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: 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.

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