Thoughts from the criminology team

The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

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Driving value for money: My fairy tale

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A few years ago I had the good fortune of being able to go to a driving experience event where I was able to drive an Aston Martin (my dream car) around a race track.

I arrived on the day and presented my provisional driving licence, a full licence was required really, but the nice people there said I could have a go as I said I loved Aston Martin cars and I would try really hard to learn to drive them.

There was a briefing about car safety that I went to and I listened but don’t think I took that much in, it was a bit boring, just some chap talking really.  Then we were given the opportunity to be driven, in groups of three, around the track by an experienced driver.  He would show us how to drive and the best lines to take so that we could take the corners at speed.  I was a bit nervous about this and I didn’t want to be in the car with others so I missed this bit.  Another nice driver took me out on my own and showed me what to do.

After that I got to drive my first Aston Martin, I took it steady because the driver kept telling me to do things and I wanted to stop because my phone was pinging and I needed to look at it.  Anyway we did the track about ten times, it got a bit boring in the end.  After the drive I was told to go to the briefing room and get further instructions about a time trial.  I went and got some coffee and looked at Facebook on my phone, I didn’t need to go to the briefing because I’ve done the track anyway and it’s not very exciting.  I did the time trial thingy, I didn’t do very well, and I don’t think they taught me much about driving or about Aston Martins.

Three weeks later I was asked by a research company what I thought about my driving experience.  I said it wasn’t very good.  I remember one of the questions was about value for money.  The whole day cost me a lot of money and I don’t think it was value for money at all.*

Anyway I’m off to read that National Audit Office report on universities, I’m thinking about going to one sometime soon.

*The reality was that my driving experience in an Aston Martin was both frightening and exhilarating.  I learnt so much on the day but it was hard work concentrating on the instructions being given and pushing myself to the limit in respect of my driving capabilities. The staff were brilliant and in the end I think I got it but there is so much more to do and as for value for money – I want to go back, that should say it all.

Why Volunteer?

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Bethany is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

Before I started lecturing at the university, unsurprisingly, I also once attended university as a criminology student.  Very similar to the current university experience, I had deadlines, money stress and at times a lack of direction of what I wanted to do. Therefore, firstly, if you have experienced this or if you currently are, then you can find some comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

About 2 months into my first year, my seminar leader mentioned a volunteering opportunity for a mentor role at Milton Keynes Probation Office. I contemplated the idea for a couple of weeks; I was interested in the idea of volunteering, mainly because I had near enough zero work experience at all. I was however complacent in the idea of working for free, which is a common issue for students. However, when I took the plunge and put myself forward for it, it was honestly one of the best decisions and jobs I have ever had.

After getting out of my comfort zone in the first few weeks, In which I had some training about general health and safety and data protection. I suddenly found myself helping out in classes for English, maths, stress management, ICT and even a construction class! In these classes, there were ‘students’ who were issued to attend as part of a court order or had it suggested to them following a meeting with their probation officer.  It was very rewarding and made me understand a lot of what I was doing in my modules.

The most important points from this for me that I feel should be shown more to all students is that:

  1. Time: You can give as much time as you want: I started only helping out in 1 class which lasted less than 2 hours every other week. I increased this to every week when I started my second year and more so again in my third year.
  2. Money: No, you will not make money, you will however 99% of the time be able to claim your expenses from the company running the volunteer group. I was able to claim for all my train tickets and any lunch I had while volunteering. Also mimicking the above point on time, I was able to still do volunteering alongside university and a part-time
  3. Experience: This was not only a good experience because I was able to do both my 2nd-year criminology placement at the probation office, but I was also able to interview offenders for my dissertation. But also you have great hands-on experience in the criminal justice field and you might actually help someone who is vulnerable and needs your patience and support.

