Controversial topics are a good choice for an essay or debate because they immediately draw in the reader or listener. The adage that “controversy sells” is so rooted in society that even the rapper Chamillionaire named his second album after it! Controversial issues are also a good topic because it’s easier to write a strong thesis and find sources to back up your argument. After all, when something is controversial, everybody wants to have their say over it.
However, it’s also important that you address controversial issues with sensitivity and care. Because controversial topics tend to raise emotions, you must walk a thin line between opinion and fact in order to build trust between you and your reader/listener.
In this article, we’re going to give you the best controversial topics you can use for essays and debates—and we’ll explain the controversies for you, too! We’ll also discuss when to use controversial topics, the pros and cons of choosing a controversial issue, and tips for making sure you’re treating a controversial topic with sensitivity and respect.
That’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
Controversial topics are issues that can really get people up in arms. (Yes, it's a dad joke. No, we're not sorry.)
What Are Controversial Topics?
If you’ve flipped on a television lately, you’ve probably seen people on the news arguing different sides of an issue. (Occasionally, these arguments can get pretty emotional!) When you see this happening, there’s a good chance that the people you’re watching are discussing a controversial topic.
Controversial debate topics include subjects that create strong differences of opinion. They are issues that can affect politics, society as a whole, individuals on a personal level, the environment, or any other area of life that people feel strongly about. Additionally, controversial issues often have no clear answer because people’s feelings and personal beliefs are often strongly involved.
3 Pros and 3 Cons of Using Controversial Topics in Essays or Debates
It might be tempting to pick any old controversial topic and run with it. Not so fast! While controversial topics definitely give you a lot to talk about in an essay or debate, there are some definite drawbacks to dealing with hot-button issues.
Here are the pros and cons you should consider before deciding to use a controversial topic in your work.
Pro #1: It’s Usually Easy to Find Sources
Everyone wants to have their say on controversial topics, which is great when you need sources to include in your paper! A quick library or Google search will turn up tons of information. It can make that part of writing (or preparing for a debate) much easier.
Con #1: It Can Be Hard to Find Good Sources
When you Google a controversial source, the results can be overwhelming. While you’re probably going to have tons of hits, they'll be from a wide range of sources like social media, personal blogs, podcasts, and message boards (like Reddit and Quora). Just because something appears high in a Google result doesn’t make it a good source that you can site in a paper or speech.
Good sources are ones that are written by credentialed authors (they are experts in their field) and include reliable, cited evidence. A good place to find good sources are scholarly databases, like JSTOR and ProQuest, since the articles on these databases have been vetted by other experts before they are published. Reputable news outlets can also be good resources, too.
Pro #2: It’s Easier to Talk About Things That Interest You
If you care about a topic you probably already know a little bit about it. This is especially true for many controversial issues. After all, they tend to be controversial because many people have opinions on them! If you pick a controversial issue that’s near and dear to your heart, you’ll find that you have a lot to say about it.
Con #2: It’s Hard to Keep Your Emotions In Check
If it is a topic you care about a lot, you probably already have strong opinions formed. But in order to build trust with your reader/listener and to be accurate, you need to use neutral language so that your reader/listener can draw their own conclusions based on your work. While it’s tempting to call people out or get heated, those are both pitfalls you should avoid.
Pro #3: Controversial Issues Capture Attention
Tackling a subject like mass incarceration, the death penalty, or abortion is a good way to get your audience to sit up and take notice. People want to hear your opinion to see how it does—or doesn’t—match their own.
Con #3: You Open Yourself Up to Criticism
On the flip side, if your argument doesn’t align with their beliefs, the people reading or listening to your argument may criticize your opinion or belief because it is not the same as theirs. You’ll have to spend extra time making sure you’ve created a strong argument since people have often spent more time thinking about a controversial topic and are better able to challenge your position.
How to Pick Good Controversial Topics for Teens
When picking what topic to write about, it’s important that you pick a good strong topic that is relevant and that has an amount of easy to find good sources. When deciding on a topic, try to keep these tips in mind!
