Open Debate: An Endangered Canadian Pastime

August 17, 2021 Updated: August 17, 2021


Canadians like a robust debate. It’s a healthy pastime reflected in our media and institutions, and spirited water cooler discussions (often about hockey) have long been part of work life.

Two Canadian institutions that cover a broad spectrum of debate are the CBC Radio staple The Debaters, and the Munk Debates. The former pits two comics against each other on issues ranging from the profound to the mundane, while the latter hosts intellectual powerhouses who weigh in on important issues, ranging from the future of geopolitics to the merits of capitalism.

While the Munk Debates demonstrate our reverence for the art of deliberation, The Debaters shows our admiration for think-on-your-feet wit.

But it seems Canadians are losing both their sense of humour and their ability for serious discussion. The charade that politics has become and the fragility of public discourse due to “cancel culture” have us walking on eggshells.

According to a recent survey, social media is undermining open debate in this country. This is a worrisome turn of events given that social media platforms have become a primary form of communication.

The Postmedia-Leger poll surveyed Canadians on a number of issues surrounding free speech. Notable results include the fact that 45 percent feel social media has hurt open debate in Canada, while 40 percent believe it will be harder to speak freely on controversial topics 5-10 years from now.

On the issue of speech, 46 percent believe the government should have the power to regulate public commentary they consider to be hate speech, while 69 percent believe social media providers should be required to monitor posted content and have the power and obligation to remove content they consider hate speech.

Policing Speech

The poll suggests that a considerable number of Canadians are comfortable with government and social media providers regulating content they deem hateful. From one perspective, this demonstrates the low tolerance Canadians have for hateful rhetoric. Most Canadians would agree with the sentiment of combating hate speech, but many may not fully understand the implications of allowing government or Big Tech to perform that role.

Trusting either to decide what constitutes hate speech is a risky business. Both have proven to be arbitrary in their definition and enforcement of this ill-defined term. As for the government, it would be naive to think that its motivations are entirely altruistic.

Lately, “hate speech” and “misinformation” labels have been slapped on any opinion that goes against the political orthodoxy. This has had a stifling effect on open debate. Big Tech has taken great liberty in shutting down dissenting voices, especially conservative ones, while abhorrent views propagated by the left often get a free pass.

On June 30, the then-executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association tweeted “burn it all down” in response to a news article about a pair of Catholic churches set ablaze. Her comment, which came on the heels of the discovery of unmarked graves at Canada’s residential schools, was widely criticized for condoning arson but was given a free pass by those who take a dim view of Western religions. One can only imagine the uproar if the same comment was made in relation to the burning of a mosque.

‘Misinformation’ Labelling

Open debate is not only an exercise in freedom, but a critical practice that holds decision-makers accountable to public health and economic policy. Unfortunately, debate is conspicuously absent in the scientific community, which is alarming considering present circumstances.

Take the COVID origin lab leak hypothesis, for example. Throughout 2020 it was dismissed as a conspiracy theory and labelled “misinformation.” Any mention of the possibility that the virus had leaked from a Wuhan lab was promptly deleted from Twitter and Facebook, and even career virologists were dismissed as kooks when they suggested the idea was worth considering. Now however, a lab leak is widely believed by many scientists as the most likely source of the virus. Even leftist news outlets like CNN have acknowledged the validity of the theory, and Twitter no longer censors posts about it.

The “misinformation” label is far too readily applied to any viewpoints that stray from the orthodoxy. It has been most disheartening to see this play out around COVID policies and treatment, where there is desperate need for legitimate scientific arguments to be heard and ideas debated on their merits. Unfortunately, the rhetoric around the pandemic has become far more political than scientific.

Big Tech’s concentration of power is perhaps the single greatest risk to independent thought. A gleam of hope is that the curtailment of debate has been externally imposed through these platforms and Canadians recognize it for what it is—limitations imposed by the platforms themselves rather than a public sentiment against debate. This is an encouraging sign. People are waking up to social media’s negative impacts both on individuals and society at large.

The good news is that the emperor wears no clothes, and the reluctance to debate can be circumvented by simply engaging in honest conversation in person. Censorship by Twitter et al. doesn’t apply to real world conversations, which are generally polite even when contentious. Engaging in the battle of ideas with a spirit of fair play and good old Canadian kindness will get us past the mess of COVID faster than any government mandates ever could.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.