As Caitlyn Jenner hysteria fades into the background, I have to ask once more why it matters so much to so many adult human beings what another adult human being wants to be called. If I know you as Steve the Human Resources Guy and you ask me one day to start calling you Chip, or Donald, or Marilyn, or Xerxes, or Puff the Magic Dragon, then we have a very simple social transaction to complete. Recognizing that I've called you "Steve" for a while – possibly a very long time – you will agree to cut me a tiny bit of slack if I forget and call you "Steve" in the next few weeks. In return, I'll call you whatever you want to be called. The odds are pretty good if you're in HR that I haven't been calling you "Steve" much anyway.

This is a simple issue because you and I are not life partners or family members or passionate lovers or close friends or even casual friends. We just work together. That's it. You don't give me input on my life decisions and I don't give you input on yours, absent of course one of us asking for it. We're people who have been brought together by coincidence to share a workplace. We will pass each other in the hall, exchange perfunctory greetings, and perhaps have some small talk. That is the extent of our interactions.
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Accordingly it doesn't much matter to me whether I say "Hi Steve" or "Hi Donna" as I shuffle past you toward the bathroom for my Post-Chipotle Constitutional. Some people you know will find your choice weird. Some won't. Some people will be supportive. Some won't. That's life and none of it matters in the slightest because we just work together.

My university just had its first transgender faculty member make the change (or whatever you'd call it) in the past few months and there has been no shortage of commentary from the workforce here. Most of it has been supportive. Supportive or otherwise, though, I can't figure out why anyone has an opinion on it at all. Ditto Jenner. The decisions of people like celebrities or co-workers are about as relevant to your life as the weather on Venus. It matters as much to me whether Former Olympian Bruce Jenner decides to don a dress and be Caitlyn as it does if instead he decided to remain Bruce and dye his hair purple. You want to be a woman now? Cool. Knock yourself out. You and I are never going to meet, so who gives a shit what I think? Why would I waste time thinking anything at all?

I don't mean to come off as unsupportive. My point is merely that unless the decision affects me directly somehow – for example, if I was married to a woman and she decided she was going to become a man I'd be justified in having an opinion on that, despite not having any control over what happened – I don't even want to waste my time formulating opinions about it. It accomplishes nothing. It's just fodder for people to sit around and gossip and say "Oh did you hear about ____? What do you think?" If that conversation was about someone's choice of hairstyle we would all recognize it as petty and unproductive. Yet when the change is something "bigger" and less familiar to us, suddenly everyone is forthcoming with their two cents.
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Why? If we're all going to sit around and pontificate on things we find Weird about our professional colleagues I hope the guy with the "More Guns = Less Crime!" bumper sticker and the secretary who thinks angels are real get a comfortable seat because this is going to take a while.

36 thoughts on “WE JUST WORK TOGETHER”

  • I feel like it's normal and probably healthy that we discuss things that are unusual. I believe it must be a part of what society is. We are constantly monitoring the response to our behavior and modulating it based on feedback from our immediate peer-group and an ever-expanding circle of people with whom we share a society. Sometimes we do things to provoke reaction. Other times we modify our behavior to avoid provoking reaction. It's part of what a society is. From this process arise mores, principles, traditions, codes of conduct, social norms, etc.

    So the first time you saw two gay men kiss, you probably discussed it with some people in an effort to determine a) how they felt about it so that b) you could determine how you felt about it. Ditto any social situation that was abnormal.

    Being pissy about the fact that this is what humans do seems like wasted effort to me. People just don't go around changing their name one day after many years. It's unusual. So people will discuss and try to determine what they think about it and what others think about it. Such conversations may mitigate knee-jerk reactions born of ignorance and fear of the unknown, and for that reason and others I think they are important.

  • As one of your transgender readers, bravo. Fuckin' A.

    Seriously, I don't ask what's in your pants, don't ask what's in mine. I don't care what you want to do in the bathroom — I just want to pee in peace.

  • @SeaTea has a good point. We notice the unusual. Once we see unusual things regularly enough they become usual and we say "Is that so?" and move on.

  • (And it will be a good thing when that happens – This is all old hat for some of us. But not for everyone. We'll get there probably?)

