The Sunday Magazine

Maybe the organizers of the Munk Debates just don't know it's 2015? - Michael's essay

The semi-annual Munk Debates provide a prestigious forum for public intellectuals to discuss the issues of the day. Since 2008, 52 men and only 10 women have stepped up to the podium.
Left to right: Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Rudyard Griffiths, Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton. (The Munk Debates)

The first public shrug of the new Trudeau government happened on the steps of Rideau Hall shortly after Justin Trudeau and his ministers were sworn in. Asked by a reporter why gender balance in the Cabinet was important, he replied, "Because it's 2015," followed by the trademark shrug. The comment and the shrug by Prime Minister Trudeau echoed around the globe. By the way, as an aside, I haven't written that phrase - Prime Minister Trudeau - in more than 30 years. Feels odd. Anyway, most commentators and political observers praised the prime minister's response. Some even appropriated it, applying it to other pressing issues and policies. 

It is a matter of conjecture whether the three little words might have penetrated the fustian chambers of the Munk Debates. Modestly described on its website as "the world's preeminent public debating forum," the Munk Debates are wildly successful. They are a kind of Canadian knockoff of the Oxford Union contests wherein the great and not so great argue the contentious issues of the day. The usual format is two teams of two debaters each, thrashing out such topics as "Be It resolved that the rich should be taxed more". 

The debaters are usually of marquee quality. Guests brought to the stage of Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto have included former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the late iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, the grisly Henry Kissinger, and CNN host, journalist Fareed Zakaria.

Even though it is indeed 2015, it seems likely that the Munks will continue the tradition of hiring mostly male debaters. 

Over the years since its beginning in 2008, there have been 52 men and 10 women taking part in the debates. Since June 2010, the figure is 40 men and 6 women.

Over the years since its beginning in 2008, there have been 52 men and 10 women taking part in the debates. Since June 2010, the figure is 40 men and 6 women. On the only occasion when all four debaters were female, the debate subject was about men - are they obsolete? Isn't that adorable?

Critics of the Munks have argued that the program deliberately excludes women. Supporters claim excellence, not parity, is and should be the goal. The people who run the debates make no claims or promises of reform. They are quite happy with the status quo even to the extent of publishing the dismal numbers on their web site. 

Nevertheless, the Munk Debates continue to remain far behind the curve on this one. Media organizations, including the CBC, are working energetically to include more women in panels and debates. Women continue to be under-represented in media, but change is coming, if slowly. Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, has said he will no longer appear on all male media panels. Other prominent thinkers are following his lead.

The Munk Debates are a great idea which could be greater. Perhaps they might follow the assertion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who said: "I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of a male analytical reasoner." I think he said that around 1915 - without the shrug.


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