In recent years, the US has seen a rise in a priori rejection or "cancelling" of illiberal ideas on the left. In essence, these ideas are being rejected from mainstream liberal society without good faith argument because they espouse or present ideas that are fundamentally harmful to the securing of personal rights of certain subsets of society. (For instance, Chick-fil-A's president coming under fire for speaking against gay marriage, A NYT editor resigning after publishing an op-ed promoting the use of force to quell largely peaceful protest, and somewhat abstractly, removing statues of people that espoused inequality of human rights).

My question is, does pure liberalism extend personal freedoms of speech to the expression of ideals that are opposed to or harmful to liberalism? Or rather, is it in keeping with the spirit of liberalism to (somewhat counter-intuitively and illiberally) banish such ideas that actively harm the ideals of liberalism?

This is my first question on SE Politics so please kindly advise if I could reframe this question to be more clear.

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    You shouldn't significantly change your question after it's been answered, so I rolled back your addition. If you have new questions, ask them as new questions. If you want to make a point that answers your own question, you can do so by writing an answer to your question.
    – divibisan
    Feb 5, 2021 at 21:35
  • Ok fair enough. I guess my original question was a bit poorly conceived: the question I am more curious about is not liberalism in a governmental sense but rather a society that values and protects individual freedoms. The answers to this question mostly focused on the limits of government-protected rights, which I think is somewhat more straightforward. I've tried to clarify this question in a new post: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/62396/…
    – DerekG
    Feb 5, 2021 at 23:25
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    As a side issue, I don't think the title of the question matches the examples you've given. "Illiberalism" doesn't mean the opposite of what most Americans mean by "liberalism," it means the opposite of classical liberalism. Putting up a statue of a person who owned slaves is not illiberalism, nor is opposing gay marriage. Examples of illiberal speech would be Hitler saying, "if your neighbor is a communist, beat him up," or someone saying, "democracy has run its course, it's nothing but mob rule."
    – user5526
    Feb 6, 2021 at 15:01
  • This is definitely true @BenCrowell. My examples are of speech that is not explicitly illiberal but rather has the effect of making people feel less comfortable or protected in their rights afforded by liberalism, kind of a light gray area in terms of illiberal speech.
    – DerekG
    Feb 7, 2021 at 3:12

7 Answers 7


This is The Paradox of Tolerance, as mentioned in the comments, and it is a debated grey area.

Let's use your three examples, and let's observe that these all happened in the US. This constrains their utility as examples of liberalism, but the concrete examples are useful.

Free Speech and Tolerance means you will not be punished for your ideas within limits, and that your presence is tolerated. It does not mean we have to like you. It does not mean we need to publish your book or print your opinion piece. It does not mean you are given a megaphone. It does not mean anyone has to listen to you. It does not mean your words do not have consequences. It does not mean you get to yell whatever you like whenever you like at whomever you like.

Those limits generally are around when two person's rights collide and they must be weighed against each other. For example, the "clear and present danger" and later "imminent lawless action" US legal doctrines. Talking about what it would be like to yell "fire" in a crowded theater is protected speech and tolerated. Actually falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is not protected, it puts people's lives in danger. Extending that a bit, a mob boss ordering someone to be killed is not protected.

The concept of Hate Speech is founded on a broadening of this idea when speech is intended to incite violence against a group. Much arguing has been around trying to define this grey area.

Free Speech is never a justification for your words. When your only justification for what you said is "free speech" you are admitting what you said is indefensible. Free Speech is a defense against censorship, not a defense against being a dumb-ass.

Chick-fil-A's president being fired for speaking against gay marriage

I can't find this particular instance, but there's plenty of cases of executives being fired for discriminatory public statements. This is a corporate board firing one of their executives because they feel they're bad for the business, and that includes their employees who need to have faith that their leadership is looking out for them.

Why would they be bad for business and shake confidence in their leadership? Chick-fil-A is a good example to dig into. As The Good Place put it, "There's this chicken sandwich that if you eat it, it means you hate gay people — and it's delicious!". Chick-fil-A is a multi-billion dollar fast food company who choose to donate to anti-LGBTQ causes and whose executives choose to speak very publicly against LGBTQ people. Emphasis on choose: nobody says a chicken company has to make political donations, nor that their executives have to go on talk shows and espouse their views.

