TED Conversations

Alice Dreger

Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

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LIVE TED Conversation: Join TED Speaker Alice Dreger

LIVE conversation with Alice Dreger, TED Speaker, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics, and patient advocate.

The conversation will open at 1 PM (Eastern Standard Time), June 28, 2011 with the question:

The recent passage of gay marriage rights in New York demonstrates what I talked about in my TED lecture -- the steady historical movement away from dividing people based on anatomical differences. What do you think our democracy is going to look like in the future, given the ways that we're increasingly able to see anatomical complexity (variations on categories we thought were simple) and able to change our bodies?

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Closing Statement from Alice Dreger

My thanks to all of you who joined this conversation. Many of you were hitting on the very things I struggle with: What do we make of our animal natures (sometimes problematic natures), and the fact that they are overlaid with culture (sometimes problematic cultures)? Why do we seem to care so much about whether someone was "born that way" when we're thinking about rights? As we are more and more able to change our bodies, will human identity completely decouple from anatomy? How do we maintain (and foster) a biologically sophisticated feminism? My own feeling is that we cannot leave these issues to the people who are in power or who speak the loudest. We have to recognize these as the questions that are in many ways at the core of our democracy today.

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    Jun 28 2011: I suppose in an idealistic and hopeful world, anatomical differences will have positive effect on democracy. I sure hope that people who have lost a limb have the same equal governmental right and representation as those with all the limbs attached. Same goes with sexual orientation and racial mix. That all humans are treated as humans and the right to be human extend to everyone equally.

    To echo David Webber's note: I think the more difficult part of this movement will be one of tolerance more than governance. I grew up partly in Thailand. The country is famous for lady boys (among many other things). I was taught by my society at large that it is OK to be born a boy yet yearn to be a girl, and vice versa. There were lots of gays, lesbians, and trans-genders. It was quite normal, actually. When I moved to the US and saw that gays and lesbians weren't seen/treated in the same light it was quite perplexing.

    I can only guess that any homogenous society will be less tolerant of anyone who is different in any way. Once you have more variety in the mix (race, sex, culture, androids, etc), tolerance increases over time. That sounds positive.
    • Jun 28 2011: It does sound positive, but I think tolerance can actually increase from governance. Recognition and tolerance from government would encourage and establish a baseline of acceptance in the population that would increase over time. To get there in a democratic society however, a critical mass of tolerance must be reached among the population first.
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        Jun 28 2011: That's how a lot of civil rights for people of color worked. Why was the government then so progressive and brave, and today.....?
        • Jun 28 2011: I would guess that the economy is a factor. In times of stress it seems like people react instinctively with more hostility to perceived threats and embrace even the most irrational of ideas if promised rescue. It would be nice if there were a societal equivalent of anti-inflammatories.
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      Jun 28 2011: Thanks, Thanlya. Sociological data definitely supports your sense that exposure increases tolerance. It looks from the sociological and political science literature that it turns out people don't first believe gay people are "born that way" and then convert to gay rights. What happens is they know someone who is gay, convert to gay rights out of sympathy, and THEN come to believe gay people were "born that way."