  • To clarify, I'm not really sensitive about people asking questions. When the Caitlyn Jenner news broke — and most of us in the male-to-female community had figured out she was transgender a couple of years ago, I mean, the trans-dar was pinging non-stop — everyone wanted to ask me "what do you think about Caitlyn Jenner?" It's OK. I get that. I was happy to talk about the news.

    And everyone wants to tell me about their "friend who's transgender." OK, that's fine, too.

    People have the right to ask questions or talk about something unusual. They don't have the right, after the fact, to tell me I'm wrong. You don't want to be my friend/co-worker/acquaintance? Okey-doke. Just go fuck off over there. You leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone.

    Seriously, this ain't rocket science.

  • Technically the term is that they announced that they were planning to "transition in the workplace".

    As for the rest, individually I agree with you. I don't get why anyone thinks trans* people or married gays or poodle owners or people with purple hair need their approval.

    However, as a transgender person I can say that it's not an issue of approval as much as it is about safety. For every five awkward "congrats" emails that Steve from HR is getting there is someone out there thinking that Steve doesn't deserve to live. For whatever reason. I'm guessing it has something to do with "I have a very small world view and this causes me to question one of my fundamental understandings about male/female/pink/blue/ESPN/Lifetime".

    There have been 17 trans-related hate crimes documented so far this year. That's only the ones that are documented. I personally suspect the real number is at least double, if not triple that. That's to say nothing of suicide and depression statistics.

    What workplace transition emails like that are doing, really, are saying "Institutionally you will be in big trouble if you try to kill me. And if you so much as get publicly crazy about it you might be fired. So everyone please be grown up non-psychopaths and call me Donna instead of Steve and move on with your lives." Also, I suggest sending a quick, supportive message to the person, even if you don't know them. It's a nice way to say "I will probably intervene if I see someone hitting you with a crow bar in the parking lot".

  • This is a great example of why I think "celebrating identity" is a gigantic social minefield. You can never really know for sure how another person feels about their identity – race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity etc. As with politics and religion, I think discussions of identity are ideally kept out of the workplace altogether, and reserved for discussion in private, among friends and family. So, in other words, if Steve one day announces that it's Donna from now on, that's where the discussion should end.

  • I think the question "Why, the fuck, do you care?" should be asked and an answer demanded more often in life.

  • I'll just note that I do have difficulty when expression doesn't match pronoun.

    That is, if you want to be called Girlgirl instead of Ed, I will accommodate. If your presentation is masculine, though, I have a tough time using the pronoun "she", even if that's the one you've menttioned you prefer. Your name? That's for you. But the 3rd person pronouns are for other people. It's best if gender expression matches pronoun, and it's not a judgment about you or me or anything.

    (Note: I think Tagalog uses a non-gendered pronoun—siya—in this case. If I were transitioning from Tagalog to English, and was struggling, I would probably use only one pronoun—he or she or it. But my m-i-l had a different approach—choose at random, often switching for the same subject within a sentence. It was hard for me to follow. Likewise, if Caitlin wants to present and identify as female, but to request male pronouns, I will be unlikely to accommodate.)

  • Ed, I don't think I entirely agree with you here.

    I agree on the "why the fuck should I care" from a personal perspective. Unless you're romantically involved with someone, it shouldn't matter what genitals they have, what they like to do with them, or who they identify as.

    But I disagree with the "there's no point to having an opinion on Caitlyn Jenner" side of things. I'm very anti-celebrity culture, and personally, I don't really give a shit what Jenner does. But the fact is that she's the highest-profile person to publicly transition, and as such, she's both a bellwether of national opinion regarding trans people and an agent of change. You know there's some teenager out there questioning their gender identity and seeing that maybe trans people can be treated normally so things aren't as bad as they seem. And there's probably some middle manager who thought that all trans people are freakish drag queens who might treat the first trans person he (knowingly) meets a little better.

    I get what you're trying to say, but I just think you go a little too far. It sounds like saying "I'm not racist, so what's the point of holding an opinion on Ferguson?" Ideally, Caitlyn Jenner or Steve in HR wouldn't mean much, because their gender identity has no impact on the lives of virtually anyone else. But unfortunately, we don't live in that utopia.