In the US, corporations have an outsized role in their employees' lives. If you're an LGBTQ Chick-fil-A employee, watching the company president and the company itself publicly and actively campaign against your existence would raise questions about whether you will be treated fairly... at a chicken restaurant. These people have the power over your livelihood and your health care. It's an absurd situation, but here we are. That is not a good workplace environment.

The US has some odd quirks stemming from the 2010 Citizens United ruling which can be summed up as "money is speech" and "corporations are people". Therefore political donations are speech, and corporations are have the right to free speech, so corporate donations to political campaigns could not be limited. This allowed corporations to get deeply involved in the US political process.

The US also has some odd quirks around its ideas of Freedom of Religion. Burwell v Hobby Lobby in 2014 held that "closely held for-profit corporations" could just ignore regulations their owners had religious objections to. For example, the requirement to provide adequate health insurance to their employees, or the requirements against discrimination. They don't mean just mom and pop shops who don't want to bake cakes for gay people, the ruling was about a multi-billion dollar corporation whose decisions impact 43,000 employees and everyone who shops at their 1,000 stores.

This leaves US citizens with an ethical dilemma. Doing business with a corporation tacitly funds their political donations. Burwell v Hobby Lobby means this can be even more direct as the owners put their religious stamp on their employees. If you don't agree with their political funding, is it moral to purchase their products? Some deride this as "Cancel Culture", but it's an unfortunate consequence of the ethical dilemma Citizens United exacerbated. If money is speech, people will "vote with their dollars". This is the "chicken sandwich that if you eat it, it means you hate gay people". It's absurd, but a couple of questionable court rulings and here we are.

The ethical necessity of "voting with your dollars" means if companies decide to donate to political causes which their customers and employees find abhorrent, their customers can refuse to pay into this. This is not censorship - the company can continue to donate as it likes - this is the consequence of the company's choices. Chick-fil-A put their customers in this position, nobody forced them to. Tolerance, if it applies to a corporation at all, requires we allow Chick-fil-A to donate to whomever they want. Tolerance does not require that their customers turn a blind eye to this and indirectly donate to causes they disagree with.

Similarly, if the company executives decide to make their political positions known far and wide (nobody's forcing them to go on talk shows), people don't have to give them money, and their employees are right to be concerned about how the political positions of their leadership will affect them.

The Free Market says if Chick-fil-A's customers aren't happy, the company will fail. Their board is there to ensure the company succeeds. If their president endangers that, the board is entirely within their rights (and arguably responsibilities) to fire that person.

A NYT editor resigning after publishing an op-ed promoting the use of force to quell largely peaceful protest

The New York Times announced on Sunday that its editorial page editor had resigned after backlash from the public and the company’s own employees over a Republican senator’s op-ed that called for using military force against recent rioters.

As with Chick-fil-A, the New York Times is a business.

James Bennet was their Editorial Page editor. He was the guy in charge of handing out megaphones. He chose to give a megaphone to Senator Tom Cotton and approved his piece "Send In The Troops" in which a US Senator opined the military should be used against peaceful black protesters.

Publishing this upset many of their readers, journalists, and employees, particularly black employees. They questioned James Bennet's wisdom in choosing to broadcast this piece. It came out that Bennet did not read the op-ed, a basic part of his job.

This is not a free speech case. Tom Cotton was not censored. Nobody, not even a newspaper, has to give anyone a megaphone. In particular a US Senator has plenty of ways of making their opinion known. As for tolerance, a newspaper's customers can express their disappointment in who their newspaper is giving megaphones to by not paying for that newspaper. Intolerance would be to call for the Times to be shut down over who they give megaphones to.

The Times trusted James Bennet to decide who got to use the Times's megaphones, they trusted him with their integrity, and he was negligent. He angered their customers, caused issues with his fellow employees, and endangered the Times's journalistic integrity. As such, he failed to perform the duties required by his employment, and that is the reason he was asked to resign.