      So this suggests (as we've seen with issues of racial differences) that exposure reduces anxiety. This is consistent with my studies of conjoined twins. I've noticed they almost all have opted to live in small towns. Coincidence? I don't think so. They end up saturating the population with familiarity, and their difference starts to fade into the background.
    • Jun 28 2011: In reality religion is at the core of the issue and is prolonging the suffering of others due to outdated fables based on an archaic understanding of the universe. Just look at how the authors of the texts describe sun "rises" and sun "sets" as opposed to "turning to the sun." But we still cling on. And the religions instruct us as a way of life: that man is the head of the house, that this type of sensation is an abomination and that gender roles clearly exist and anyone outside the scope of them is a mutation.
  • Jun 28 2011: Do other mammals (or genus, or any "other" category in the taxonomy) not struggle or categorize between "genders?" (I don't mean to demean your demolition of categorization)
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      Jun 28 2011: Hey, Moncef, I'm glad to hear someone thinking about us as animals. We are animals, after all. In general, animals don't have genders, they have sexes. That is to say, they don't have social roles based on sex that shift over time the way we do. They seem to be clued into sex difference because of sex. (Not too surprising.) Do they "struggle" the way we do? Interesting question! But I don't think they do. It is the case that male and female animals will sometimes take on the opposite sex role. This happens more often than we hear about because we tend to hear about average behavior.
      • Jun 28 2011: ? Don't they have roles based on their sex? The sex of any social animal seems to determine its role in several aspects aside from direct reproduction. Unlike us their roles are largely determined by biology and environmental pressure, and so less flexible.. Off the top of my head there's honey bees and hyenas. Perhaps I'm misreading what you mean.
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          Jun 28 2011: Hmm. You have me stumped. I was going to say that "role" implies some degree of conscious play acting, but obviously a lot of the way we perform the gender roles assigned to us by our cultures is subconscious. I guess I think of the animals as having "sex roles" and us as having "gender roles" because we have such a heavy overlay of learned culture on top of sex.
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          Jun 28 2011: Can you help me think about how you're defining "spiritual nature"? Can it have a biological basis?
      • Jun 28 2011: Thank you very much for your considerate answer.

        "they don't have social roles based on sex that shift over time the way we do."

        Could this be due to their inability to transmit culture beyond a few generations as they do not possess written language capabilities or even complex language capabilities sufficient for oral histories? Our species - by most conservative estimates - languished for 180,000+ years before displaying cultural marks or the gender roles that may spring from that. Historically, would our gender roles be any different in light of our anatomy? If animalia with different "dominance hierarchy" (female dominance has been observed consistently in the Bonobo (of all species), hyenas and lemurs) evolved to our level of communication twelve thousand years ago, then would the same issue result? And what benefit could derive from actively embarking to change gender or equalize gender? Are dominance hierarchies obsolete? (I think so, but can you provide a good, valid, sound reason for "why?"
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          Jun 28 2011: I wish some of my colleagues from the biological sciences were here to talk with you more about this. We know that some non-human primates develop cultural systems that they teach. The classic example is of teaching skills for food gathering. This would seem to suggest that yes, non-human primates (and other species) could end up passing on genders (cultures based on sex).
  • Jun 28 2011: Well thank you for your time. It was interesting.
  • Jun 28 2011: what about hormones? how can a man with low testostrone level be as active and energetic as a man with a high one? how can the difference be compensated? brain power? could the solution, if there is one, be extended to the gender issue?
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      Jun 28 2011: Women have more energy when given testosterone supplementation too. Why gender it, if you think higher activity levels are more ideal?
  • Jun 28 2011: For me, the future is very bleak. I saw this http://t.co/tD7o7JF yesterday and I was stunned by the responses of those young girls. While I do hope, sincerely, for a dramatic change, I'm afraid it's going to take decades for people to understand and accept the reasons why we are different yet at the same time very much alike.
  • Jun 28 2011: regarding the steady historical movement away from dividing people based on anatomical differences. The women's rights movement in the US is older than the gay rights movement, by far. I am a HUGE supporter of LGBT rights and the right for all to marry BUT why does it seem like the feminist movement and the fight for the ERA is going cold. I have many feminist friends who spend a lot of time fighting for their right to marry their partner but they still get 75 cent on the dollar and we have so few women in the US in government, CEO offices etc.
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      Jun 28 2011: Say it, sister! I completely agree. Unfortunately about 10 years ago, various folks (like Camille Paglia) turned "feminism" into something young women didn't want to identify with. That, in turn, harmed the movement for women's rights. Then as you point out, a lot of feminists who identify as LBG or T ended up working on those issues as if they are separate. But I think they are connected -- they are both about issues of gender and power.
      • Jun 28 2011: I agree that they're connected. And I also agree that in some ways media is to blame for demonizing powerful women. I've really enjoyed seeing the evolution of people's perception of Hilary Clinton for example. This may be a controversial question, but do you think that people in the US would be more comfortable with a lesbian woman in power, as say a Senator or CEO, than a straight woman? Is it less the gender that people object to than the idea that a woman is somehow neglecting her other responsibilities (home, husband, children). Of course a lesbian can be married and have children but I think it's easier for people to pretend that her partner is the caregiver than say, the male partner of a female CEO.
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          Jun 28 2011: It's hard not to notice that a lot of women who have risen in power have been childless, unmarried women who have been assumed to be lesbian. So I think you're onto something. On the other hand, not having a kid, spouse, and formal household also makes it a lot easier to work harder and therefore to rise! I often say to my husband I wish I had a wife.
    • Jun 28 2011: Should we just "have" more women in the US in government, CEO offices, etc or should they earn their positions?
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        Jun 28 2011: Earn, right? But "earn" is not a simple yes-no game. What we value will determine who counts as having "earned" it.
      • Jun 28 2011: Well, that's tricky and goes to issues of who is in power and how they retain it. Would you argue that there are not women qualified to be in power? There are democracies that require a proportional representation in government.
      • Jun 28 2011: I don't particularly like affirmative action, however there are ways to increase the number of women in government that don't rely on simply being given them. For instance, increasing the number of female nominees. Here in Canada, we had a federal election at the beginning of May and the majority of the parties had 20% or less in terms of female candidates, while one in had 50% for the first time in history. This gives women a more equal playing field. More women nominated = more women elected.

