Have you ever had a conversation with someone about some topic, maybe a Bible doctrine or a political topic or a moral position, and they dismissed your argument by saying that the topic is “controversial?” I have. Lots of times. Apparently, pointing out that something is controversial is supposed to mean that nobody knows the answer, or maybe that there isn’t a right answer at all, and thus everyone should just be quiet about it. If they can’t be quiet, they should at least avoiding taking a strong stance on it one way or the other. After all, it’s controversial.
But is it really true that controversial things don’t have a clear right
answer? Not necessarily.
Controversy: strong disagreement about
something among a large group of people
Controversial: relating to or causing
much discussion, disagreement, or argument
According to these definitions, a controversial topic is simply one on which
many people disagree. In some cases, this may be due to the topic being merely
opinion. If you are asking which ice cream flavor is the best or which sports car is the best or which season of
the year is the best, these are all matters of opinion and there is no right
answer. There is no absolute truth in these cases because the inherent question
is about what people prefer. Different people prefer different things.
But in spite of the fact that there is a lot of disagreement on the best ice
cream flavor (vanilla, in case anyone was wondering), we don’t usually try to
shut people up when they express an opinion, even if it differs from ours. And
we usually don’t call these opinions “controversial.” In fact, I have never heard anyone refer to ice cream
flavors as a controversial issue. (What a conversation that would be. “I like
vanilla best.” “Oh, don’t talk about ice cream flavors because they’re so
When people talk about something being “controversial” they usually do it when
it’s not just a matter of opinion, but they want to believe it is. They want to
use the disagreement out there to avoid taking a side on an important topic.
Sometimes they don’t want to take a side because it’s unpopular. If they take a
side, the people on the other side might not like them.
Sometimes they don’t
want to have to put the effort into studying the issue. Laziness makes them
avoid finding out which position is the correct one.
Sometimes they don’t like
the implications involved in taking a position. What if believing one way or
the other means they have to change something about their life? Perhaps give up
something they enjoy or do something they don't like?
Sometimes they have the mistaken idea that a “controversial” topic
doesn’t have a correct answer and thus neither side should be dogmatic.
see taking a side on something that evokes a lot of disagreement as somehow “divisive”
or “polarizing” and therefore bad.
Whatever the reason, these people want to
stay “neutral” and not take a side. And, often, they don’t want to hear anyone
else’s position on the matter either.
The problem is, some things that are labelled “controversial” are very
important and have distinct right and wrong sides. Just because a lot of people
disagree about it doesn’t mean there is no right answer.
Let me give an example. In the years preceding the Civil War in the US, slavery
was a very controversial issue. Roughly half of the country believed it was
acceptable while the other half believed it was not. It doesn’t get a lot more “controversial”
than that. Not only were there radically differing positions, but they divided
communities, families, and ultimately, a country. People took up arms to kill
each other over this issue. That’s a very heated controversy indeed. But surely
no one today would claim that the issue of slavery should have been ignored or
that there was no correct side. Slavery was one of the most systematic
violations of human rights in the history of this country – a black mark
against us that we may never live down. There most certainly was a right side.
Those who stood for abolishing slavery were right while those who wanted it to
remain were in the wrong. Broad disagreement does not mean that neither side is
correct. It may mean that many are wrong, but it does not mean that no one is
In today’s world, there are many issues that receive the “controversial” label that
are actually issues of great importance and should not be ignored. One of the
most important of these is abortion. While legal abortion is most definitely “controversial”
– with many people on both sides of the issues who hold their position ardently
and vocally – this issue does have right and wrong sides. There is no right to
kill an innocent human child in the womb, regardless of the many who believe
strongly that there is. Strong belief does not make something so.
Of course, there are many other issues that also evoke strong disagreement and
yet contain a right and wrong side. Political issues, theology, morality, religions
in general – these things are among the most hotly contested areas of human
thought. Yet to suppose that there is no right answer in these areas is to
greatly misunderstand the nature of man and the nature of truth. Having
disagreement on these topics means just that – disagreement – and nothing more.
It says absolutely nothing about the truth in such cases.
So, while there's nothing wrong with noting that something is controversial,
one cannot logically conclude that controversial topics have no right answer or
that they should be avoided. Sometimes controversial things are just issues on
which a lot of people are confused. But how many people believe something has
nothing to do with whether or not it is true. Controversy may prove that many
people are wrong about a topic, but it doesn’t prove that no one is right.
Next time someone dismisses your position as being "controversial,"
as if that means that you can't be right or should not take a stand on it,
point out that controversy just means people disagree. It doesn't have anything
to do with whether or not one side is right or whether that issue is important
or whether or not people should take a stand for it. Controversial topics are
not inherently bad to talk about and we need to reject the idea that they are.
After all, we need more people to take a stand for what's right on important issues, not more