Speaker Series 2022-23 | College of Arts

Speaker Series 2022-23

October 6: Catherine Womack, Bridgewater State University

Epidemiology food fight: a fat feminist takes on values in nutrition science

4 pm in MacKinnon 103

Conventional wisdom in medicine says that excess weight is bad for us, so we should work to achieve and maintain so-called “normal” weights. The BMI scale (for body-mass index) is our guide. In 2005, CDC epidemiologist Katherine Flegal and colleagues published a paper showing, contra conventional wisdom (and a 2004 paper that got a lot of press) that overweight (BMI 25—<30) carries a reduced mortality risk, relative to normal weight (20—<25). The reaction of the conventional wisdom club was swift and vitriolic. Immediately, prominent public health and medical scholars attacked the work (and the woman). In 2013, Flegal et al. published a systematic review and meta-analysis in JAMA, replicating and expanding on their earlier findings. The public health establishment doubled down on their attacks, calling the work “… rubbish”, “ludicrous”, “complete nonsense”, and “dangerous”. The agenda of Flegal’s attackers seems clear: stomp out the very idea that overweight isn’t harmful to our health. Flegal has an agenda too: science ought to accept findings that meet objective standards of the field, even if they’re counterintuitive (and published by a woman). Scientific disputes are sometimes like this: battles between data and dogma. As a philosopher of science, I can analyze their conflict to try to determine whose position is more tainted, who benefits from particular outcomes, and what values underly each side of this showdown. But I have an agenda, too. I’m 100% Team Flegal. As a woman and a feminist philosopher, I’m furious at the arrogance and misogyny of Flegal’s attackers. As a person who’s dealt with fat phobia my entire life, I’m furious and upset by the insistence on labeling overweight as harmful for my health, especially given that medicine offers no remotely effective methods for addressing body weight reduction (other than possibly surgery). So, how do we settle this epidemiology food fight, knowing that everyone—me included—has an agenda? I’ll weigh in, offering perspectives from my multiple identities (philosopher, feminist, fat woman). 

November 10: Eli Diamond, Dalhousie University

December 1: Jennifer Saul, University of Waterloo

Saying the quiet part loud: how figleaves facilitate the rise of blatant racism and falsehood

It is widely held that something has changed with respect to both blatantly racist speech and obvious falsehood  in recent years.  Both seem to have gone mainstream, to a shocking degree, in political speech.  There’s obviously nothing new at all about racism in politics, or about false political speech.  Yet since the Civil Rights movement politicians felt a need to conceal their racism at least partially, in response to the social unacceptability of explicit racism.  And concealment of falsehood obviously has a very long tradition in politics.  With the rise of the Far Right,  and the increasingly high profile of conspiracy theories, there seem to have been dramatic shifts. In this paper, I explain the linguistic mechanism of Figleaves, and argue that they have helped to facilitate both blatantly racist and blatantly false political speech.

January 12: William Paris, University of Toronto

What was Black Power?: on the materialist concept of rights in James Boggs

From the end of the Civil Rights Movement to the beginning of the 1980s James Boggs, an organic intellectual in Detroit automobile unions, set about the task of investigating Black power as a scientific concept rather than a metaphor or emotive slogan. For a political concept to be scientific it had to be self-consciously rooted in extant social dynamics as well as composed of clear strategies a social group could appeal to in their struggle for self-emancipation. The aim of this talk is to reconstruct how Boggs thought the relationship between rights and social power. What I propose is that Boggs understands rights as political capacities to constitute effective group formations or to limit the capacities of the dominated. This means that rights are necessarily sites of social struggle and rights will the effects of extant social and productive forces. Black power in our contemporary moment has been disarticulated from rights such that rights have become ideas to which we appeal rather than conditions we make. Black power names a specific conjuncture in the history of US society where rights became both ideologically and politically available spaces of conflict and constitution. The distance from then to now raises important philosophical questions concerning how we understand what freedom should mean, the role of rights, and what vision of social life we need in our time of crisis. 

January 26: Laura McMahon, Eastern Michigan University

February 16, 1:30 pm: Katalin Farkas, Central European University (online event)

March: Huihui Zhu, Beijing Normal University (online event)

March 30: Alice Pinheiro Walla, McMaster University

Bridging the juridical gap: ethical and juridical duties in the absence of political institutions

Kant posits a pre-institutional, juridical duty to leave the state of nature and enter a civil condition with all others with whom external interaction cannot be avoided. However, while there is a duty to bring about juridical institutions and improve them over time as to approach Kant’s ideal of a just legal-political association (the ideal republic), individuals find themselves internationally in a “relative state of nature” (regarding other polities) and internally in constant transition (towards better political institutions). The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, I analyze the need to satisfy juridical duties as a matter of personal virtue in the absence of or under defective juridical institutions. I argue that this introduces complications in Kant’s account and that respecting the dignity of those to whom the juridical duty is owed requires treating their claims as a matter of right and not of ethics. Secondly, I analyze the idea of “provisionality” characteristic of pre-institutional, juridical duties. According to this view, some duties have a provisional character, in which they allow a certain latitude for postponing compliance given unfavorable external circumstances. I clarify the meaning of provisionality in Kant’s account of juridical duties and argue that the problem is not that duties themselves are provisional, but that ethics is called to address matters of right when we are bridging the juridical gap.