Has the Canadian government done due diligence in responding to the opioid crisis?

In this episode, debaters from the UWO Debate Society take to the mics to argue about the efficiency and efficacy of the Canadian government’s response to the opioid crisis. Has Canada done enough, quickly enough, to be considered ‘responsible’? The motion: the Canadian government has not done its due diligence in responding to the opioid crisis.

The Debaters

Seth Kibel is the current President of the University of Western Ontario Debate Society, as well as the Executive Director of the Canadian Universities Society for Intercollegiate Debate. He has eight years of competitive debating experience and for the past two years, has has ranked in the top eight debate teams in the country. Seth represented Western at the World Universities Debating Championships in Mexico earlier this year.

Cassandra Cervi is the current President of the Canadian Universities Society for Intercollegiate Debate, as well as the Training Director of the University of Western Ontario Debate Society. Last year, she was part of the top ranked debate team in the country, and won the Canadian Public Speaking Championship. She has twice represented Western at the World Universities Debating Championship.

Selina Li has been debating since High-School, where she won the Western, Queens, and Mcgill Debating Tournaments and placed Top-Speaker at the International Competition for Young Debaters. Since coming to Western, she has been a Semi-Finalist at the Guindon Cup and Central Canadian Novice Championship. Selina represented Western at the World Universities Debating Championship in Mexico earlier this year.

Ethan Curry is a second year Philosophy and Political Science student at Western with five years of competitive debating experience. Most recently, he ranked fourth debate team in the country, and represented Western at the World Universities Debating Championships in Mexico earlier this year.

Questions about Questions

What happens when you change a proposition from a statement to a question?

What is more disarming and invitational than an honest, curious inquiry?

If you want someone else to honestly consider an idea outside the schema of their present beliefs, what better way to invite consideration than to pose the alternative as a hypothesis?

How else do you engage counterpoints with inciting defensiveness?

But even more importantly, how can you hope to share your perspective with another person unless you can understand something about their point of view?

And how can you understand another point of view unless you ask?

What better way to discover why an interlocutor holds their convictions than to invite their knowledge and experience to inform your perspective?

What is better than a good question?

(Want to talk about it?)


Someday I want to convene a debate about curiosity. The question on the floor will be this: is curiosity normative or descriptive?

To think of curiosity as normative is to believe that curiosity is good and desirable. In this case, to say, “I am a curious person,” does not only mean that I am open to new knowledge, but it implies that my willingness to learn is better than your self-assured certainty.

To think of curiosity as descriptive is to think of curiosity as a neutral, value-free definition. In this case, to say, “I am a curious person,” means that I am open to new knowledge, but I don’t think my eagerness for learning is any better than your insistence on partisan, intolerant precepts.

If my curiosity is normative, then I think that you ought to be curious, too. If my curiosity is descriptive, then I am willing to learn from you, regardless of your insistent, incurious, and obstinate opinions.

Here’s another way to put it: does being open-minded mean that you are humbly interested in listening to the stalwart conclusions of close-minded people? Or does describing yourself as open-minded inherently imply that open-mindedness is the most appropriate way to live?

If curiosity is descriptive, curiosity might be no more than a personality trait or idiosyncratic characteristic that is no better or worse than its opposite.

If curiosity is normative, then perhaps we need to understand curiosity as something more like an ideology or dogma.

I think this would be a good debate because I suspect many of us do not appreciate just how disruptive and unsettling curiosity itself can be to our little, idealist cults of curiosity.

If you are unwilling to question the merit of curiosity, are you in fact curious?

If you are unwilling to listen to close-minded people, are you in fact open-minded?

Is curiosity a bias or a belief?

Perhaps, in the end, we might conclude that descriptive curiosity ought to be normative. But this proposition seems like a rather mind-splintering assault on logic itself, leaving us no further recourse than to be curious about the coherence of our conclusion.

So, what do you say? If you were going to debate the motion, would you say that curiosity is normative or descriptive? Or perhaps a better way to frame the question: do you think everyone should be curious? Either way you answer the question, the implications are fascinating.