        Being a feminist in today's society rarely comes with a positive connotation. I believe may make the mental connection between feminism and women who think men are inherently "bad" or "weak" or "less." Women who act has though we should still be treated better than men are feminism's issue. Women need to be treated differently, yes - we are biologically unique from each other - but this does not excuse less pay for equal work OR mean that one gender is better or worse that the other.
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          Jun 28 2011: Thanks, Bonnita. I think it would help if we encouraged more people to be out as feminists. I especially appreciate it when men who really are feminist self-identify as such. It seems to make a big difference in terms of challenging the "feminazi" stereotype.
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    Jun 28 2011: I think that we have learned very well to work around the difficulties that we face and turn the blind eye on things that we can't change or agree with. That's why I think that our ability to change how our bodies look and function won't have a major impact on our democracies. at least in the social and psychological aspect. but because of the prices of new methods of treatments it will definitively have major economical impact.
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      Jun 28 2011: But access to those body-changing technologies is very unequal. Don't you worry about that -- about creating classes where the rich get (bodily) richer and the poor get (bodily) poorer (which translates to economics, since bodies are tied to social status)?
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        Jun 28 2011: I am afraid that people ware always divided in some sort of classes and they are also right now, so there won't be any big changes in that area. we should worry about giving people equal start, but worry about that also now (with poor results), so no change here either.
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    Jun 28 2011: So let me ask a new question: Sometimes people dream to me of worlds where there are no more genders. That doesn't seem to me like paradise, but I'm curious about whether people feel gender is just oppressive? I am sometimes discouraged by how little pleasure we seem to credit to gender.
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      Jun 28 2011: To me the problem is the assignment of traits to one or the other, and the shaming of people who express traits from the "wrong" one. I would love to see a world where there is a diversity, but one of choice.
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        Jun 28 2011: So then what do you think of the whole "born this way" political theme in LBGT rights?
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        Jun 28 2011: My issue with the campaign is the focus on fate - it's irrelevant if you were "born this way" - regardless of how true it might be. One should demand their rights and equality because they are that way, not because of how you ended up there.
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          Jun 28 2011: I agree, David. What's wrong with choosing to have a gay relationship? It's the consent, stupid. (I'm not calling you stupid....)
        • Jun 28 2011: The "born this way" approach has a risk that is "when to stop". If we are to accept as normal gay relationships because they are born that way, then society will have to make a decision regarding how to face the rest of the sexual leanings. Obviously it is about consent, and I am not saying that these other tendencies should be embraced.
          What I mean is that there are tendencies which people are born with and go against the roots of the current society, and they don't get any kind of support.
          Would the acceptation of gay marriage make it easier to accept to help out who were born with these other outlawed tendencies?
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          Jun 28 2011: Hey Nacho Car, you're right -- we don't have to accept something just because someone was "born this way" or reject it just because it's chosen. And there's lots of evidence that sexual orientations of unusual sorts (like pedophilia) probably get cemented early in development. I think we have to ask about "content of character, not color of skin" -- so think about things like consent.
        • Jun 28 2011: Gender is a wonderful thing, there is nothing inherently bad about it. There would be so much we would miss out on with out gender (cough cough). I agree with Ben - diversity is something to be embraced (think mosaic, not melting pot), the issue comes when one particular choice or characteristic is labelled bad, wrong or immoral.
    • Jun 28 2011: I guess it depends on how one defines oppressive. I find mortality and aging terribly oppressive, but a world without either would not necessarily be better and would in its way be more oppressive to some (depending on the hypothetical scenario which brought it about). I don't like all the expectations put upon me as a male in our society. But I am fond of other aspects and I like my body and I like a world full of differences, confusing though it may be sometimes. I look forward not to the elimination of gender, but to the expansion of same (with plenty of neutral spots for those so inclined).

