Monday, August 4, 2014

Should We Avoid "Controversial" Topics?

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 controversial.”)

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.

Some 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 right.

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 people silenced.


  1. Controversial topics are the only ones worth discussing. If no one is offended by either position it's probably not a big deal.

  2. Yea abortion shouldn't be thrown under the rug because its "controversial".