  • @ J.D. has a rather good point–namely, that Ed's attitude (which is mine) is premature. It's good that our view towards the status of the transgendered, or towards gay marriage, or any of the other recent moments of social progress is "Unless it involves me or someone I love directly, who gives a shit?" (Also: "And if it DOES involve me or someone I love directly, do whatever you want–as long as it makes you happy and doesn't demonstrably harm anyone else, I'll be happy for you.")

    The face of tolerance is the face of benign indifference: "Good for you, now could you hurry up and finish–the rest of us would like to use the ATM, too." So, yeah, good for them, good for us.

    Only–holy SHIT do folks like us not represent the entirety of society. Our response of "Who gives a shit?" is, God willing, where we will all end up someday. But unfortunately, the answer to "Who gives a shit?" isn't "Nobody." It's "A bunch of reactionary assholes who will do horrible things, legislatively, culturally, and even physically to those they regard as aberrant."

    Benign indifference is excellent if all your co-workers are likewise so. But if there's someone in your office who isn't, who likes making hateful jokes–or outright threats–at the expense of the transgendered co-worker, well, we can't just shrug and say "Who gives a shit?" We have to say "I give a shit–I give a shit very much–not that this person is transgendered, or not–about that I couldn't care less–but about whether or not this person has the right to BE transgendered and not catch shit for it. I give a shit, because unfortunately, YOU give a shit, and the shit that you give is hateful and hurtful and generally, well, shitty."

    (Side note: I've used up my allotments of "shit" for the week.)

    That's not to say that we start to give out high-fives and supportive hugs to strangers who happen to be transgendered–that's a kind of harassment of support that nobody needs, thanks–but when bigotry arises–and it ALWAYS does–then, yeah, we have to have an opinion, even if that opinion is, "Let her do what she wants, and shut the fuck up about it. My opinion is that Ms. Jenner is a person entitled to live her life according to her values and identity, and inasmuch as her doing so is proof that we're a society that permits that freedom, then, yeah, it's a good thing–not that she's DOING it–that's value-neutral–but that she GETS to do it, yeah, that's awesome. I don't support her in WHAT she chooses to do, because that's not my place. But I support the HELL out of her choosing, because that's called 'being fundamentally decent.' Now shut the fuck up and go jerk off to Leviticus."

    So, yeah, what J.D. said, basically.


  • Frankly, I think all trans people are fucking courageous, and that's a big deal to me.

    I'm glad Caitlyn Jenner was on the cover of Vanity Fair. Along the same lines, I'm glad Honey Maid graham crackers had an ad campaign saying "this is wholesome" re: relationships like mine.

    I'm glad Jan Morris wrote her book, because that was my first real exposure to a trans voice.

    I also must confess that sometimes I feel awkward around (non-passing) trans people. I feel awkward because I feel a real responsibility to be 110% normal. I know that trans people have to deal with a lot of small-minded people who are uncomfortable with trans folks, and I don't want anyone to feel like they are getting that from me. But that makes me very self-conscious, you see…

    I remember once I was in a Borders, and I needed to ask an employee a question. So I went up to the nearest clerk and said, "excuse me," and when she turned around I realized two things:

    a. she's trans. Hey, that's kind of cool. And it must not be easy being trans in the Bible Belt, so, you know, more power to you, sister.


    "A" was not a big deal. "B" normally wouldn't have made me self-conscious. I'm not a fucking 12 year old. I *can* talk to good-looking people without acting like a moron. But when I know that any sign of self-conscious behavior will likely be read as yet another tiresome example of pervasive bigotry…

    I mean, what the hell am I supposed to say? "Sorry, miss- it's not that you're trans. Cis women make me uncomfortable too. We cool?"

  • I remember back in the late 1960s just after Loving v Virginia*, one of my older sisters commenting that she didn't approve. Mixed race couples would have mixed race children, and how would they know what side to be on when the race war comes?

    She's gotten better. My own experience of coming to terms with my own sexuality has helped me understand the process – if it took me as long as it did, despite an overwhelming personal interest in accepting it, I can't really fault other people for not accepting it immediately. I think part of the whackaloon reaction to Jenner was because, for some cis straight men, she represented Successful Masculinity; sports star, successful in business, married to a beautiful woman. If she felt strongly enough about it to transition, perhaps part of what they believed in wasn't really true.

    *I didn't know about that at the time, but I'll never forget her saying that at the dinner table.

