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.

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