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Zombethics 2016: (in)visible disabilities and troubling normality

By Shweta Sahu

Zombethics Case Graphic 

With Halloween just around the corner, zombies and other atypical creatures are much on our minds, but such constructs are rarely thought of from an ethical perspective. This year, on October 26th at 5:30 pm at the Center for Ethics, 1531 Dickey Drive, Ethics Commons Room 102, Emory Center for Ethics is collaborating with Emory Integrity Project (EIP) to boggle your mind with ethical considerations and encourage you to consider how students should engage across (in)visible differences at Emory. The discussion will be based around three interesting case studies which can be found here. These scenarios will lead to questions such as, ‘should people ask others what gender pronouns they prefer to be associated with, even if the answer may seem “obvious” at first glance.’ On the other hand, what are the implications of assuming non-visible disability based on a person’s behaviors or appearance? The goal of the symposium will be to help participants handle controversial issues like these and to guide them to effectively deal with such situations.

To find out more about the event, I spoke with coordinator Dr. Paul Wolpe from the Emory Center for Ethics as well as Ms. Emily Lorino and Dr. Rebecca Taylor from the Emory Integrity Project, and Dr. Karen Rommelfanger, chair of the Zombethics® conference series. Here’s what I asked:

In your own words, what do you think ZombethicsTM is/ what does it represent?
According to Dr. Wolpe, “through history there have been portrayals of people with deformities and grotesque faces that are cast as alien and “other”, and against whom we measure our own humanity… we use either real or imagined monsters to try to understand the nature of what it means to be human and contrast ourselves by and against. The portrayal of deformed humans fascinates us and leads us to ask questions about ourselves and others we see as strange… ZombethicsTM explores that in a deep way.”

Why would you encourage people to come?
Dr. Wolpe notes all of us are involved in this activity of casting people aside as “other,” especially since people now have the ability to alter themselves in various ways, “including body modifications like tattoos and piercings. When CDC creates a website telling you what to do during the apocalypse” you know there’s “deep resonance in pop culture” and it “poses age old deep, theological and social questions.” On top of that, he says it’s just fun!

Ms. Lorino, Project Coordinator of the EIP encourages people to come to the symposium because it asks and addresses lots of questions students have but are afraid to ask. Additionally, she feels it “addresses lots of buzz words about diversity and inclusion, but provides more of a practical approach.” From experience, she says lots of people say they know what to say, but not what to do in certain scenarios, so “this panel will approach that—what does this look like in action.”

What are some questions or topics you secretly hope will come up in this year’s symposium?
Dr. Wolpe answers that he hopes to see “deep, introspective conversations about what it means to interact with people who appear different or have different perspectives than we do.” He hopes attendees will learn ways to respond in sensitive and supportive ways and walk away with an understanding of what’s the right way to speak to someone who has issues, such as problems with gender identity. He hopes this will help people negotiate the social world more easily and to “look at the nature of peoples with differences and how we respond to them.”

Similarly, Ms. Lorino adds that she hopes students will be able to take lessons learned from the panel and apply it as something that’s a regular practice on campus, outside of the department or program having a special event for it. Furthermore, as part of the mission of EIP, she asks, “how do we integrate this into the life of the Emory community” and “how do we create better spaces to have these conversations?”

Dr. Taylor, postdoctoral fellow with the EIP, also articulates that the discussion will be grounded on the case study scenarios (see one below) but she really anticipates participants will bring what experiences they have into discussion, specifically success stories they have had in navigating difficult scenarios in a way that’s respectful and hopeful. The discussion will feature the perspectives of three panelists: Dr. Jennifer Sarrett, a Lecturer in the Center for the Study of Human Health; Michael Shutt, the Senior Director of Community in Emory Campus Life; Malcolm Jones, a senior in the College from Stone Mountain, Georgia; and finally the moderator, Hannah Heitz, a senior in the College studying Psychology and Human Health.
Example case study scenario 
How did you first get interested and involved in this?
Dr. Wolpe, who has been a bioethicist for 30 years, states he has been involved in all these issues and that he has thought about the idea of monsters and spent much time thinking about the “other”, so it was only a natural progression. More fundamentally, these questions of how to treat others (those we consider different or somehow separate even from ourselves) are basic questions of bioethics. He also claims that just because we put a whimsical spin on it does not make it any less serious.

The Emory Integrity Project is involved this year, as Dr. Taylor states, to reach the undergrad audience, as past years have brought in more post grads and scholars.

So how is this year’s Zombethics related to zombies?
“Zombies are in this other category,” Ms. Lorino states, “not person, not dead, so what are they?” So they loosely draw upon this concept of zombies by talking about invisible disabilities. We characterize people as other, but at the same time they are “still people, but why are they in another category as if they’re distinct from regular humans? Why are they not “normal?” Who do we decide to put on the sidelines because they’re ‘not like us’?”

Click here to learn more about this year’s conference, which will take place on on October 26th at 5:30 pm at the Center for Ethics, Ethics Commons Room 102. For more info about past years’ conferences, please refer here or contact Zombies and Zombethics! Chair and Co-founder of the ZombethicsTM Annual Conference, Dr. Karen S. Rommelfanger, tells us that this year’s ZombethicsTM is a teaser for a much larger ZombethicsTM conference next year that will be themed around Frankenstein, so stay tuned!

Want to cite this post?

Sahu, S. (2016). Zombethics 2016: (in)visible disabilities and troubling normality. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. Neuroethics refers to two related fields of study: what the philosopher Adina Roskies has called the ethics of neuroscience, and the neuroscience of ethics. The ethics of neuroscience comprises the bulk of work in neuroethics Am I right or not?


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