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Why we need more controversy (not less)

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons

It was at my first academic conference as a junior law professor that I experienced first-hand the backlash against controversy. I was there to present a contrarian argument on military coups. At the time, the experts had already reached a consensus: Coups are bad for democracy. No buts, no ifs, no exceptions. During my research, I uncovered numerous coups that didn’t fit this pattern. These coups toppled dictatorships and built democracies, rather than destroyed them.

When I shared this evidence at that conference, a senior scholar awoke from his daydream, turned his head deliberately in my direction, and gave me the same type of stare that the Cardinals must have given Galileo for asserting that the Earth is round. At the conference dinner, I found myself on the receiving end of an increasingly loud and intense monologue by another professor who was so bothered by my hypothesis that she found it blasphemous to even air it in public.

This was a jarring experience, but I should have anticipated it. It’s become taboo to even think out loud about controversial ideas, to openly question popular wisdom, and to introduce nuance to a field dominated by ancient thinking. We behave as if radical ideas are viral infections from which we need protection. We set up safe spaces to filter them out and shut down controversial speakers before they can infect us.

Tribalism is in part to blame. Tribes appeal to the core human experience because, thousands of years ago, conformity to a tribe was vital to our survival. If we didn’t conform, we’d be rejected, ostracized, or worse, left for dead.

Modern tribalism isn’t all that different. Today’s tribes, founded on political, religious, or ethnic grounds, want their members to engage in groupthink, reject unorthodox views as controversial, and engage in shouting matches–rather than disciplined disagreements–with other tribes. With dissent carefully policed, tribal echo chambers get louder and louder with the sounds of the same voices.

The societal stance against controversy comes at the expense of human knowledge. Truth often emerges only when we push the boundaries and explore the edges. “It is the mark of an educated mind,” Aristotle once said, “to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

But when speakers pay a steep price for even entertaining a controversial idea, they don’t speak. I observe this phenomenon with concerning frequency in the classroom. Students are reluctant to express opinions on controversial issues in part because they fear saying the “wrong thing” and getting ostracized by their classmates, the members of their tribe.

Critical thinking requires engagement with all ideas, no matter how radical or controversial. I often tell my students that one quality sets apart exceptional lawyers from the rest: They can articulate their opponents’ arguments better than their opponents can. This is an exceedingly rare quality in a world where we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, let alone see the world through their eyes.

All progress results from controversy. It was the controversial thought of equality for all races that freed the slaves. It was a groundbreaking theory, once ostracized for challenging deeply held beliefs, that established evolution as scientific truth. It was the contrarian ideas of an amateur geologist, initially declared absurd, that brought us the theory of continental drift. If controversy were banished, America might not exist and we might still believe that the Earth is at the center of the universe.

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury sketched a dystopian society where the government burns books to ashes and then burns the ashes. It’s easy to look at the book and see a cautionary story about a totalitarian state that bans books.

What’s harder to see is another storyline where the real culprit is not the government, but the people. In the book, it’s the tribes–the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, the doctors, the lawyers, the leftists, the rightists, the Catholics, the Zen Buddhists, the immigrants, and the Texans–who pour the kerosene, light the fuse, and push their government to do the same. Although authors don’t get to control how their books are interpreted, Bradbury insists that this is the primary message of the book: Junior totalitarians, in the form of ordinary citizens, rooting out seemingly evil ideas can be just as dangerous as an oppressive government.

What’s more, when we repress controversy, we empower it. When we banish radical thoughts, they start doing pushups. After the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was convicted for inciting discrimination against Moroccans, support for his political party increased. After a freedom-loving people passed a constitutional amendment banning alcohol during the early 1900s, its popularity spiked. Each time an authoritarian leader attempts to impose a media blackout, the censored information becomes more attractive.

The solution, therefore, is more controversy. As Mae West put it, “those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.” We must inoculate ourselves against controversy in the same the way that we inoculate against the flu: by exposing ourselves to it. Only repeated exposure can reduce our tendency to overreact. Only repeated exposure can allow us to engage with the seemingly radical thoughts of the other tribes. Only repeated exposure can allow us to develop the empathy required to change someone’s mind.

When we preach, when we lecture, when we equate controversy with idiocracy, when we blindly attempt to impose our truth on others, when we pour the kerosene and light the fuse, when we allow our tribes to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not, the future of humanity is in danger.

Remember: Every brilliant idea was controversial the moment before it changed the world.

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