      Thanks, by the way, for answering our questions.
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        Jun 28 2011: I love what you just wrote here, Max. (And you're welcome -- thanks for being here!)
    • Jun 28 2011: I think a world without gender, or gender spectrums, would be pretty bland.But I think what happens in culture is one gender feels threatened when another is elevated, instead of celebrating each other. Some women feel threatened by the men's movement and perceived male hegemony, some men feel threatened by the women's movement and women wanting to work and be independent. And some of us feel threatened by gay marriage because it confuses our idea of what our role is supposed to be in society. My ideal world would be one where we don't have to achieve of groups dream of equality at the expense of anothers.
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        Jun 28 2011: Privilege requires restriction. The way we know we are privileged is because someone is restricted out of the group. This is true even when the restriction keeps out a group that is ordinarily powerful. So I'm thinking of the negative reactions of white college students when black college students hang out at a table at the dorm cafeteria together. There are times that privilege via restriction can be paradoxically empowering in revolutionary ways. But I agree the threat business gets out of hand often. And people get so freaked out about non-sexed bathrooms!
        • Jun 28 2011: Oh boy--the bathroom thing. I went to a women's college and during my time there some of the transgender students took down the signs on the women's bathrooms. It was such a firestorm. I was actually surprised by my reaction. I felt the act of tearing "women" off the doors was hurtful and it made me angry. I don't mind sharing a bathroom with a transgender person or even a male but I am proud to be a woman and want to be able to express myself as a woman. Why not add "and others"? Why tear it down? It was a big to do.
        • Jun 28 2011: Then I guess one facet of the complex answer we are developing is that if there has to be oppression to facilitate privilege (which I agree, is needed for this outcome), then both must go. Nice in theory, but as with many other theories, would it actually work in practice?
      • Jun 28 2011: You have a point about needing to celebrate each other, not promote one group at the expense of another. However, I think a bigger issue here is that even when we are celebrating instead of competing, we are still often (unintentionally?) leaving out smaller groups, effectively erasing their identity or asking them to change themselves in order to feel included in our celebration. There is still so much more complexity than male vs. female equality, and there are more sexual preferences than gay vs. straight.

        But I think that one reason people feel threatened is because they are threatened. We live in a world that already separates some groups into privilege and some not. And when those unprivileged groups demand representation, the status quo IS threatened. They are right to feel threatened. To truly believe in equality, one must accept change, and maybe even sacrifice.

        I'm not sure why a world without gender would be bland; everyone would still be people with personalities and thoughts and interests and feelings. We can celebrate our common humanity, our life, our improbable existence in the cold dark universe, and create joy and fun in something other than gender. We can coalesce in groups based on favorite book and cake vs. pie. I think this is how most people behave day-to-day IN SPITE of gender. Maybe we are already living largely in this post-gender world, except when it comes time to decide how to distribute wage increases and health access.