Removing statues of people that espoused inequality of human rights

Statues are not people, they are not granted free speech and tolerance. Statues are not speech. Statues are not history, but statues have a history. Statues espouse a historic viewpoint that these people are heroes. Statues are propaganda.

Public statues are government megaphones. They commemorate and celebrate people and events which we, as a society, decide reflect our values. Our values evolve over time, and so does how we choose to use that megaphone.

Confederate statues in the US perpetuate the idea that these are military heroes of the United States to be celebrated fighting a "lost cause". These statues ignore that they were anti-democratic insurrectionists who fought a war because they didn't like who got elected president and so they could keep people enslaved. They white-wash US history.

You don't learn history from a statue, you are reminded of it. A heroic Confederate statue reminds us that the US is OK with intolerance, racists, and people who believe other people are property. We are moving away from that. We are changing what we want to say with our megaphones.

If one wants to preserve these statues and their history, put them in a museum in their proper context. Explain how we came to make statues of people who tried to tear the country apart. Use them to talk about the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and how they were used as symbols of oppression. How they were used to white-wash US history. That would be free speech and tolerance.

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    Am I the only one here thinking that this has nothing to do with the question at all?
    – Altern
    Feb 6, 2021 at 1:34
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    @Altern You're right to think that. The text and body of the question diverge subtly but significantly. I chose to use their own framing examples, which they offer as examples of tolerance "being rejected from mainstream liberal society without good faith argument", to address the OP's ideas about liberalism and tolerance, and as opportunities to discuss the real ethical complexities we are presented with in the US. And I got to use a great line from The Good Place. :) If they want to know the pure, philosophical response they can read Popper or another answer can address it.
    – Schwern
    Feb 6, 2021 at 1:54
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    RE: "Statues are not speech." While I agreed with most of your answer, I do not think that this is correct. I am not aware of any court cases dealing specifically with statues I am fairly certain that the courts would rule very quickly that the act of erecting and/or maintaining certain statues for political reasons is quite clearly sending a message and is thus speech. And that is exactly why they had to come down: the message that they were sending was no longer accurately speaking for the people (municipalities) who owned them and were maintaining them. Feb 7, 2021 at 14:01
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    It may not answer the question literally, but it address the point of view the OP was trying to put over. Since it was more a piece of polemic disguised as a question anyway.
    – RedSonja
    Feb 7, 2021 at 16:29
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    It would be like using Korematsu to explain that it's not a 4th amendment violation to indefinitely imprison citizens without trial. I've retracted the DV though. Feb 8, 2021 at 4:28

The original conception of Liberalism as set out in the 17th and 18th centuries — this is usually referred to as Classical Liberalism — was primarily about the relationship between government and property. People who gathered and developed materials from the natural world, as the theory goes, had a natural right to the fruits of that effort. Locke's way of putting it was that the material a person gathers and develops through labor are a property of that person, in the same sense that (say) one talks about 'weight' as a property of a material object, which is where we get the term 'property' we use today. Proper government is obliged to respect that natural right of property as though it were a natural law, and the only way to accomplish that is to enshrine certain property rights as sacrosanct through constitutional provisions.

In other words, we must construct a set of rules that transcend power — a literal constitution, a theoretical social contract, a law of the market, etc. — so that individuals are not deprived of their individual properties.

This was the main thrust of the US Constitution. The Founders, as the first group to try and construct a 'Liberal' government from scratch, created a system in which power is distributed and limited through checks and balances between competing branches and particular offices, all based on democratic institutions. The whole idea was to create a structure which would keep any individual or faction from getting hold of overwhelming political power, power which could in turn be applied to deprive citizens of their property. This was all that was contained in the Constitution when it was ratified in 1788.

People quickly realized this was insufficient. Well, actually, many of the Founders realized this was insufficient at the time they drafted the Constitution, but forged ahead (I imagine) to get the job done rather than spend years hashing out problematic details. The Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the constitution — weren't ratified for another eleven years, but they shored up some of the more gaping holes in the original document. The First Amendment in particular blocked the government from interfering with the exercise of individual rights of expression, on the grounds that tyrants almost invariably move to stifle speech, assembly, and religious freedom: controlling those aspects of life is an essential step to controlling a population and securing power.

