Modern Controversy

Freedom of speech is a good thing.  It is one of those very rudimentary good things, however, like sewage disposal and ballot voting, that civilized societies impose on uncivilized ones when engaged in the business of nation-building.  Civilized societies, taking freedom of speech for granted for themselves, have always delighted in that pearl of great price called controversy for which freedom of speech is its oyster.  This probably explains why, in the postcivilized era, the habit of controversy and the controversial arts are nearly extinct.

It is a cliché to say that we live in highly controversial times.  The cliché, moreover, happens to be true.  True also is that controversy above the level of the internet is nowadays conducted mostly on noncontroversial subjects and in noncontroversial terms.  Controversy has been relegated, for the most part, either to matters people fear to dissent from in public or those that, being mainly of secondary and tertiary interest, nobody is mortally concerned with.  G.K. Chesterton wrote of himself and his brother Cecil that “we perpetually argued and . . . we never quarrelled. . . . [W]e never quarrelled because we always argued. . . . His lucidity and love of truth kept things so much on the level of logic.”  Well, we are speaking of brothers, after all.  Yet, though G.B. Shaw and H.G.  Wells were Chesterton’s...

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