  • I'm going to chime in and draw some connections. I think the "who cares?" attitude that Ed advocates in this post is *aspirationally* correct, in that we can all hope for a future where that is the expected and appropriate answer.

    But what it reminds me of most is the series of disingenuous, mostly-right-wing responses to minorities and the minority-rights fights we've had recently: "why are you asking for special treatment, I'm color-blind"; "I don't support gay marriage because I think the government should get out of the marriage business entirely"; "*all* lives matter"; "I just don't want gay people to be so in-your-face about the fact that they're gay", etc, etc. On the surface, relatively innocuous and difficult to argue with, but deep down problematic because they couch changes to the status quo—a status quo in which the speaker usually holds one or more relevant forms of privilege—as a sort of "special treatment" rather than as an effort to counter historic and ongoing inequality.

    If it helps, you can view the supportive comments as being less an opinion (positive or negative) on Donna from HR and more an opinion (positive or negative) on being in a workplace, culture, and country where Donna from HR can exist, safely.

    (Also, it's funny that the "Steve from HR" example is what we all latched onto to refer back to your story, when you so clearly tell us that the relevant person in your case is a faculty member! ;)

  • I wanted to write something like "humans = social species = are gonna gossip, that's how it is, for better or for worse", but SeaTea has already made the point. Indeed not wanting to (be seen to) have an opinion that isn't approved by the majority of one's peers is a fundamental human instinct, so yes, one has to constantly check what they are thinking on, well, everything.

  • My only issue with Bruce Jenner transitioning to Caitlin Jenner is that s/he decided to do it as a reality show. Really, it's none of my business and I truly don't give a shit one way or the other but I don't need to see it on TV and other media day after day like a carny freak show.

    I have a client who transitioned from young adult woman to young adult man several years ago. He's a great person and clearly comfortable and happier in his new skin and I am happy for him because I like him (and his mom and their dogs). But it wasn't a public transition, it was private.

    And Jenner should have, IMHO, had exercised the same discretion with hers.

  • I found the Caitlyn Jenner cover of Vanity Fair a bit jarring just because Bruce Jenner has been in the public spotlight for such a long time. I remember his winning the Olympic decathlon in 1976 and I actually saw some of "Can't Stop the Music" although I walked out before it was over because I couldn't stop the music. I won't be watching her reality show just because I'm tired of the attention given to the whole Jenner/Kardashian clan (I don't generally watch reality shows anyway).

    I'm surprised I haven't heard Chastity/Chaz Bono mentioned in light of the Caitlyn Jenner issue. Do any of you have thoughts about how his public transition compares with Jenner's?

  • Chaz never that big of a star and he wasn't conventionally "attractive" enough to garner this level of attention.

    J. Dryden, you mean J. D. isn't you, using a different platform (e.g. mobile device vs. computer)?

    RosiesDad, what is the difference between your opinion and asking gay couples to keep their relationships private? Is there a different harm in making a reality show about transitioning that isn't also present in every other reality show?

    And Ed, no one "decides to be a wo/man". They decide to come out and publicly transition to the person they've always been.

  • Part-time Jedi says:

    I think the reason why so many people freak our about people who are transgender (even though they are a tiny portion of the population, and their choices have no direct impact on the lives of others) is that transgenderism is the ultimate nail in the coffin of traditional gender roles. If someone can be born with male genitalia, but identify as a woman and become recognized as one in her community, then there is literally no reason to prevent or ridicule women from running companies or fixing toilets or having sexual agency, nor is there reason to prevent or ridicule men for being stay-at-home dads or earning less than their female partners.

    There are unfortunately a LOT of people who benefit from patriarchy, and they have a vested interest in making sure gender roles persist.

  • I understand why Ed is annoyed, but I'm inclined to cut his coworkers some slack.

    Whether we like it or not, gender roles are deeply rooted in our society. No matter how enlightened you are, you've been immersed in sexual stereotyping since infancy. Girls wear pink and play with dolls, boys wear blue and play with cars, et cetera.

    Transgender people are shaking that up in a clearly visible way. It's OK to need some time to process that. Talking about individual transgender people is a way of doing so.

    Celebrities are particularly useful because they make convenient, impersonal examples. Probably everyone in the conversation has heard of them, and no one knows them personally. They are familiar but you have emotional distance from them, as you talk about their adoption of a new sex/religion/hairstyle. And let's face it, we all get bored at work now and then and it's a way of passing the time.