Why Debating is a Life Skill

Cassandra discovered a passion in high school that would change her life: debate. Through honing her skills at persuasive argumentation and public speaking, she gained increasing confidence in both her personal and academic pursuits. Cassandra joins us to share some of her experiences in debating, and to explain why developing one’s capacity for critical thought and persuasive speech is a transformative life skill. (And that’s no hyperbole!)

In this conversation we consider the proposition that maybe what the world needs right now is more debate — real debate — not less of it.

Cassandra Cervi is currently the president of the UWO Debate Society at Western. She represented Western at the 2016 World Championships in Thessaloniki, the 2014 World Debating Championships in Greece, and the 2017 World Championships in The Hague.

Will Canada Be Different?

As we see populist, anti-immigration sentiment gain political traction across Europe and in the United States, we wonder: will Canada be different?

There are at least two ways to look at this question.

In Canada, we have two official languages. We are the home of the most diverse city in the world. We sport multiculturalism and politeness like a global brand. We like to apologize for everything. We have a private refugee sponsorship program. We have a uniquely powerful Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined in our constitution. The Crown is our formal head of state. Statistics Canada recently reported that nearly half of all Canadians will be immigrants or the children of immigrants by 2036. We have a Prime Minister who says, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” and that the shared values of openness and respect “make us the first postnational state.”

These variables, among others, might incline us to think that Canada is somehow ‘unique’ in the world.

Yet the shooting at Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec demonstrates all too painfully that hatred lives here too. A recent poll by CROP-Radio Canada indicated that one in four Canadians and one in three Quebecers is “very or more or less in favour” of banning Muslim immigration to Canada. As many visible minorities can attest, racism is alive and well today, manifesting itself in all kinds of subtle (and not-so-subtle) actions and words. Our comment sections are full of vitriol, too. Along with the rest of the world, we recognize new dynamics at play in our society: such as the immense power of social media algorithms to invigorate existing bias and prejudice. And arguably Canada’s geographical position on the globe has meant that our rhetoric has never truly been ‘tested’ by the kinds of refugee and migrant challenges faced by many European countries today.

Perhaps most importantly, history is instructive when it comes to the potential fragility of multiculturalism. One need only consider the stories of 15th century Spain or 20th century Bosnia and Herzegovina to encounter sobering reminders that diversity requires diligence.

So, will Canada be different? Predicting the future is a foolish game, but I think the uncertainties call for speculation, studying the potentialities, and weighing the probabilities. I am organizing an event on May 29 to ask, ‘Will a populist, anti-immigration agenda come to Ottawa? Probably yes? or, Probably no?’ We will examine the variables related to this critical, national question, with the help of an eminent brain trust of Canadian scholars. In the end, this is not just about predicting the future, but grappling with it — anticipating the nation we will create together.

This event is an opportunity for the London community to wrestle with some more reflective, reasoned, and rational perspectives on how the next several years might unfold against an uncertain and shifting global backdrop. Expert panelists will look at the questions of populism and anti-immigration sentiment from the perspectives of sociology, psychology, journalism, religious studies, and history.

Monday, May 29, 7:00pm
(Pre-event concert at 6:30pm)
Wolf Performance Hall, London Public Library
FREE. All welcome. Coffee & refreshments served.

I hope to see you there!

It’s Time to Retire Political Correctness

Back in October, our library hosted a debate about political correctness. This week, Jeff Preston, one of the debate participants and local rights activist, shares how his ideas on the issue have continued to evolve over the last five months. In light recent events — such as Milo Yiannopoulos’ fall from grace and the discussion surrounding the Liberal’s Motion 103 on anti-Islamophobia — Jeff is thinking and theorizing about political correctness as a construct of “in-group social etiquette” that we mobilize to identify insiders and outsiders. In this conversation, we wrestle with the proposition that ‘political in/correctness’ simply prevents us from talking to each other, and is thus a term of reference that deserves to be laid to rest once and for all.

Show Links

Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

As frequent readers know, I have been on something of a personal odyssey for the past few months grappling with the issue and rhetoric of political correctness.

I have been thinking about political correctness as a subjective language construct, a proxy for political conversations, a rhetorical tool to legitimize or delegitimize, and as an empty signifier that simply absorbs whatever meaning its user ascribes to it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the tradition of liberal democracy that has led us to this point in time.