This post is therefore in no way to make people feel bad for not volunteering or to say its’ easy, as it has many challenges and we are not all in the same position to give up time. However, If you are considering volunteering, whether that be to build up your CV, prepare for placement or you just want to give back for an hour or so. Below are some places currently looking for volunteers and I am sure your criminology expertise will be of use:

SOVA: Probation Volunteering

https://www.sova.org.uk/search-roles

 

Victim Support

https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer

 

Safe Families For Children

https://www.safefamiliesforchildren.com/join-us/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIu-rz773V1wIVYRbTCh0cmwBZEAAYAiAAEgIkUfD_BwE

 

Step Together ( Supporting Rehabilitation of Ex-Offenders)

http://www.step-together.org.uk/supporting-rehabilitation-ex-offenders?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI3PXPo77V1wIVgjgbCh2ghgBqEAAYASAAEgLWffD_BwE

 

Tattoos: deviance or individualism?

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For my blog this week I thought I’d follow up on @charlottejdann’s blog on tattoos and add some personal experiences to the discussion. The media certainly have had their part to play in the negative connotations surrounding tattoos and the types of people with them, however I question the extent to which the media influence those perceptions today. Based purely on my own experience and opinion I believe that tattoos have become relatively common and as we saw in Charlotte’s blog the rise in tattoo studios would certainly seem to support this assumption. In fact, I think a process of normalisation has occurred whereby it is more surprising when someone hasn’t got a tattoo than when they have. Furthermore, the negative connotations and ‘expressed shock’ at the increase in tattooing is, in my humble opinion, typically associated to those of the older, more traditional generation for whom tattooing was a symbol of deviance, rebellion and/or disrepute.

I got my first tattoo when I was just 14; a small black panther discreetly placed on my thigh. My choice of phrase here is not accidental, being just 14 and below the age of legal consent the placement of this tattoo had to be discrete to hide it from my mother. The intentional law breaking and deception of this act would certainly look like deviance to an outside observer. Since then I added two more tattoos to my collection and have another one planned for the near future. Reflecting on this notion of deviance and my own motivation I arrive at a number of conclusions. My first tattoo was, without doubt, an act of rebellion against the expectations placed upon me by family and peers to be a ‘good girl’ and a ‘high achiever’. I don’t in any way regret that tattoo but I can recognise the reason for getting it. My second tattoo was more daringly placed on my upper arm and in hindsight was not thought through or carefully picked but at the same time it was not an act of rebellion. Those of you with tattoos may understand when I say that getting tattoos is like an addiction, you either love them or hate them but once you’ve got one, you want more. It was this ‘addiction’ so to speak that led to my second tattoo. My third tattoo which covers my foot and spreads up my ankle, symbolises the changing direction of my life after the birth of my first child and is by far my favourite to date. In short, the meaning or motivation for each tattoo has shifted over time reflecting my growth as a person and my life experiences.

At the point of my third tattoo I’d entered the world of academia and was establishing my professional identity; an identity that was in some ways at odds with my tattooed body. Wearing a professional suit and heels with a tattoo on my foot and ankle certainly led to some raised eyebrows and disapproving looks from older colleagues. This reaction was nothing compared to the openly disapproving judgements I later encountered from fellow magistrates; not only was I young to be a magistrate but I was also tattooed and had the audacity to display them in court! Linking this reaction back to my earlier statement about deviance, rebellion and disrepute, the simplest thing would be for me to wear a trouser suit in court and hide my tattoos, in essence, conforming to societies expectations of that position. However, my reasons for not doing so are twofold, firstly I am a bit of rebel at heart and secondly, I do not see my tattoos as an act of deviance but one of self-expression. In all other areas of life, I conform to the norms and values of society, I have a career and present myself as a professional, I’m trying to raise my children to be good law-abiding citizens, I pay my bills on time, I put out my rubbish when asked and I try to treat others with compassion and respect. In short, I’ve joined the collective, blended into society and accepted the expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a daughter and so forth. My tattoos therefore are a reflection of self-expression, my little rebellious side that says, “I’m more than one of the collective, I’m an individual”. Each tattoo reflects my journey, where I have come from, what I have experienced, who I am and where I am going. They tell the reader that I am more than just a number, I am an individual embracing self-expression through body art because to me tattoos are not just ink, they are pieces of art symbolising your life journey. For this reason, I agree with Charlotte’s argument that tattooed people cannot be stereotyped as a homogeneous group because tattoos by their very nature make us unique individuals.

