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?


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: 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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