So, Freedom of Speech was a safeguard built into the Constitution to prevent a tyrannical government from silencing voices of opposition. It is explicitly meant to keep political leaders from stifling people who want to defend their rights against illiberal law and policy. The First Amendment does not say anything about the speech of private citizens, except that they are allowed to speak against the actions of the government if they so choose. Technically speaking, the First Amendment only applies to political speech: i.e., speech aimed at establishing or removing law, policy, elected and appointed officials, etc., but historically the courts have taken a wide berth on the issue, generally supporting the exercise of speech except where speech presents a clear and present danger to other citizens. In that sense, Liberal societies generally tolerate illiberal speech from private citizens. And so yes: we are free to argue for tyranny if we are dissatisfied with democratic governance.

But here we get to the heart of the matter. We are free to argue for tyranny, but within a Liberal structure we must convince other citizens to embrace tyranny with us, so that tyranny can be established in a properly democratic manner. Nothing stops a liberal democracy from freely choosing to throw over democracy and become tyrannical. Metaphorically, tyranny is welcome to come in openly by the front door, but we take many safeguards to keep it from sneaking in from the back. This is where the 'cancel culture' concept starts to look peculiar. Consider:

  • There's no violation of the First Amendment: the government is not stopping these people from speaking...
  • There's no outright effort to silence these people: they can and do find forums to express themselves ad nauseam...
  • There are opponents, but not oppressors: the ideas these people think are being 'canceled' meet with vocal opposition from certain citizens, but those people also have a right to free expression, so that hardly seems problematic...

So it seems that the real complaint behind the 'cancel culture' concept isn't that these people aren't allowed to express themselves. The complaint is that other private citizens don't seem to want to listen. But that's not a constitutional issue. We are guaranteed a right to speech free of government interference, but we are not guaranteed rights to a sympathetic audience. The fact that they've framed this as 'canceling' speaks volumes: a TV show gets cancelled when audiences tune in and then tune out; an idea gets 'cancelled' when people hear it and reject it. The issue isn't that these conservative voices are being 'cancelled' by some nefarious collective agent; the issue (as best I can see) is that the ideas they offer don't hold anything of lasting value or interest to people who've heard them. Why other people don't find anything of value in them is an open and speculative question — some positions are distasteful, some are ill-considered, some are insane, some are inane, and some just don't catch on: c'est la vie... — but no one can effectively claim the right to demand attention from people who aren't interested, which is all that this 'cancel culture' talk boils down to.

The idea that one of the most powerful people on the planet — a member of the US House of Representatives — is being 'cancelled' because people are sick and tired of the delusional nonsense she's been spouting is patently ridiculous. She's had her say, and everyone else has moved on. If she's going to stick to these particular guns, she should expect a lot of doors slammed in her face. That is one of the more frequent consequences of free speech.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Feb 5, 2021 at 19:31
  • RE: "Locke's way of putting it was ..., which is where we get the term 'property' we use today" Note: neither Locke nor his Labor Theory of Property are where we get the term 'property', as that term preceded him by several centuries. Feb 9, 2021 at 13:44
  • @RBarryYoung: You misunderstood my point. Yes, the term 'property' — in the sense of "weight is a property of matter" — predates Locke. But Locke took that concept of natural science and applied it to human beings, asserting that ownership is a 'property' of human beings in the 'natural sciences' sense. Now we say "that is my property" — meaning "I own that" — without grokking it comes from Locke's effort at scientific philosophy. Feb 9, 2021 at 15:00
  • @TedWrigley Yes, I am familiar with Locke and his novel (for the times) ideas expressed in the Labor Theory of Property. However, that meaning of property as in "my property" meaning something (usually material) that a person or persons owns was already in use. The OED dates that meaning and usage of "property" to the 13th century and it's Latin source word (proprium) was used similarly even earlier. What was new in Locke's Labor Theory of Property was not that usage/meaning of the word property but rather his argument that laboring justified the claim of property. Feb 9, 2021 at 18:21
  • @RBarryYoung: ok, fair enough. Feb 9, 2021 at 19:44

In essence, these ideas are being rejected from mainstream liberal society without good faith argument

That is the key though: these ideas are not presented in good faith, so they cannot be debated in good faith.