Perceptions of tattooed bodies

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Charlotte Dann is a psychology lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Society, researching women’s tattooed bodies. You can find out more and get in touch via Twitter – @CharlotteJD

Whenever I discuss my tattoo research, I always frame it historically, because I think it’s important to consider how we have come to the point we are at with how tattoos are perceived and understood. And you know, it’s good for a laugh.

In the late 1800s, Lombroso researched deviancy and criminality, and as part of this, came to the conclusion that people who had tattoos were criminals and prostitutes. However, this research was conducted on – you guessed it – criminals and prostitutes. Despite the poor correlation that was presented, his research was influential in how we perceive deviancy and deviant bodies, to the point that those negative connotations towards tattooed bodies still ring true today. Tattoos may be ever rising in popularity (figures indicated one in five has a tattoo, and the number of studios rose by around 170% in the last decade in the UK), but tattooed bodies can still be found to be associated with deviancy.

Let’s consider the influence of the media in this. Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of articles that express shock for the fact that ‘normal’ people are getting tattoos, and why tattoos are becoming more popular for women. It only takes a quick gander at the comments left on these articles to see that public opinion hasn’t changed that much, and that these articles perpetuate negative perceptions about tattoos (i.e. they’re not meant for ‘normal’ people). Newspaper articles such as this often make reference to the ‘normal’ people who are now adorning their bodies – normal being white, middle-class, ‘respectable’ people. The narrative of such newspaper articles often seems to rely on a discourse that positions tattooing as the proper domain of ‘the other’, associated with deviant, problematised, and generally male bodies. Newspaper articles often reflect a certain moral panic about the rise of tattoos among so called ‘normal’ people, whilst at the same time, normalise the practice of tattooing itself.

The media does not do a good job in quelling negative connotations regarding tattooed people, as they tend to focus more on the extremes – the eye-catching headlines, the things that make you wince and tut, not the everyday person who is tattooed. In recent years, newspapers have reported on tattooed teachers as being ‘inappropriate’ for children, on young adults who get cheap ‘joke’ tattoos on holidays in Magaluf, and present morality tales such as those who regret their tattoo choices. In addition, they also frame our understandings of ‘who’ this ‘normal’ tattooed person is (look – even Samantha Cameron and David Dimbleby have them!)

I think what we need to do is question the idea of what a ‘normal’ body is, and really think about the assumptions we make about that body based on frankly outdated perceptions. There is no longer one particular type of person who is tattooed – the availability and accessibility of tattoo studios, designs, and techniques, has meant that you cannot stereotype all tattooed people as one homogenous group.

Just good business or theft?

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In October the Citizens Advice Bureau published a report about overcharging by mobile phone companies for mobile phones (CAB 2017).  In short, a mobile phone contract usually includes the price of the mobile phone as well as the service.  ‘Many people take out a mobile phone contract with the cost of the new handset included in the overall price of the fixed term deal – the majority of which are paid off on a monthly basis for a period of 2 years’ (CAB 2017).  The companies often notify the consumer that the contract is coming to an end and offer an upgrade and new contract. If you are too busy or forgetful or naïve and leave the contract running, you will continue to pay for the phone even though it is paid up.  According to CAB this can be as much as £38 a month.

Now consider this scenario, you enter a shop and hand over £10 for goods purchased and receive change for £20.  Realising the mistake, you pocket the money despite having knowledge of the mistake.

Sections 1-7 of the Theft Act 1968 are very clear and Section 1 states:

(1)  A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and “thief” and “steal” shall be construed accordingly.

