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Union Debates

As the York college devoted to critically analyzing public policy and furthering the betterment of society, McLaughlin presents a series of debates exploring significant and critical public policy issues of the day. You'll hear from outstanding expert speakers from the fields of interest to McLaughlin students, including the legal professions, public service and the non-profit sector. Past debate topics have included the future of democracy, the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines and artificial intelligence as an existential threat. Check out our upcoming and past events below.

Chair & Moderator: Prof. James C. Simeon 

Panelists: Professors Étienne Brown, Natasha Kusikov, Anne F. MacLennan, and Regina Rini

McLaughlin College Union Debate

November 11, 2021

Following the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Congress, a number of social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, blocked, the then US President Donald Trump, from their platforms. This came in the wake of Trump’s use of these social media platforms “to rile up his supporters and bully his enemies” and “that were often filled with falsehoods and threats.” (Mark Isaac and Kate Conger, “Facebook Bars Trump Through End of His Term,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021. (accessed October 21, 2021)) This was not accepted universally as others saw this as a limitation on the freedom speech. It has been noted that “the question of when and how it’s appropriate for private companies to ‘de-platform’ people – especially notable public figures like Trump -- is not so obvious.” (Dipayan Ghosh, “Are We Entering a New Era of Social Media Regulation?Harvard Business Review, January 14, 2021. (accessed October 21, 2021))

It is noteworthy that even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) does not oppose the regulation of online communications, although it does acknowledge that the devil is in the details. (CCLA, “Regulating Social Media: Into the Unknown,” February 10, 2021. (accessed October 21, 2021)) And, it has been argued persuasively that a significant portion of the responsibility for addressing the harms that flow from communication will be with those who consume the information online. The CCLA admonishes us to learn the “critical skills” necessary to be able to discern what is fact and what is fiction. It is up to each of us to be able to respond and to counter harmful speech that may lie outside the law’s reach. (Ibid.)

Governments have already proposed and introduced legislation that would require social media companies to remove harmful content from their platforms within 24 hours of it being reported. New regulatory bodies have also been proposed to monitor social media platforms that would cover harmful content, that are drawn from five areas in the Criminal Code: hate speech; child sexual exploitation; non-consensual sharing of intimate images; incitement to violence; and terrorism. (Rachel Emmanuel, “Ottawa proposes plan to regulate social-media content, ”iPolitics, July 29, 2021. (accessed October 21, 2021)) We have put together a group of experts who are prepared to debate the following proposition:

"This House accepts that social media platforms should apply the same content moderation rules to global leaders as they do to other users."

Past Events

Chair and Moderator: Professor James C. Simeon
Panelists: Professors Ann Fitz-Gerald, Sorpong Peou, Richard Barltrop and Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp

Some would not only argue that “world peace” is possible but would go so far as to state that it is inevitable. Professor  Stephen Pinker, Psychologist and Cognitive Scientist at Harvard University, points out that “wars between countries might go  the way of slave auctions, debtor’s prisons and other barbaric customs.” Professor Pinker notes that even though there is  plenty of violence in the world today and many more ways of killing each other there have been fewer and fewer international armed conflicts since 1945.  (See  BBC  Future, “Is world peace possible?”, undated) Likewise, Senator George Mitchell has stated, “… if by world peace you mean the absence of  major war and the effective containment of regional conflicts, I believe that to be entirely feasible.” (Senator George Mitchell,  “Is World Peace an Impossible Dream?” The Journal of the International Institute,  Vol. 9, Issue 3, Spring/Summer 2002.

You are cordially invited to attend this McLaughlin College Union Debate as part of our “Peace Week at McLaughlin College”  that is being co-sponsored in collaboration with OxPeace that is based at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. This  McLaughlin College Union Debate will follow the Oxford Union rules for debate and will consider the following motion, "This House believes that World Peace is possible."

Moderator: James C. Simeon
Panelists: Sylvia Bashevkin, Simone Bohn, Harry Pearse, Dennis M. Pilon, and Miles Rapoport

The term "democracy" has many definitions and can be highly contested, but it is commonly defined as "a system of government by the whole population or all the members of the state, typically through elected representatives" or as "a form of government in which people have the authority to choose their governing legislators." This subject has preoccupied many academics and researchers over the last few years who have offered numerous scholarly journal articles and books - leading us to conclude that the future of democracy is a most worthy topic for our McLaughlin College Union Debate on the following resolution, "Democracy is resilient and will survive, despite the challenges it faces, well into the foreseeable future.”

Moderator: James C. Simeon
Panelists: Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, Syed Harris Ali, Roger H. Keil, Vivian Saridakis

With COVID-19 vaccines now being administered on a priority basis to the most vulnerable in our population, including our health care workers, and with ongoing speculation as to when things might eventually get back to the way they were prior to the pandemic, current circumstances raise the fundamental question: Will the wide deployment of effective COVID-19 vaccines will enable us to return to a state of normalcy?

Moderator: James C. Simeon
Panelists: Ruth Urner, Regina Rini, Matthijs Maas, Allan Weiss, Stuart Armstrong

Artificial Intelligence (AI) research is accelerating, and its rapid development, innovations, and discoveries are already having an impact on society in quite dramatic ways such as autonomous vehicles, AI-generated music, poetry and storytelling, customer service bots and portals, and so on. The term “transformative AI” is used to describe a range of advances in AI that could impact on society in dramatic and difficult-to-reverse ways. Government policies and regulations will, undoubtedly, find it extremely difficult to keep up with the pace of technological progress with AI. Researchers are already working on advanced warning systems for any possible extreme events. However, AI forecasting based on measuring AI progress is at its early stages of development and its utility has been challenged by those who point out that it could never be able to account for the revolutionary breakthroughs and discoveries that have the potential to achieve AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), that will allow machines to adapt to a variety of situations to maximize their potential, or to achieve high-level machine intelligence (HLMI), to perform at the level of an average human adult on key cognitive measures necessary for economically relevant tasks, or to achieve “superintelligence,” that Nick Bostrom, states “greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.” (Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford University Press, 2014) Leading, some would argue, to the “AI control problem” that may be unresolvable.

We have assembled an exceptional panel for our second McLaughlin College Union Debate that will consider the following proposition:

The rapidly accelerating advances in artificial intelligence (AI) could pose, quite likely, a serious existential threat to humankind in the not too distant future.

Watch on YouTube.

Moderator: James C. Simeon
Panelists: Charles Hopkins, Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, David Leyton-Brown and Jennine Rawana

The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of universities and colleges around the world and the resulting and immediate pivot to virtual, remote and online, modes of teaching and learning have raised serious questions regarding the future course of higher education. In the face of necessary social distancing measures and the resulting turn to virtual instruction, some have observed that the traditional modes of higher education where face-to-face instruction predominated will be replaced inevitably by video conference, synchronous, and online platforms, asynchronous, instruction. While others have noted that the future of higher education still lies in its long well-established and distinguished past of in-person instruction.

To further consider these and other related pertinent questions we have put together a distinguished panel of speakers who are prepared to debate the following question:

Will the COVID-19 pandemic change inconvertibly the future of higher education from the traditional in-person on site mode of delivery to remote and/or online virtual modes of delivery? 

Following our speakers' presentations there will be an opportunity for participants to raise questions and join the debate. At the conclusion, of the debate you will be able to cast your vote "for" or "against" the question; that is, "yea" or "nay." The results of the vote will be posted for all to see.

Watch on YouTube.