on controversy

It’s a word that is so often used that we often have no regard for it at all. We see it attached to everything from politics to sports to religion, pop culture and economics but seldom, if ever, reflect on its meaning and implications.


Pardon me while I do the lazy thing and pull the etymology from etymonline.com, a handy, invaluable resource every writer should have at his or her disposal. Controversy (n.); late 14c., from Old French controversie or directly from Latin controversia, from controversus, “turned in an opposite direction, disputed, turned against[.]”

It’s overstating the obvious: controversy means there are two parties who do not agree on a thing. But, as we often forget, definition does not necessarily catch a word’s meaning. In fact, we have a term, particularly reserved for Biblical literalists, for the conflation of definition and meaning: the root fallacy. So, while being controversial is to dispute someone on something, even then, we use another term that is more than the sum of its roots: dispute.

When you think of someone being controversial or something being disputed, you don’t merely think of disagreement, do you? You probably read tension and anger into those words, as well. In popular usage of ‘controversy’, one does not occur without the other. In fact, this is probably by design.

Controversy inherently means there is an opposite viewpoint, and that necessarily is a minority view; after all, it’s difficult to be controversial when you’re a part of majority x. The point of labeling minority x as being controversial, though, is not to merely denote a difference of opinion: it is to establish one’s allegiance to majority x and, in so doing, marginalize the minority. To be controversial is to be relegated to second-class status, and to describe something as controversial is to provide one the [often diplomatic] escape route necessary to not take that proposition seriously or critically. Needless to say, I’ve been on the business end of controversy on more than my fair share of occasions.

Ultimately, within the confines of controversy, seldom is there an honest inquiry into the subject matter: a prevailing number of people sharing one opinion negate the lesser number of another. The merits of one or the other are a null set, we’d rather be right than to seek truth.

As a result, the subject matter in question is not the real issue in controversy, but in the affront often betrayed by the majority view. In Kuhnian terms, the majority seldom embraces the paradigm shift until the validity of a controversial idea can no longer be denied. In short, a controversial idea ceases to be controversial when it is no longer in the minority. The veracity of something is not as powerful, culturally speaking, as the popularity of that thing. And, as we learned in kindergarten, what is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular. This is precisely why people tend to couch their terms in either a sense of the majority being in agreement, or in the case of minority x, that the establishment is losing their control over an issue. Who cares if it’s true if we’re still winning people to our viewpoint?

Perhaps it is being somewhat overly idealistic to hope for a day when the ideal trumps the pragmatic hope of having 50%+1 side with me. As such, I recognize that I enter into the very same tension I described. The danger is that we pursue right-as-might over upholding our principles.

The only way to guard against it is to come underneath the weight of scrutiny. The proof is in the propositional pudding, which is to say that the only way we truly know our intentions is what we do when faced with the fact not that a plurality of people agree, but when we are faced with that sinking feeling that we might be fighting a losing battle over a false idea.

Or if we’re labeled as controversial. Then the work is done for us.


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