(2)  It is immaterial whether the appropriation is made with a view to gain, or is made for the thief’s own benefit.

Section 5 is also very clear in defining whether property belongs to another and subsection 4 states:

Where a person gets property by another’s mistake, and is under an obligation to make restoration (in whole or in part) of the property or its proceeds or of the value thereof, then to the extent of that obligation the property or proceeds shall be regarded (as against him) as belonging to the person entitled to restoration, and an intention not to make restoration shall be regarded accordingly as an intention to deprive that person of the property or proceeds.”

In the case of the wrong change being provided at the shop, it is very clear that theft has occurred.  So why not so for mobile phone overcharging?  It is clear that you have handed over more money than you should through your bank account and this is an error, unless of course you wanted to pay more for your phone than it’s worth. The company keeps the money, knowing that they have overcharged you. Does that not sound like theft too?  I don’t think a contract is worded in such a way that you give permission to be overcharged, nor can the company rely on the fact that the contract represents the whole package, otherwise how else would they maintain a pricing differentiation between different models? Maybe they can argue that all transactions are automated and therefore nobody forms any intent. To the latter I would suggest to those that are overcharged, ask for your money back from a person in the company and when they refuse…. Is it good business or theft?

 

Citizens Advice Bureau (2017) Mobile phone networks overcharging loyal customers by up to £38 a month, [online] available at www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/how-citizens-advice-works/media/press-releases/ [accessed 24 November 2017].

“Letters from America”: Why do we even bother?

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As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder.  What is the point to a conference?  Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?

As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different.  “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.

The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.

Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”.  I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles.  Reform?  Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for?  This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society.  Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for.  Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.

In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons.  The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important.  It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative.  Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do.  One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as Paula asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!)  Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?

Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated.  I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it.  A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.

What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline

“Letters from America”: III

imageFor those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.

We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).

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This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons*  was  philanthropic  and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.

This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.

For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.

 

 

*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.

 

 

“Letters from America”: II

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Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.

Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and  commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.

Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?

The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.

This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.

I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.

 

 

“Letters from America”: I

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This weekend @manosdaskalou and I flew from London to the USA and thus had the opportunity of experiencing two different airports. Travelling is always an insightful  – if sometimes physically draining – experience and even more so when crossing continents. It is striking that one of the very first things that you confront upon arriving at your destination (no matter whether home or abroad) is generally a very long queue. There are queues to check in, queues to drop bags, queues for security, queues to get on the plane and to get off the other end. These are followed by yet more queues to enter the country and a wait to collect your bags. All of this is par for the course and perhaps to be expected given the volume of people travelling. What is perhaps more unexpected is the overall patience demonstrated by those in the seemingly endless queues.

I find the airport an interesting no-man’s land where individuals appear to become simply part of a giant machine. Once inside the airport you become subject to the whims and vagaries of the machinery. “Take off your shoes”, “take off your coats, jackets, scarves”, “laptops here”, “bags there’ ,”show your clear plastic bag  containing approved liquids”, the list goes on and that’s before you’ve even let the country. If we want to fly we accept these rituals as a price worth paying. However, it is worth considering if many would tolerate such rituals away from this setting?

All of these processes are predicated on an ethos of security and the protection of life and limb. However, we do not insist on such protocols when we use other forms of transport; buses, trains, trams or the tube where similar conditions prevail (i.e.lots of people, baggage etc. moving from place to place. The tactics used in the airport are far more reminiscent of the police station or the prison than they are of travel yet we  simply grit our teeth and bear the incongruity and indignity of the situation.

Whilst not suggesting that security is unimportant, it is worth considering that we focus far greater attention on flying than we do on other modes of transport. Of course, for those who fly infrequently this can be absorbed as a part of their travelling experience as predictable as a trip to the duty free shop. On a daily basis, as part of the 9-5 commute, such tactics would bring the world to a grinding halt…

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