Here are some observations from a layman of logic, and a question. Responses from the better educated are welcome.
When there is a question in controversy, each party will have its own point of view about how the controversy ought to be defined or described. In our present culture, this might be taken to mean that everyone’s wrong, and the controversy is therefore pointless. This environment favors any party that seeks to escape culpability, or having some sort of power, wishes to retain it. After some amount of time, the mass of people lose interest in the “pointless” controversy, wishing only that it would go away. Without interest, the controverted question passes into oblivion unanswered. This makes it possible for those who should be held accountable to simply outlive the problem. Later, they can help write the history books about what happened and say anything they like.
Certainly, some controversies are pointless. The proper way to open an egg comes to mind. That does not mean that every controversy is pointless. The Council of Nicaea comes to mind, as well as the Reformation, the election controversy in the Norwegian Synod, and the battle for the Bible in the 20th Century. Yet in every controversy, there are those who say it’s not worth fighting about. The fighting itself, they say, is worse than living with the disagreement.
Lilliput is a long way from here. Maybe that’s why I don’t care about the opening of eggs. But Nicaea is also a long way from here, in both time and distance. I care deeply about that controversy, and would hope to suffer great pain and even death before retracting my confession that Jesus Christ is of one substance with the Father. So, distance alone does not account for apathy.
What may explain our reactions to various controversies is simply how they are defined. Was Athanasius arguing about a single letter and nothing more? That’s how some defined the controversy. So the Formula of Concord, which settled a number of controversies among Lutherans, was careful to define each one in a fair and accurate way. It avoided unnecessary embarrassment to those who had been wrong, but did not hesitate to repeat the Bible’s judgment upon all of the controverted questions, or to leave undecided what did not already have an answer in holy scripture. We can learn a lot from the Formula.
Now for the question.
When someone is making an argument in a controversy, he wants it to be understood. So he describes the context for his argument, which includes a definition of the controversy itself, from his own point of view. That’s fair enough. His opponents owe him the courtesy of hearing the argument in its proper context, and evaluating its merit accordingly.
When someone is trying to win a controversy with a weak argument, he will expend great energy trying to redefine the controversy in a way that favors his own argument. In this way the weak argument may eventually prevail upon the strength of the skewed understanding of the controversy that has saturated the minds of most participants, instead of upon the strength of the argument itself. So how does one tell the difference between this strategy, when you see it, and the regular practice, which simply expresses an argument in its proper context?
This is a question that deserves some attention. One way to tell the difference is to observe how the participants in the controversy treat their opponents, and how they handle the arguments of their opponents. If the strategy, in responding, is to distract others from the opponents’ argument (perhaps with an attack on the opponent himself), then the party may plan to redefine the controversy to hide a weak argument. Likewise, if one party tries to shout his opponent down, perhaps by controlling or manipulating the media outlets, he may intend to redefine the controversy to help his weak argument. If one party tries to exclude or disqualify or otherwise to remove his opponent from the debate, then he may intend to redefine the controversy in favor of his weaker argument.
I’m sure that others can think of even better ways to answer the question.