The Idea That Controversy Causes Violence
For most people, it is no secret that the majority of universities have sought to eliminate diversity of thought on their campuses—often for the sake of promoting tolerance, ironically enough. For the past few years, protests have erupted over conservative speakers coming to campuses and faculty members uttering words that contradict the prevailing progressive wisdom of the academic world. It is not enough to disagree; these schools refuse to endure the very existence of contrary views.
Even Catholic universities have joined the fray. A few weeks ago, students at Notre Dame and Villanova gathered to express their disapproval of the writer Charles Murray for his alleged promotion of eugenics and racism. It is doubtful whether many of these protesters read The Bell Curve or learned the history of the eugenics movement, but it was quite clear they would rather act in the safety of their ignorance than open the channels of discussion and seek the truth.
Despite the legitimate complaints of conservative intellectuals who call out this foul play and hypocrisy and who bear the brunt of these demonstrations, the majority of people, even those who agree with conservatives, have passively accepted these events as normal. Although these writers and speakers might shed some light with a different perspective and offer possible solutions to serious problems, conventional wisdom has determined that they inevitably bring greater harm by delving into something controversial. Thus, those scholars who transgress the rules of etiquette that forbid talk of controversial issues only have themselves to blame for the hostility they provoke.
More than any time in the past, the equation of controversy with hate-mongering is pervasive among the current generation of college students. Whereas in the past, nonconformists opposed specific issues like a war, a law, or an organization, nonconformists today oppose a whole category of issues simply deemed controversial. No one can argue with them because they oppose argument in itself. To their minds, arguments lead to conflict, and conflict leads to hurt feelings, and hurt feelings lead to violence. They do not consider the contrary (and more likely) outcome: that arguments lead to better understanding, and mutual understanding leads to goodwill, and goodwill leads to community.
Rather than question the first premise that controversy necessarily leads to violence, people who oppose controversy would rather censor or silence all voices, including sympathetic ones. Perhaps unaware of the horrors that follow from this stance, they would prefer no debate and smother any possibility of confrontation.
Not surprisingly, this frequently results in total inaction in the face of great problems. In his classic essay, “Why Don’t We Complain?” William F. Buckley narrates various accounts of people, including himself, refusing to complain about obvious nuisances and discomforts to avoid causing a scene. They willingly sweat in a train car while it snows outdoors; they give themselves headaches watching a movie out of focus; they accept horrible service in hotels and airplanes; and, what is worse, they happily treat the Soviet dictator Nikita Kruschev with the greatest civility, never minding his crimes against humanity.
In characteristic fashion, Buckley notes how such permissiveness and reluctance to complain leads to big governments, media outlets, and businesses that happily take advantage of the situation. They will arbitrate all discussions, decide all controversies, and determine the general consensus—because they can. If anyone tries to complain or point out errors, upsetting the artificial equilibrium of opinion, they will quickly make themselves pariahs.
Controversy Actually Brings Much Needed Peace
Many might cite this trend as progressive and good for humanity. They would argue that it allows for ideological stability, which then sets the foundation on which to develop other opinions. If one has made up their mind about how to define a human being, they can then decide on what defines a culture and the good life and force their definitions on everyone else. Questioning these notions only stalls this progress and disrupts any hope of unity, a bit like questioning climate change hinders plans of creating environmentalist utopias. This is why progressives who hear pro-life advocates trying to define the meaning of personhood properly often interpret this as a ploy to prevent discussions of finding other avenues of personal freedom after a woman has an abortion.
However, contrary to this idea of progress and ideological unity, current reality has revealed that eliminating controversy actually has the opposite effect: society becomes more polarized and suffers social decline. Western civilization has experienced so much fragmentation as people isolate themselves from one another. They may use politically correct language and do the occasional small talk when forced into conversation, but they have little to no intellectual or emotional connection with those around them, even with spouses and relatives.
In truth, this is because the word controversy is just another way of saying something important. People debate controversial issues because they matter, not because these issues make them unhappy or hostile. Consequently, people who refrain from controversy simultaneously reject meaningful conversations and authentic human contact. Even people who disagree on these issues will draw closer in friendship simply by talking— the friendship between the Catholic G.K. Chesterton and atheist George Bernard Shaw come to mind.
This does not mean, as some would argue, that well-meaning people should strive for dialogue and avoid settled conclusions at all cost. As the aforementioned Chesterton had said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Well-meaning people, particularly Catholics, should rather speak out in favor of controversy and break the silence that the popular culture attempts to impose on it.
Jesus Himself constantly engaged in controversy, subjecting himself to treatment far worse than conservative writers speaking and teaching at universities. He did not keep his religious views private, nor did he apologize to Pharisees who felt “triggered” by his arguments. He persisted for the sake those who loved him, and even more for the sake of those who hated him. It was those who hated controversy like Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin who permitted so much violence or instigated it outright. It was the one who embraced controversy that quelled these dark impulses forever after and offered a chance at real community both in the home in in the city square.
Those in the throes of feeling offended along with those sitting on the sidelines nodding approvingly might think of all this the next time they encounter a controversial figure—particularly during the season of Easter, when this figure happens to be the Son of God.