Different Approaches to Controversy Yield Different Results

I can’t think of a better example of controversy well-taken than then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s thoughtful speech exploring the role of race in American history, delivered in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008. In response to exploding controversy around his relationship with his pastor and mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who had made inflammatory (and frankly racist) remarks in his sermons, Obama rode directly into the wave of controversy. He didn’t deflect or minimize it, but took the festering issue of race in America head-on, thus defusing criticism, positioning himself as a courageous truth-teller, and building respect and enthusiasm for his candidacy among voters hungry for change. He turned a powder keg of a controversy that could have exploded his presidential campaign into a brilliant platform to teach about a subject so sensitive that it is often avoided in public discourse.

I sincerely doubt Obama or his campaign advisers would have sought out this controversy, but when it came up, they realized they had been handed a priceless moment to demonstrate genuine leadership. I believe this was the turning point that led him to victory, and that if Clinton had treated the equally vicious sexism thrown at her with the same directness and candor that Obama confronted race, the outcome might well have been different.

Sometimes we embrace controversies that have turned up on their own. And at other times, we need to create our own controversies in order to get things moving. In other words, there are controversies we make and controversies we take.

What are your own examples of embracing controversy? Did you make the controversy or did you take a controversy that came to you? What did you learn from your experiences?


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  2. Aletha on November 4, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Interesting. I had a completely different take on how Obama distanced himself from his pastor, turning liberation theology on its head. But then, I am all too familiar with the bizarre scenario of being accused of sexism for making inflammatory remarks about men. I would call an angry reaction to racism, even if unjustified or over the top, something other than racist, because there is no more symmetry in the power relations between whites and non-whites than there is between men and women.

    I could say, controversy is my middle name. I do not necessarily seek it out for its own sake. For instance, I do not give credence to ideas such as the attacks on 9/11/2001 were an inside job, or people are being abducted by hostile aliens. However, being a thoroughgoing skeptic of conventional wisdom makes many of my opinions controversial, by definition.

  3. Gloria Feldt on November 4, 2010 at 9:04 am

    The disappointment–that came to fruition with this week’s elections–is that Obama had his moment of embracing controversy and has not continued that patten. His rhetorical skills make this a strategy he could very effectively use to his advantage. If he chose to, which he does not even when it could turn the tide for a legislative initiative. Like staking out a leadership position for universal health care rather than saying, “Congress, you write the bill.”

  4. Aletha on November 5, 2010 at 1:48 am

    That moment was virtually forced on him. If he had ignored the controversy, I would agree we probably would have President Hillary Clinton now. I do not think Obama sees any value in embracing controversy. I think he generally sees controversy as a risk to his political capital he is not willing to take, unless he sees no alternative, or he sees something to be gained that outweighs that risk. The health reform initiative was an example of that. It was controversial from the start, but instead of embracing it, he sought to defuse and distance himself from the controversy, to placate critics who did not deserve it. It is hard to imagine someone who makes such a big deal of bipartisanship embracing controversy. The times demand bold, decisive action. Obama may think his actions fit that bill, but I think only his diehard fans would agree.

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