        ETA: I think it's still possible to celebrate gender in a post-gender-delineated society. Isn't gender a social construction anyway? So if we allow people to free-associate with gender regardless of anatomy, we don't lose gender, and we still gain representation. Changing our legislation so it doesn't depend on gender doesn't erase it. But I wonder why we fight so much for our current gender roles anyway.
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      • Jun 28 2011: There is more than one purpose for sexual relations, even the Catholic Church has recognized this. While between a man and woman, sexual relations had the evolutionary purpose of procreation. However, the church (and psychologists everywhere) recognize that they also play an integral role in building and sustaining healthy relationships. With the advent of various reproductive technologies even most heterosexual sexual encounters are never engaged in with the intent (or possibility) of procreation.
    • Jun 28 2011: Didn't psychologists attempt this in the 60s or 70s and didn't we find that little girls still wanted to be women and little boys still wanted to be men?
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        Jun 28 2011: Gender is persistant, probably because it's wrapped up with sex (biology and eroticism).
    • Jun 28 2011: Regarding the "no gender" dream, I have to mention that there are huge cultural barriers, not in the form of traditions, but specially in the form of languages.

      English language is mainly genderless, but Spanish for example is genderful (everything has a gender, from a chair to the clouds). A genderless world would require to rip the language apart. The current attempts to de-genderize the language are based on either repetition (using both terms everytime, like "todos y todas"), or changing the characters that indicate gender by neutral characters ("todxs, tod@s, etc").

      Both attemps are controversial and go against the most basic rules of language. In the first case goes against the simplicity. And the second one cannot be pronounced or demand the creation of whole new terms that sound just ridiculous.

      Languages evolve naturaly and changes like these are completely un-natural in gender based languages. Do you think that the benefits of a genderless reform surpass the drawback of destroying the essence of a language?
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        Jun 28 2011: "Gender" in languages is not the same as gender roles for humans. And it seems like languages are meant to serve us (though we also end up serving them), so they should evolve.

        I just don't see us giving up gender. It's tied to sex on average, and it's pretty darned pleasurable a lot of the time.
  • Jun 28 2011: I've never been a fan of the roles assigned to us according to gender. Not only in regards to employment and child care, but perhaps more fundamentally in regards to relationships. One of the most annoying things to ask a gay couple is "Who wears the pants in the relationship." But it did make things simpler. I have noticed many people feel uncomfortable developing and maintaining relationships now that many of the rules either don't apply or can't be assumed. Do you foresee a new form of social shorthand developing for our more fluid society?
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      Jun 28 2011: Thanks, Max. I do think there's going to be fewer assumptions made in the future about people's genders and gender roles (and that seems good). I'm not sure if we'll create a new shorthand, but cultures do tend to develop language as they need to, so very possibly! Personally, I've finally gotten used to the phrases "her wife" and "his husband" and I no longer have to fight my tongue to say those phrases.
  • Jun 28 2011: Hi,
    In protest of the raising corruption, there is an increase populist Gandhian based hunger strikes across India. These being done by some well known people started to increase pressure on government and is influencing on policy making. How democratic do you think a hunger strike is or would it be no different than pure black mail?
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      Jun 28 2011: Hi and thanks for your question. I'm a little confused. How is a hunger strike blackmail, given that it harms directly the protestor? Usually blackmail refers to when you threaten another person with harm if they won't do what you want.
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          Jun 28 2011: A lot of civil disobedience would then be "emotional blackmail," and I guess that's fair.