This journey both inspired (and was provoked by) convening an Oxford-style debate in October on the motion: Be it resolved that political correctness has gone too far. For those interested in the discussion that unfolded that night, the debate is now available in its entirety on the podcast.

The End of Political Correctness

Words are symbols. If I say to you, “I own a red car,” I have presented you with a set of symbols that you interpret in fairly concrete terms. More symbols — such as the make, model, and year of my vehicle — will provide you with an even more elaborate understanding.

Outside of referring to physical objects around us, language can perform far more complex functions. While introducing the work of Marcel Mauss, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) noted that many words are “floating signifiers,” which “somewhat like algebraic symbols, represent an indeterminate value of signification.” (Lévi-Strauss 1987(1950):63,55)

We interact with floating signifiers every day. When a coworker raises their hand in a staff meeting and says, “Our office needs to become a better community,” everyone else has an idea in their heads of what “community” means, but any consensus on the group’s definition is only assumed implicitly. Consider the way politicians refer to ideas like “hope” or “freedom.” What do “community,” “hope,” and “freedom” mean? It depends on who you ask. (Don’t believe it? Just try asking.)

Floating signifiers possess incredible power. They are words that mean different things to different members of the group. As such, floating signifiers can galvanize large groups of people: these are not words that emit meaning — they absorb whatever meaning is projected on to them.

I think that the term “political correctness” may be one of the emptiest signifiers of our time. What does it mean? An evolving code of conduct for showing decency and respect? A synonym for the liberal agenda? A Trojan horse of socialism? Empathy and justice put into action? The iron fist of the self-righteous mob? The meaning of the term is in constant transition: shifting, morphing, and evolving. As per Lévi-Strauss: political correctness is “devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (pg. 55). The problem is not that “political in/correctness” means nothing: the problem is that it can mean anything and everything, to anyone.

Empty signifiers can be mobilized at whim. Suppose you meet a person spewing hatred against black people. When you confront the individual about their racism, they respond, “I’m not a racist, I’m just politically incorrect!” It makes no sense to argue your definition of political correctness against theirs. Debating whether one concept of political correctness is “more correct” than another definition is impossible. It seems that there is nothing concrete that differentiates one person’s political correctness from another person’s cultural relativism.

Likewise, if an entourage of so-called “social justice warriors” threaten to suppress the right of a controversial figure to express their opinion, debating whether they have “taken political correctness too far” is pointless. Reprimanding others for being “too politically correct” only entrenches the idea that such a thing as political correctness “exists” in the first place, and that — based on someone else’s definition of it — you yourself are on the “incorrect” side of the equation. Instead of getting into the rhetorical mud of political correctness, it makes far more sense to focus on what is actually at stake. (In this case, the fundamental rights and laws whereby a society considers itself “free” in the first place.)

From this perspective, the language of “political in/correctness” appears to be distracting at best and a red herring at worst. Yes, words like “equity” and “justice” are maddeningly difficult enough reel in from the atmosphere of floating signifiers as it is. But we stop talking about “equity” and “justice” altogether as soon as we bait one another into arguing about this layer of abstraction we call “political correctness.” Asking, “Is this politically in/correct?” is a whole degree removed from asking, “Is this equitable and just?” These two questions are not synonyms in the common lexicon. Political in/correctness seems like an unnecessary and unhelpful tangent that gets in the way of constructively addressing just about any issue of consequence. It is static interference.

It is a little  awkward reach this “conclusion” as a person who just organized and hosted a debate about political correctness. But I am thankful nonetheless for where the journey has led thus far. I suppose that becoming aware of just how empty a signifier is sometimes requires investigating every corner of the container diligently.

Moving ahead, I have come to the tentative conviction that abandoning the rhetoric of “political in/correctness” is the most efficient strategy for constructively addressing anything that matters. (Maybe this would make an interesting resolution for another debate…)

Political Correctness, the Proxy of Politics

In today’s cultural landscape, the language of political correctness is operationalized. Whether you accuse someone’s insensitive words as ‘being politically incorrect’ or deride the ‘political correctness of social justice warriors,’ you have mobilized rhetoric.

Political correctness is inherently ideological — and nonetheless so if you are trumping yourself up as the antithesis of the ideological. Whether you are ‘for it’ or ‘against it,’ arguments about political correctness are collisions of social agendas. Political correctness is politics, and everything we say about it is political.

