A controversy is a contentious dispute, a disagreement over which parties are actively arguing. Controversies can range from private disputes between two individuals to large-scale social upheavals. Controversies in mathematics and the sciences are generally eventually solved. It is the nature of controversies in the humanities that they cannot generally be conclusively settled and may be accompanied by the disruption of peace and even quarreling. In some cases, this may be because the two sides to a dispute differ so much in their "givens" that in effect they are not having the same argument. In other cases, culture moves on, and the subject of the controversy becomes quaint in retrospect and increasingly irrelevant.
Present-day areas of controversy include religion, politics, war, and taxes. Controversy in matters of theology has traditionally been particularly heated, giving rise to odium theologicum.
In jurisprudence, a controversy differs from a case, which includes all suits criminal as well as civil; a controversy is a purely civil proceeding. In the Constitution of the United States, the judicial power shall extend to controversies to which the United States shall be a party (Article 2, Section 1). The meaning to be attached to the word controversy in the constitution is that given above.
The term is not always used in a purely descriptive way. The use of the word tends itself to create controversy where none may have authentically existed, acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Propagandists, therefore, may employ it as a "tar-brush," pejoratively, and thus create a perceived atmosphere of controversy, discrediting the subject:
- "Beatrix Potter's creation, Peter Rabbit..."
- "Beatrix Potter's controversial creation, Peter Rabbit..."
Thus controversy may itself be judged controversial.
On the other hand, controversy is also used in advertising to try to draw attention to a product or idea by labeling it as controversial, even if the idea has become widely accepted to a given segment of the population. This strategy has been known to be especially successful in promoting books and films.
In early Christianity
Many of the early Christian writers, among them Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Jerome, were famed as "controversialists"; they wrote works against perceived heresy or heretical individuals, works whose titles begin "Adversus..." such as Irenaeus' Adversus haeresis. The Christian writers inherited from the classical rhetors the conviction that controversial confrontations, even over trivial matters, were a demonstration of intellectual superiority.
Controversy is the title of an album released by Prince in 1981 on the Warner Brothers record label.