          Non-violent protests certainly seem better than violent, and protests are by their nature democratic. I'm always stunned, as I read about the Founding Fathers, to realize what rabble-rousers they were in this way. (Often violent....)
      • Jun 28 2011: yes. you see that is the point. That is not a direct black mail. But as the movement is populist and gains media attention, the decision making is influenced. I will give you an example of some of the irrational demands. One demand is to hang a corrupt official (in a land of 1.2 bn plp). Now, how ever ridiculous this might be, spur of the moment excitement among the masses to raise against corruption have endorsed this view.
        • Jun 28 2011: Hi Irl -- a great question but this isn't really the thread for it. Why don't you start your on conversation topic on this? Or ask Alice a question on the the topic she has posted.
      • Jun 28 2011: oh i am sorry. my bad. Just saw discussion, democracy and jumped right away. Sorry for going off topic :)
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    Jun 28 2011: My question is one of about tolerance. Is tolerance the proper response to difference. To me tolerance implies intolerance, it implies that you must modify your behavior when in the presence of difference and I think that can produce the type of anxiety that Ben is talking about. Is there another position that we can take? Does true tolerance actually look like indifference?
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      Jun 28 2011: I think the problem is that tolerance that leads to anxiety is just faked tolerance. Maybe it's better than open intolerance? I wonder though if it would make more sense to try to speak discomfort more. The two sisters I talked to a few years back who are conjoined said to me they much prefer if people admit their discomfort than if they just stand their dumb-mouthed or spewing intolerance or faked tolerance. Kids tend to be better at this than adults, until we ruin them.
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          Jun 28 2011: Right. And it's interesting how we teach children shame about these things by teaching them not to ask. By contrast (and without my asking!) my son's preschool did a big unit on disability, a very positive unit. They talked about disability as difference, and so one thing they did was to bring in wheelchairs, walkers, and various assistive devices for the kids to check out. Well, you can imagine how fascinated the children became with these new "toys." Soon my son was bragging that his grandfather uses a walker, another kid was bragging that his uncle has a great wheelchair, and they were all talking about the people in their lives who use assistive devices. It was really a different look at things. My favorite book from that was a children's book called "Mama Zooms!" about a very playful mother who uses a wheelchair to play imaginary games with her son, like "train."
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    Jun 28 2011: One thing that worries me is the fear that people seem to have for differences. How do you talk about getting past that and working past that reaction?
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      Jun 28 2011: I think it's important to recognize that it's likely we humans are, to some degree, hard-wired to recognize difference, and possibly also to feel anxiety about some kinds of difference. But rather than just having a knee-jerk (or brain-jerk) reaction to that that causes us to be, well, jerks, it's worth unpacking the anxiety and trying to figure out what to do with it. Is it necessary? Productive? Irrational? And then we go from there. In other words, we turn the lens on our reaction, away from the difference, at least for the moment.
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        Jun 28 2011: That seems to be the hardest part to me. In many areas of life we're trained to trust our instincts. So how do we teach ourselves to be introspective as a matter of habit? Is it practice, or really a new way of thinking?
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          Jun 28 2011: I've found it's a practice: You can teach yourself, "If I meet someone who makes me uncomfortable, and I feel that 'uuuuhhhhh' sensation, I'll take a second to try to figure it out." That said, I agree with you that instinct is persistant (and worth attending to). I think the problem is we go here: instinct -> anxiety -> imposed silence -> shame. BAD cycle.
        • Jun 28 2011: Better than introspection is proximity, I think, and exposing yourself to the groups you want to learn more about. Isn't that a common clinical way to treat other phobias, like those of spiders or elevators: confrontation?
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      Jun 28 2011: As an historian, I'd have to say that pretty much forever people have been imangining a disease-free, ageless world, and I just don't think that's going to happen. Look at how little we've managed to achieve with genetic engineering in humans, and how fast the bugs outgrow our ability to deal with them.

      That said, I do think we will likely end up more and more mechanical and interventionist where are bodies are concerned. LIke you, Kathy, I am concerned about what that will do to us as people. (I am not spiritual in the usual sense, but I do share your concern about what this will do to our "souls" -- our senses of self, our desire to care for others.)

      I think scientists are often interested in the doing, not the effects -- and I get that. They also recognize, reasonably, that it can be very hard to predict where one's discoveries or inventions will go. That's why we need to keep an eye as citizens on all of this -- and take citizenship in the human population very seriously.
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          Jun 28 2011: Ugh, unfortunately nobody, and it is a very screwed up field. A lot of the big name bioethicists take money from drug companies, device makers, etc. There is no question folks like that should not be in charge of deciding the rules.
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      Jun 28 2011: Great question, Nafissa. In the US, where we have very uneven coverage of medical services, we find a strange system where often the poor and the rich can obtain interventions the middle class cannot. Such interventions can make one more unhealthy but can sometimes also increase one's social status, because of the way that bodily health and appearance is tied to social status (that's probably a natural outgrowth of the way we evolved).