. If I was a vegan, eating out would not be a viable option. Also, as a full time college student who works I am often short on time and on occasions I have to buy prepared food, if I was a vegan, this also would not work out for me.

Another thing that influences me to be a vegetarian rather than a vegan is cost. As a college student I am on a budget, I cannot afford vegan cheese for the amount of product you get, versus how much vegetarian cheese I can get for the same price. Also, almond milk is significantly more expensive in comparison to cow milk for the amount you get. I am the only vegetarian in my house. The few times I have bought almond milk it has gone bad because I did not finish it in time. Some people have told me about single serve almond milk but again, I think the cost would be higher. Supplements also seem like another expense, Omega 3 vegan vitamins at about $30.00 a month, as a college student is outrageous and not viable.

As such, location and cost are what justify me being a vegetarian. Being vegan would be too costly and being a meat-eater would be me ignoring my beliefs. As such, I follow a plant based diet as much as I can at this point in my life.

I think you made a great point with the three ideas you gave. I certainly agree.
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#9 Old 11-04-2016, 10:36 PM
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I've been a vegetarian for five years so I will try to chime in on this.

Personally I try to see it this way; if we all stopped eating meat, such a huge change would already be achieved!

Imagine what the effect would be if no more livestock was bred to be killed, there would be much more room for cows and chickens that are used for diary and eggs. They could be treated really well and all the suffering they go through now in the regular dairy industry would be unnecessary.

Also, the whole ocean would have peace. Because no one would eat fish. That would also be a huge win.

So in my eyes, vegetarianism is a step up from omnivorous diets no matter what. The animals would profit if we all went vegetarian, because no one is killing them and they would be treated significantly better than they are now.

Yes, the dairy industry right now is quite gruesome, but that's because most dairy is produced by the same people who kill for meat. They consider animals a product, and as long as they will kill for food they will not care for the animal. Not consuming flesh changes the way you feel and think about animals and killing in general, so if people stopped eating meat I am sure that change in the treatment of animals would follow.

Maybe even eventually everyone would become vegan, but I think having a vegetarian world would be a great start. I also eat less dairy and eggs than I did when I just became vegetarian because I am conscious of where it came from, and I am careful where I source it.

If that would be what everyone was doing, I am sure the world would be a better place for all of us
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#10 Old 11-05-2016, 07:14 AM
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Wow. Some great points, all. Jamie, as with all of your posts, it is extremely well thought out. I totally agree with this:

I think you will find vegetarians staying away from the moral debates precisely because their moral position that allows them to eat eggs and dairy isn't as well thought out, and I think vegetarians are more likely to have other reasons too, health, ickiness of eating flesh, and so on. Where it's a moral position my suspicion is that a vegetarian's moral position is more simplistic rather than the result of thorough research, i.e. don't like thinking of eating cute animals, wouldn't want to kill an animal themselves.

In any case, this is what I'd like to change, because even though I consider myself closer to the vegan world than the vegetarian world, as a technicality, I am actually a vegetarian (as, I think, many self-described vegans are, but I choose to admit it). So, I think we vegetarians need to think about the moral arguments.

It's also great to hear some self-described vegetarians weigh in! WinterReign, I like your point that one of the reasons the existing dairy and egg industry is so cruel is that the same "farmers" are breeding the animals for meat, so they get used to thinking about them as objects. Note that I still believe that, in the long run, humans should stop using animals to produce dairy and eggs, but I think you're right that the commodification of animal flesh lowers the bar for treatment of farmed animals in general, including in the diary and egg industry. It's a point I hadn't thought of.

Sidhuriel, I do understand your point regarding location, living in the south, and the lack of vegan options at restaurants, as well as cost issues. Good points all. I look forward to continuing this dialogue.
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#11 Old 11-05-2016, 08:31 AM
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The part where you quote me above in italics I was actually a bit harsh, I thought later. It feels like a somewhat unfair sweeping generalization applied to all non-vegan vegetarians as being morally simplistic or not having a well thought out position. I didn't mean that however, to clarify a bit, I suspect probably let's say 75% or 90% of vegans have a well thought out moral position, whereas probably only 10% or 25% or 50% of vegetarians have.
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#12 Old 11-05-2016, 08:38 AM
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All good points Sidhuriel, in a 100% vegetarian world it's true that animals would be better treated because of higher awareness however I would point out that this amounts to a hypothetical comment only, and is not usable of a defence for eating factory-farmed dairy and eggs today.

Your point that there would be "much more room" in a vegetarian world for dairy animals I am not convinced about, there is a certain economic logic behind these operations, the owners of the land are not going to buy more land and add a huge cost to their operation just to be nicer, sadly that's just not how free market capitalism works.

I think in a vegetarian world we might in practice see more wild animal ecosystems, more land used for other human activities, and a faster human population increase. However, this is very hard to say.

