Printed: 2020-01-26

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Getting Used to Hideousness

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

November 30, 2009

We have learned to accept differences in appearance caused by nature or by accident. And we are getting better about appreciating the diversity of bodily expression that modern society has brought. But all this is only the beginning.

I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!

So cried Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, in the 1980 movie of that name.

Merrick’s unfortunate disfigurement made him hideous to look at, but did not change the fact that he was a human being, a person with very normal human feelings.

Until just the last few decades, those with gross disabilities were expected to stay out of sight of the general public. The Victorian preference for order and rectitude would not admit to the notion that Nature could ever go so horribly wrong.

Today, however, we commonly accept the fact that people with disabilities (or, as some prefer, those who are differently enabled) are just as human as you and I, and are equally entitled to be seen in public and openly participate in society. Most of us think nothing of encountering someone with cerebral palsy or with Down syndrome as we go about our daily routines.

And, as we all know, one of the world’s leading scientists is confined to a wheelchair with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His disfigured appearance can be frightening at first, but we quickly learn to overlook it and appreciate the man not only for his prodigious intellect, but also for his essential humanity.

Naturally occurring disabilities are not the only things that sometimes make us want to look away from a person who does not meet our definition of “normal.” Burn victims, in particular, can have shocking appearances, as can multiple amputees. 

Increasingly, diversions from standard human appearance are being made as a matter of choice, as a personal expression. This is evident not only in the high number of people who sport attention-grabbing tattoos, piercings, and fluorescent hair colorings, but especially in the more extreme subset of those who are making over their bodies in what many of us would consider grotesque ways.

And this is only the beginning. As emerging bio-engineering techniques become more proven and less expensive, they will enable individuals to engage in a broad range of body modifications.

But let’s back up a bit and think about what’s actually being done when people try to change their “natural” appearance.

You probably know someone who has had cosmetic surgery; perhaps a nose job, a face lift, or breast augmentation. You certainly know someone who dyes their hair.

Nearly all of us have made some attempt to improve upon what nature has given us, even if it doesn’t involve surgery. We might have had our teeth straightened or whitened, gotten our hair styled professionally, or put on makeup.

Is there any real difference between these minor enhancements and the truly significant changes that could be available in the future? Or is it only a matter of degree?

The point is that we have learned to accept differences in appearance caused by nature or by accident. And we are getting better about appreciating the diversity of bodily expression that modern society has brought.

So, when full-scale morphological freedom arrives—when we are confronted with individuals who don’t look at all like what we think of as normal people—perhaps we will be able to regard them not as freaks, but as human beings with normal human feelings.

And who knows? Perhaps some of those freaks will be us!

These issues and more will be hot topics for discussion at the IEET’s “Biopolitics of Popular Culture” seminar, taking place this Friday in Irvine, California. We hope to see you there.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837