The axiom of the liberal political system is that collecting all ideas and debating them leads to the best outcome, basically "it's best if we all think together".

The concept of free speech is derived from this axiom -- thinking together works by unhindered communication -- but finds its limits where the communication itself is designed to disturb the consensus finding process.

The thing with political processes is that they aren't layered. There is no distinction between political debate and debate on the rules of political debate -- it's politics all the way down, and political goals are more often than not reached not by presenting the best ideas, but by steering the debate.

There is no way to formulate hard and fast rules to determine whether particular speech is a good faith contribution to the debate, or an attempt to hinder it, but a general understanding that any rules we place on speech will be gamed by bad faith actors and used to hinder consensus building, and that is where our reluctance to place limits on speech comes from.

The absence of rules means that we cannot expect speech to be policed, but instead need to call out bad faith arguments as we see them. One such argument is treating free speech itself as axiomatic, as a justification for disrupting the free exchange of ideas by filling the "marketplace" with noise -- as said, the rules of political debate are themselves political.


My question is, does pure liberalism extend personal freedoms of speech to ideals [...]?

No. Ideals, i.e. abstract concepts, don't have rights. Humans have rights.

I just wanted to point this out, because even if it seems like a trivial mistake in your question, I have seen this quite often before. It's completely legitimate to wage war on an ideal, it's not legitimate to wage war on those who might or might not share such and such ideal. See other answers for details.

  • Humans don't have rights either, but some of them invented the fiction that they do, and that fiction seems to be widely believed - especially by people who think that "having rights" will benefit them.
    – alephzero
    Feb 8, 2021 at 1:09
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    @alephzero There is an implied 'within the framework of liberalism' that I didn't spell out in my answer.
    – Nobody
    Feb 8, 2021 at 10:24

The answer to this question (since it seems it won't be clarified any further) is simply that there's no such thing known as "pure liberalism", in most people's conception anyway. Yeah, this is a bit of a "no true Scotsman" answer, but it's a fact of life that liberalism is a somewhat nebulous concept.

In (political) philosophy, a distinction has been made between liberalism as a political doctrine (PL) and liberalism as a comprehensive (personal) doctrine (CD); see Rawls for instance.

It's the former (PL) on which the constitutional arrangements of the US are roughly based. Such a political conception allows for varying other CDs, which may not be liberal to a good extent. And this is why for instance US constitution is only concerned with restrictions on speech that (state) authorities may impose.

In the context of CD liberalism, illiberalism (in an majority-liberal country/community) is basically seen as a free-riding problem. (See SEP's section liberal ethics for instance.) Reducing illiberalism by economic means is thus "fair game" to (many) CD liberals. But as with any personal philosophies, there are trade-offs and gradients.

To pick one aspect--slave-labor-- (around which there's not much disagreement that in itself is utterly illiberal), this CD liberalism gradient is something like:

  • should you buy a product built with slave-labor?
  • should you (waste your time=money to) listen to a speech advocating slave-labor?
  • should you buy a product if the profits go towards advocating slave-labor is ok?
  • should you buy a book that glorifies past slave-labor without endorsing it in the present/future?
  • should you buy a book that white-washes (or merely glosses over) past slave-labor in its treatement of historical events?
  • in age of "user-base [data] is money", should you (less directly) enrich with your participation a social media enterprise that allows its use for the above purposes, but is ostensibly free for you to use?
  • should [your] taxes be used to support any of the above, e.g. through state grants or just use of public land...?
  • assuming your CD also allows for some trade tariffs between countries, should your country support any of the above more indirectly by not financially penalizing trade with another country that does some or all of the above?
  • (or more broadly) if your contry is in some form of (revesible) political-economic union with another, should you advocate for loosening or severing that union when [the majority of the population in] another country starts to do the above?
  • if overthrowing slavery by violence is justified, should you financially support doing so in a foreign country?