However, in common parlance, it increasingly seems like ‘political correctness’ is just encrypted speech about politics. It is as if ‘political correctness’ is a codeword for debating political issues and social policy under the rubric ‘unpolitical speech.’

Perhaps this is because we find the formalities of politics unsavory. Politicians are untrustworthy… and trust is a limited resource. And yet we still need to say political things: we need to talk about resource distribution, public spending, social policy, and civic rights. But how do we ‘talk politics’ without actually talking about politics? Apparently, we talk about ‘political correctness.’

But political correctness is still politics: it boils down to the same old debates about rights, resources, and responsibilities.

It is as if political correctness has become our proxy term for politics itself. It is the piñata of choice in our social discourse. Come! Let us take our swings and pokes at this candy-filled caricature of our politics.

But as soon as we engage, it is no longer a caricature. It is politics.

Perhaps today’s ‘PC wars’ merely get in the way of having legitimate political conversations? But what is the alternative? The PC cat is out of the bag. The piñata is no longer a proxy. Like it or hate it, we now live in a world where this linguistic construct dominates as the terminology of the age (and ideological battering ram) for a wide range of issues: from gender identity to foreign policy, from systemic racism to accessibility rights, from mental health advocacy to the freedom of the press and academy, and from environmental law to economic regulation.

The most important question now, I think, is fundamentally pragmatic: how can we have coherent discussions about our politics in the shadow of our tired, well-worn, and pejorative accusations of political in/correctness?

At some point we will find ourselves forced to return to the elementary questions and first principles behind all this PC banter: what is the state for? what is the nature of liberty? what is my responsibility to you? what does it mean to be a neighbor? No matter which ‘side’ of the PC debate you are on, these seem like the truly critical questions.

(I am convening an Oxford-style debate about political correctness on Monday, October 17. Come to the live event or join the discussion at #WHDpc. Also, check out this video I recently produced about political correctness.)

Political Correctness, Objectively Speaking

Objective. Impartial. Neutral. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Open-minded. These are fascinating concepts, but are we humans able to apply this level of thinking towards complex social issues?

Suppose we gathered five or six of the world’s most dispassionate and objectively-minded thinkers in a room. “We brought you all here to do an intellectual analysis of political correctness,” we explain to the group. “Apart from any preconceived assumptions about the merits or faults of political correctness, we need you to determine: has political correctness gone too far?

The think tank gets to work: they start by developing concrete terms of reference. “Let’s define political correctness as language and policies that do not offend or disadvantage any particular group in society,” one suggests.

“But who has the power to determine what is offensive?” asks another. “Can anyone claim that something is offensive? If everyone can legitimately cry foul at any time, will society not become little more than a cacophony of special interests?”

“Isn’t this the idea behind freedom of expression in the first place?” asks a group member. “Isn’t the point that anyone can cry foul at any time?”

“What do we mean by ‘disadvantage,’ anyway?” another interjects. “We must explicitly define what constitutes a ‘group’ that should be able to claim exemption from offense or insult by others.”

“If we go down that road,” another interrupts, “political correctness is simply going to be synonymous with ‘a progressive orthodoxy‘ on particular social issues — like ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology.”

Yet another voice is raised: “Political correctness is a belief structure and political orientation that emerges in aggregate when specific personal values and personality traits are found in combination.

Discourse about political correctness seems inherently divisive. (Perhaps this observation is the one and only ‘objective statement’ I will dare to make about it!) I suspect that a room full of the most calculating minds in the world would soon find themselves sharp disagreement. Is an ‘objective analysis’ of political correctness — an unbiased statement about its merits or faults — even possible?

No matter how we frame the issue of political correctness, it invariably leads to the fundamental and ‘ultimate’ questions of society: what is the personal responsibility of the individual to the community? should everyone be treated the same or should recompense be made for the inequities of the past? who determines the operational and normative definition of justice? These questions do not have ‘objective’ answers. These are profound and timeless human dilemmas. We learn, develop, and evolve our beliefs and convictions about these questions over a lifetime.

We have given our imaginary panel of objectively minded experts an impossible task. None of them can analyze the quality of political correctness as a specimen in a petri dish. They must all drag their personal histories into the discussion.

