Try to speak of discomfort more Highlights from our livechat with Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger gave a powerful talk at TEDxNorthwestern on how our changing perception of anatomical differences is also changing our democracy. She was in New York today, so we invited her to the TED office for a live Q&A, where she posed this 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?

Here are some of the highlights:


David Webber: 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?

Alice Dreger: 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 of 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.


Alice Dreger: 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.

Max Peterson: 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).


Kathy K: … one of my favorite role models as a child was a young woman with 1/2 a wooden leg. [No, her name was not ‘Peg’ ::g::] I was raised to be ‘well-mannered’ and not to bring attention to that which is obvious, so I never spoke with her about how she came to have 1/2 a wooden leg. But then, what she lacked in physical ‘perfection’, she more than made up for with spiritual perfection. She had such a beautiful heart, the body didn’t matter. Perhaps this is the goal.

Alice Dreger: 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.”


Marcin Kasiak: 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.

Alice Dreger: 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)?