If the world became more vegetarian more for reasons of human health, weight loss etc, then the land might just be used to increase population and drive more economic growth. However if people were becoming more vegetarian because of animal rights and environmental enlightenment then we might see more space for farm animals, more animal ecosystems instead.
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#13 Old 11-05-2016, 10:03 AM
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The part where you quote me above in italics I was actually a bit harsh, I thought later. It feels like a somewhat unfair sweeping generalization applied to all non-vegan vegetarians as being morally simplistic or not having a well thought out position. I didn't mean that however, to clarify a bit, I suspect probably let's say 75% or 90% of vegans have a well thought out moral position, whereas probably only 10% or 25% or 50% of vegetarians have.

I actually agree with you on this, though, Jamie. I haven't known a lot of vegetarians or vegans in real life, though I've known some. The couple of hardcore vegetarians I've known (as opposed to vegetarians who are quasi-vegans, like me) are very nice people who eat cheese or eggs with most of their meals, and have essentially replaced meat with other forms of animal protein. They do it for the right reasons, and their heart is in the right place, but the effect on animals is probably real, but not very significant.

The two self-described vegans I've known in real life are widely thought of by their friends and family as vegans, take a lot of flack for it because they're always eating different stuff at social events, and often talk about the treatment of farmed animals. However, interestingly, they're not vegans, at least as the word is used on this board. One of them, in some discussions with me, stated that he occasionally eats cheese at parties if it would be thrown away anyway. The other stated to me that once a year, at Thanksgiving, she eats a small piece of turkey. That's all fine with me, but based on the purist definition of vegan that predominates on the Internet, meaning no animal products ever, neither is vegan. Despite this, they both model vegan behavior for others, and their dietary choices save 100 or so animals a year compared to a traditional omnivore.

Interestingly in social situations, I'd rather describe myself as a vegetarian than a vegan, even though I could easily pass myself off as a vegan. The reason is that the vegan movement seems to be a bit radicalized at the moment (though certainly not unanimously), so if I were to call myself a vegan among all of the omnivores that surround me, they'd probably be turned off. I actually think that by calling myself a vegetarian, I have a greater chance of introducing people to vegan foods.
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#14 Old 11-05-2016, 11:02 AM
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Jamie, regarding your point:

All good points Sidhuriel, in a 100% vegetarian world it's true that animals would be better treated because of higher awareness however I would point out that this amounts to a hypothetical comment only, and is not usable of a defence for eating factory-farmed dairy and eggs today.

I don't think Sidhuriel or anyone else on this thread was trying to use this as a "defence for eating factory-farmed dairy and eggs." No one has defended the dairy and egg industry here, much less factory farming. I think the main question being considered on this thread, which Sidhuriel was addressing, is, in essence, whether there is a moral benefit in switching from omnivorism to vegetarianism. I believe Sidhuriel's point was that if more people made the switch, dairy and egg-farmed animals would be better off. That in itself is a less-than-certain proposition, but I don't think it has anything to do with "defending" the dairy and egg industry.

Here is my overall take on this point. The causation is not: less animals farmed for meat ==> better treatment of dairy cows and egg hens. Rather, the causation is: more concern for the plight of farmed animals ==> less animals farmed for meat AND better treatment of dairy cows and egg hens.

In other words, any world in which meat were deprecated as a food source would almost certainly be a world in which people cared more about the plight of animals, so it would probably be a world in which animals farmed for their non-flesh products were treated better. This may well be the situation in India historically, though I'm not fully up on that.
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Last edited by Dilettante; 11-05-2016 at 11:39 AM.
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#15 Old 11-05-2016, 11:17 PM
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Jamie, regarding your point:

All good points Sidhuriel, in a 100% vegetarian world it's true that animals would be better treated because of higher awareness however I would point out that this amounts to a hypothetical comment only, and is not usable of a defence for eating factory-farmed dairy and eggs today.

I don't think Sidhuriel or anyone else on this thread was trying to use this as a "defence for eating factory-farmed dairy and eggs." No one has defended the dairy and egg industry here, much less factory farming. I think the main question being considered on this thread, which Sidhuriel was addressing, is, in essence, whether there is a moral benefit in switching from omnivorism to vegetarianism. I believe Sidhuriel's point was that if more people made the switch, dairy and egg-farmed animals would be better off. That in itself is a less-than-certain proposition, but I don't think it has anything to do with "defending" the dairy and egg industry.
Indeed; you're right with your observation. I am not defending the current egg or dairy industries, I think the way they treat their animals is mostly abhorrent and wrong.

I believe however that things could become different, provided that everyone became vegetarian. It's a hypothetical situation, so yes I can't say it's a solution to the problems we have now.

But what I do know is that for a lot of people the step towards vegetarianism is more easily made than the one towards veganism (sadly) and so it would be a good start to try to get everyone to be vegetarian. I think if that would happen, the world would gradually process toward veganism anyway.

But so far, neither of those is close to happening.
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