To imagine that you are looking at political correctness as a neutral observer is to be blind to your own values.

(I am convening an Oxford-style debate about political correctness on Monday, October 17. Please come to the live event or join the discussion from anywhere at #WHDpc. Also, check out this video I recently wrote and produced: it is a point/counter-point ‘minidebate’ about political correctness that, I hope, highlights the profoundly personal nature of the issue.)


An Income for Everyone?

The idea has many names, but the proposal is fundamentally straightforward: guarantee that every citizen receives an adequate income to live on.

Yes, the idea is simple, but in terms of practical implementation, the proposal is suffused with questions: Should it be a universal grant, or only received when an individual’s salary dips below a defined threshold? Should it be administered through existing social security systems, the tax system, or a new branch altogether? Should it be administered provincially? Should it be funded by a more progressive tax strategy, or could it be supported in part by redirecting (predicted) savings recouped from healthcare, decommissioning anti-poverty reduction programs, and from reductions in bureaucratic overhead?

There are a lot of questions, but one thing is clear: the idea of a basic income has a lot of political currency right now. A lot. Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development is an outspoken supporter. The federal government is actively studying it. Senators and Members of Parliament are calling for it. The Ontario provincial government is planning a pilot project. Cities are becoming advocates and jockeying for ‘pilot project’ positions. There is talk of it in Quebec too. Citizen-driven campaigns are growing.

The #basicincome hashtag seems to just keep rumbling along, and gaining momentum as it goes.

This seems to be something of a global phenomenon. There are stirrings in U.K. Labour Party. New Zealand is considering. France is researching it. Finland is testing it. Namibia has a strategy. Switzerland will hold a referendum in June. Just sign up for a daily Google Alerts update for ‘basic income’.

Indeed, much has been written about basic income already in 2016. This post is quite late to the game.

Here is the ‘problem’ with basic income: the more I speculate about its hypothetical advantages and disadvantages, the more questions I have… Would granting a basic income pay for itself by easing the strain of poverty on the public purse? Or is the idea of funding such a policy nothing more than a pipe dream in Canada? Does a basic income guarantee risk entrenching systemic individualism, leading to a catastrophic decline in funding for other social safety nets? Would a basic income disincentivize the labour force… or enable thousands of people to escape the ‘poverty trap’ of the current system? Could a basic income stave off economic collapse in the face of increased automation and rapidly advancing technologies like artificial intelligence? Would a basic income drive inflation up or down? What are the impacts of receiving a basic income on people struggling with serious drug addictions? Or does a basic income substantially mitigate the likelihood of developing an addiction in the first place? What are the impacts of this kind of systemic intervention that we can not even hypothesize or imagine in the present?

It is challenging to be helplessly intrigued by a timely and pertinent proposition, while yet being simultaneously and acutely aware of one’s own ignorance.

At least, this is the sense I have about basic income: I am incredibly intrigued and incredibly ignorant.

I am compelled to learn more…

And never do I learn more than when I hear people who are smarter and more articulate than me argue with one another.

This was the impetus for an idea: hosting a formal, academic debate about basic income.

I pitched the idea to my public library, and they were wholeheartedly supportive and encouraging of the vision. I began writing some sponsorship proposals and inviting experts in social policy, law, and economics to participate in a debate. The motion: ‘Be it resolved that every Canadian should receive a basic income guarantee.’ The next thing you know … some of the nation’s most respected thinkers on the topic — Mike Moffatt, James Mulvale, Chandra Pasma, and Margot Young — are traveling here from across the country to participate in an Oxford-style debate about basic income.

Basic Income Debate Facebook banner

For more information about the debate, check out wolfhalldebates.com

Along the way, some new connections and collaborations were realized, and this debate has become ‘Part 1’ of a two-part mini series. The following day, the London Poverty Research Centre presents the ‘second part’ of the exploration: an evening of conversation with Evelyn Forget and Senator Art Eggleton.

I’m looking forward to learning more at these two events on April 18th and 19th. If you are a local reader, please do help spread the word.

In preparation for the debate, I am continuing my research. And part of my reason for writing this post is to ask for your help and input… If you could present a question about basic income to this panel of debaters, what would you ask?