    Eventually, transgendering (is that a verb?) will fade into the background — similarly to how a celebrity coming out as gay was a Big Deal 20 years ago, but nowadays mostly elicits shrugs.

    Ed has just reached the stage of enlightened shrugging earlier than most people, for which I congratulate him.

  • "There are unfortunately a LOT of people who benefit from patriarchy, and they have a vested interest in making sure gender roles persist."

    And this is exactly how TERFs rationalize their hate toward trans folk. The pseudo-feminists argue that transgenderism legitimates traditional gender roles- that instead of transitioning, Caitlyn Jenner should have said, "I am a man, I am Bruce, but I'm going to wear a dress anyway."

    It's also bizarre to me that the TERFs (trans-exclusive radical feminists) always seem to say, "I'm not trans-exclusive! How DARE you say something so hateful and mysoginistic! I'm not trans-exclusive at all. I merely feel that trans people should be excluded."

    I mean, I'm used to racists saying "I don't hate anybody- I just love white people." But this is like a white supremacist saying, "How dare you call me a white supremacist! I am no such thing- I merely believe in the natural and obvious supremacy of the white race."

    Honest to God, sometimes I wonder if Ms. Magazine and all that other crap isn't a CIA plot to destroy feminism. I mean, it's not like it hasn't happened before.

  • My only beef with transgender people is that they get to CHOOSE their name in their new gender. I think they should have a name they hate forced on them by their parents like the rest of us.

    I mean, my name is Ben, if I wanted to be called Bruce nobody would do it, but if I get a sex change and say I want to be called Dolly suddenly everyone gets on board.

  • @HoosierPoli: Not so. I realise you're joking, but Ed's whole point is that adults can call themselves what they want.

    I know a Korean guy whose parents named him Jung. In his twenties, he decided he wanted an English name, so he started calling himself Eric. A few years later, he decided his Korean name wasn't so bad after all, and asked people to call him Jung again. All this is perfectly fine, and it was none of my business what Jung/Eric wanted to be called.

    If you don't have any particular cultural or gender reasons for a name change, you may feel silly and awkward asking people to call you Bruce instead of Ben. That's your problem. But if you persevere and make it clear you want to be known as Bruce, people should damn well call you Bruce.

  • Now I think of it, a better analogy for Ed's state of being may be interracial marriage.

    Suppose Steve from HR is a white guy who's got engaged to a black woman named Mary. I'd shrug and say hey, good for them, I hope they are happy together. What if George from Accounting starts making a big deal about Mary being black, and how strange and unusual this marriage is? I'd think he was pretty weird, possibly racist, and definitely wasting everyone's time.

    Here's the thing. 50 years ago, maybe even 20 in some places, shock and confusion at interracial marriage would have been pretty normal. It takes time for social change to settle in and become unremarkable.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Opinions are like assholes.
    Everybody's got them.

    You don't show your asshole to everyone, so, don't be an asshole, and opine to everyone on subjects that don't effect you – and, especially, subject you know nothing about.

    That's not too difficult now, is it?

  • Ursula: I don't think it's an issue of harm, it's an issue of being obnoxious about seeking the public spotlight. I don't know any gay couples who look to advertise their relationship status in the media; they live their lives like every other couple, whether gay or hetero. Jenner's need to make a public display is one of two things–either a blatant desire to cash in on his situation or a desire to take some of the limelight away from his daughter and stepdaughters. Or maybe a bit of both. Regardless, it seems to me that there is some sort of sad psychological pathology at work here.

  • A coworker can be held at a distance, no real threat to a comfort zone. People who get bent out of shape over those who don't effect them need to recheck their sensitivity. When a family member transgenders, they must not be held at a distance, they're always family. Though if they think you're squicked out, they may hold you at a distance.

  • GunstarGreen says:

    On the interpersonal level, yes, the correct response to whether someone wants to change their hair color, or change their name, or change their gender, is "Who gives a shit?"

    But it is disingenuous to liken gender transitioning to hair color transitioning. Those two things are not at all comparable, not with the way our society presently works.

    We have male restrooms, and female restrooms, and unisex restrooms. If a male walks into a female restroom, he gets in trouble. If a male transitions to a female and walks into a female restroom, she no longer gets in trouble (generally speaking).