Basically, as a matter of personal take on justice (i.e. CD), which of the above measures do you consider proportional with goal of preventing slavery?

Frankly, most of the serious discussions surrounding liberalism center on the more extreme (CD) aspects, like "just war". This was a topic of interest even to the earliest liberals, e.g. J.S. Mill argued (albeit in an era when imperialism was more en vogue) that "barbaric" foreign governments need not be treated as governments at all. If you put that (view) in balance with not buying a burger, the latter sounds like a really trivial thing... (Somewhat related, Mill was also much more in favor of extending suffrage to [educated] women than to the uneducated/poor [of any sex], as he feared the latter would compromise the strive towards a liberal society.)


The support for LGBTQ rights originally came from the left, rather than the right and so it's a surprise to see it so firmly entrenched that an attack on it is said to come from the left. Toppling statues are an example of of non-violent direct actions that certain advocacy groups have been known for, such as Greenpeace or more recently, XR Rebellion.

Liberalism advocates space for dissenting opinion, including dissent from liberalism; but in this case, in so far as they do not endanger the liberal institutions of society. Toppling statues does not come under endangering liberal institutions whilst a president along with his senatorial base calling presidential elections to be fraudulent without presenting any serious evidence for such and when fifty such cases have been thrown out of court is a clear and present danger to liberal democracy.

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    I'm not sure what you're referring to with the first sentence?
    – Bobson
    Feb 5, 2021 at 16:12
  • @Bobson: Ken Livingstone, gor example, was well known, when a member of London's council as supporting LGBTQ rights and which the then newspapers described as just another loony left idea. I happened once to go by a Gay Pride event in London once whete some of the celebrants had clambered up onto a monument with a sign stating "Far Right". Feb 5, 2021 at 16:17
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Feb 5, 2021 at 19:54

Yes, it does.

Simply put, yes, the so-called "paradox" of liberalism requiring it to allow people to propose illiberal ideas is a fundamental part of its makeup. Without it, you will inevitably drift into an illiberal tyranny, either on the Right or the Left, depending on who you censor for being "illiberal" - either censoring the Right and winding up in a communist state, or censoring the Left and winding up in a fascist state.

As the famous saying goes, the heart of liberalism is "I might disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." By imposing restrictions on freedom of speech, you undermine the core value that keeps liberal democracy functioning in the first place. Without the ability of every person to freely express themselves, you simply have some flavor of authoritarianism, by definition.

Some people will say that the First Amendment only covers government control over freedom of speech, but that was because the First Amendment was written when only the government had the centralized power to control and censor personal speech - now, with the Internet, that power has also been given to private corporations, and it should apply just as much to them, as well. The US Constitution was a working document and was intended to be changed over time to adjust for changes in the society we live in.

To insist that your personal pet peeve is so important that people who disagree with you must be censored is to advocate for the creation of an authoritarian state that favors your personal political views, regardless of what side of politics you adhere to.

Sure, it's possible that allowing the expression of illiberal ideas might convince a critical mass of people to advocate for creating an illiberal government - but censoring them will definitely create an illiberal government, so hearing them express their views is a price that must be paid.

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    Not my downvote, but I dispute your claim that "the First Amendment was written when only the government had the centralized power to control and censor personal speech". Disseminating your ideas required getting them printed by a press, or published in a newspaper. They clearly had no problem with, for example, The New York Post "censoring" the ideas of anti-federalists by refusing to print their articles. If there's a new problem today, it's the monopoly power Twitter and Facebook et al have acquired, but just as if one newspaper had a monopoly in a city, the monopoly is the problem.
    – divibisan
    Feb 5, 2021 at 18:33
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    So we're required to have a television channel that plays "Baby Shark" over and over, because that's one possible permutation of "speech" and we have to have all of them? Not only that, but you are required to watch it, while also simultaneously watching all other channels.... Feb 5, 2021 at 22:10

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