The Importance of Controversy

Controversy is conducive to our completeness.


Gwenyth Tran, Staff Writer

What is controversy? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “A discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views.” Today, this word has been loaded with excessive baggage. We have defined it as something to be scared of—to be avoided. This needs to change.

This December, MIT released a “Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom,” citing a commitment and protection to such metrics as long as said speech does not involve harassment, plagiarism, or other similar classifications. This public letter was created in the 16-month aftermath of geophysics professor Dr. Dorian Abbot being disinvited from giving a high-profile lecture on climate and extraterrestrial life due to concerns behind his views on DEI initiatives, even though these views were completely irrelevant to his topic. 

Controversial discussion certainly has its time and place. However, disinviting Dr. Abbot was not a case of unwarranted controversial discussion—it was letting a fear of controversy (and bad PR) rule. It would certainly be reasonable to cancel the event if Dr. Abbot derailed the lecture and turned to discussing DEI without approval, but having his scientific lecture canceled prematurely is a completely different matter. Debating and criticizing Dr. Abbot’s views can coexist with providing him with a platform for his academic work.

This resistance towards controversy even extends its influence on the K-12 school curriculum. In some states this has included the censorship of what has occurred in American history or sanitizing how historical events are taught–especially in regard to the history of race and social structures in America–because people are afraid of making students uncomfortable. All this does is limit the extent to which social injustices can be rectified in the modern age due to a lack of awareness and urgency, stagnating our ability to accelerate social change. This avoidance of uncomfortable topics also applies to how many states and school districts want to ban sex education and/or severely limit the scope to which students receive receiving sex education. When there are stories of sexual predators getting away with abusing children because children are not able to communicate the crimes committed against them due to a lack of knowledge about their bodies, the importance of accurate sex education becomes apparent. So many potential victims are created because parents are uncomfortable with teaching their kids “immoral” knowledge. Many of those in favor of limiting sex education argue that it should be up to parents to teach their children when they feel comfortable, but this hands-off approach potentially enables ignorance and risks the safety of both teens and kids. 

Ultimately, controversy is an incredibly loud line people want to tiptoe around for their own peace and comfort, but the persistent avoidance of it has obstructed personal expression, stagnated social change, and endangered the safety of many. We must recall how first and foremost, controversy is part of discussion, even if it makes us uncomfortable or emotional. We can designate a time and place for this discussion to happen, but without eventually addressing the hard topics, nothing will ever substantially change.