    Athletic events are gender-segregated, and are so because there are very clear athletic performance differences between the genders. It is not fair competition to put female runners up against male runners, or female fighters up against male fighters, etc. Bruce Jenner competed in olympic events for males and won medals in the past. Now she is Caitlynn Jenner. Is she no longer elegible to compete in events for which she has already won medals? MMA fighting has had similar issues as of late, with male-to-female transgendered persons competing against cis females in the ring. Suffice it to say, the transgendered fighter usually wins handily. Is this still a fair competition?

    This is not a judgement one way or the other. I don't give a shit. But these are questions that society must come to an agreement as to how to answer. Changing your hair color does not raise these sorts of questions.

  • Urban/rural.
    Commenters here are "urban." They know that the world is wondrous large and that they are not in charge.
    People who still have a "rural-small village" view think their opinions count and that their will must be enforced.
    All anyone can do is to discourage the use of force and wait 'em out.

  • Skepticalist says:

    It's impossible to avoid being told just how interested I should be with Caitlyn Jenner. It was but only because of her fame. Media has been making it less so every day. I need to be reminded of it.

  • I'm OK with Caitlin being out as transgender and even being on the cover of a magazine. The important thing it does is let thousands of young people know that they're not the only one. That's a horrible feeling.

    When I was growing up in the '50s, I knew I liked boys and not girls. But I thought I was alone. I grew up in a very, very Irish Catholic community and knew no "normal" gay people. There were one or two "fairies" in town. Everyone knew who they were. They were over-the-top nellie queens that flailed their limp wrists and minced around. They were objects of ridicule. That's not what I was and not what I wanted to be, but there were no positive role models. So, in my mind, my two choices were to remain closeted or become an object of ridicule (and violence).

    However, while I appreciate Jenner's openness, I draw the line at calling her "courageous." She risked nothing. She wasn't going to lose her job. She was already a multi-millionaire. She was already an object of ridicule for jumping onto the Kardashian Circus Wagon. There was no downside for her in coming out.

    The Vanity Fair cover was kind of unfair because it set up an unachievable ideal for 95 percent of other transgender people. Jake, the 45-year-old who works down at the Jiffy Lube, can't afford the $2 to $3 million it takes to look like Caitlin, and he probably couldn't anyway. He could lose his job. He could be assaulted. He's not going to be on the cover of any magazine. When and if he transitions, that will be courageous. He will be putting everything on the line. He has a lot to lose. Caitlin — not so much.

  • One thing about Jenner's situation – she could not have transitioned privately. For better or worse, she was a celebrity.* If she had attempted to revert to Private Citizen, that would have increased media scrutiny to an even more unhealthy level. She took as much control of the process as possible.

    I do not envy the famous their fame. From what I have seen, it would often be experienced as everyone around you suddenly going mad.

    *Loosely defined as people who are well-known for being well-known.

  • An alternative explanation for why the general public is so consumed and transfixed by the issue of identity (sexual, political, celebrity, etc.) is that, as sensing (but no longer thinking) human beings, we can feel our identities slipping away. The first modern statement of resistance is probably Number 6 from the 1960s TV show The Prisoner. "I am not a number; I am a free man!" In the course of the next 50 years, the individual has been diminished only that much more. Plus, we’re newly aware that dossiers are kept on us by our betters working for numerous agencies and institutions: schools, governments, social media, and corporation, all of which surveil us for evidence of misbehavior and/or mine big data to exploit our consumer behaviors. We have all observed reckless individuals struggling valiantly to be someone of importance or relevance. Yet most of us have the dispiriting experience of being lost in all the noise, sometimes wondering why we're alive at all. So at the same time we don’t really care much (nor should we) about others’ peculiarities other than from a social conformity perspective (“is it OK to be this or that?” or “is it OK for me to approve/disapprove of this or that?”), our fascination with those who project strong identities, even transgressive ones, helps us to retain and buttress our own identities that are being steadily eroded.

  • Rude Pundit has a good take, in the context of Shaun King.

    Because, see, as Republicans are forced to respond to Black Lives Matter, the organization is validated as a real force, and that means its issues will have to be discussed. And once its issues are discussed, then solutions will have to be proposed (whether or not those solutions occur).

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