Locked in an Angry Echo Chamber: Why “Controversial” Shouldn’t Matter

BY MARGAUX BAVLSIK

In the news, “controversy” tends to describe events which provoke a highly-charged emotional reaction or at least involve people who react in such a manner. As an adjective, it demands a response from the reader and aims to provoke a reaction. As a technique for selling papers and attracting views, covering sensitive issues and highlighting controversies certainly seems successful. But exciting people’s sensitivities is likely counterproductive in attempting to inform anyone or disseminating worthwhile information.

“Controversy” can be employed broadly as a politically correct or non-biased descriptor for anything in which there is some sort of disagreement. It also serves as one of many wonderful words which broadly encapsulate a vague idea in an even vaguer form. In short, “controversial” simply means someone, somewhere is angry over this issue. Because of this, more or less anything can be presented as “controversial.” In being applicable to nearly everything, the word itself becomes meaningless.

Furthermore, these controversial issues tend to rely heavily on that knee-jerk response, an instinctive and immediate reaction to reading or hearing or seeing a piece. Someone said or did something so outrageous that it simply demands that the reader have an immediate, visceral response. But why? How does immediately responding to the presentation of an issue have any point? To seize a side in an emotional fervor and cling to it passionately? Perhaps this is somewhat hyperbolic, but by terming something “controversial,” discourse is invited. However, the disappointing fact is that discussing most controversies tends to result in either an exercise in intellectual mutual masturbation or an unproductive shouting match. Anyone claiming to hold a controversial opinion is unlikely to suddenly experience a change of heart or mind, especially in regards to those opinions which tend to be more frequently and emphatically challenged. This is partially a result of the perpetuation of the idea that certain views are inherently contrarian, and holding to them may require a complex and nuanced understanding of the issue, or simply thick armor and guarded ears.

This in turn leads to the fact that being outrageous can be a successful business endeavor. Anyone who has an extreme opinion can find an audience if they’re loud and offensive enough–negative press is still press, after all. But the more disturbing aspect of this is that these deafening speakers often manage to attract people who agree with them. When a group of similarly thinking people assembles in this manner, it becomes incredibly easy for their single-sided view to gain volume as it is passed around and reiterated. This becomes increasingly easy with the multiplicity of obscure and niche interest blogs and websites online and in print. Pick the craziest, most ridiculous opinion of an issue—someone somewhere on the internet agrees with you. But extreme opinions aside, a person identifying on any side of the political spectrum could easily bounce between sources which agree with one another and reinforce existing opinions. If you don’t want, you never have to see the other side, and the less you see it, the easier it is to ignore.

So, in short, the word controversy is bandied around as either a cheap way to catch attention, or as an all-encompassing term meaning that an issue has multiple sides and at least one person threw a tantrum because people disagreed with them. Why does this matter? It doesn’t. You probably already knew it. But at the same time, it illuminates the fact that if someone wants to shout their “controversial” opinion loudly and ad infinitum without ever seriously considering the potential validity of other sides, it’s surprisingly easy for them. And the idea that everyone has the “right” to their own opinion seems to be fundamentally flawed. You could hold the opinion that one race is fundamentally inferior to another, or that one plus one makes four, but in addition to these thoughts being inherently wrong, they severely impede one’s ability to understand and interact with the rest of the world.

It follows that controversies—referring to the existence of plural opinions—are useful, and perhaps necessary even, but controversies existing for the sake of being controversial contribute to problematic phenomenon of people continually reinforcing their existing opinions and ignoring the rest of the issue. Then again, maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough at the other side.​

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Margaux Bavlsik is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at mbavlsik@wustl.edu

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