Tip #1: Choose a Topic That Interests You
It’s easier to work on a subject you enjoy. Don’t use a topic you find boring or have no interest in. Write about a topic you are passionate about, since your own interest will shine through in your writing or speech. Also, when you pick a topic you like, the assignment can actually be fun. Imagine that!
Tip #2: Be Passionate...But Not Too Passionate
Stay away from topics where you might be too passionate about one side since it can be tough to distance yourself enough to see both sides of the argument. You’ll want to know what good arguments the other side has so that you can defend your position against them. If you're too passionate about a subject, you might miss key details that help you defend your position. Every side has good points—that’s why there’s an argument in the first place!
Tip #3: Make Sure There’s Hard Evidence
Pick a topic where there’s evidence, not just a “he said, she said” kind of thing. Avoid arguments that don’t have any facts or figures backing them up or they are entirely opinion based. Examples of topics that are controversial but lack compelling evidence include government conspiracies or theories that have been proven false, like the Earth being flat or that pineapple belongs on pizza (it doesn’t).
Tip #4: Know Your Audience
If you are writing about controversial debate topics, ask yourself who it is you are trying to persuade. Is it your teacher? A certain segment of the population? If you know who your audience is, you can better tailor your argument to hit on the points they care about.
For example, say you’re writing an essay about how teacher’s unions are unnecessary. If your audience is your teacher—who's probably in a union!—you’re going to have to work harder to prove your point since they’re more likely to be in favor of unions. (You’ll also need to make sure you’re being fair and respectful to avoid offending your teacher. We’ll talk more about how to do that in a minute.)
In the example above, knowing your audience can (and should) change the way you write your argument in order to make it as persuasive and convincing as possible.
Tip #5: Narrow Down Your Topic
Make sure your topic is broad enough that you have plenty of information sources to choose from but narrow enough that you aren’t overwhelmed by the amount of information. An easy way to narrow a broad topic is to limit it to a time period or geographical location. For instance, let’s say that you want to write an argumentative essay about climate change. Climate change covers a lot of ground, so you could narrow it down to only writing about climate change in the last 15 years. You could narrow it down even more by writing about how climate change has affected a small geographical location, like California or your own city, in the last 15 years.
Gun control is a perennially controversial topic in the United States.
The Best Controversial Topics of 2019
Here are some of the most controversial topics discussed this year. Many of these issues are evergreen topics, which means you’ll be able to find plenty of information for them!
These are topics related to current political subjects both in the US and abroad.
Is Brexit a good or bad idea?
In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to settle the question of whether or not they should leave the European Union. Proponents of Brexit argue that leaving the EU would save money for the nation as they would no longer need to pay a membership fee to the EU. Opponents argue that the UK will lose money due to new trade restrictions.
Did Russia interfere with the 2016 Presidential Election?
After Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election, there were several investigative reports published that suggested that Russia used targeted Facebook ads to encourage people to vote for Trump, and Russia may have been the ones who hacked the Democratic National Convention. Trump supporters have been quick to rebuff this claim, arguing that the election results reflect the will of the American population. However, those who are anti-Trump argue that Trump did not legitimately win the election and that the results were due to Russian interference. They cite the fact that Hilary Clinton had a larger popular vote than Trump to support this.
Should there be stricter gun control?
The United States has experienced more than 200 mass shootings in 2019, and each new incident brings up controversial questions about gun control. Those in favor of gun control argue that more gun laws would reduce gun deaths. Those against gun control argue that the Second Amendment protects their right to own guns and any legislation for stricter gun control would be unconstitutional.
Should America allow illegal immigrants to become American citizens?
As more and more immigrants arrive at America’s borders, the debate over immigration becomes even more heated. On the pro side, people argue that illegal immigrants help the economy by paying taxes and that most immigrants came here as asylum seekers, which is legal. Opponents argue that these immigrants have crossed the border illegally and that a large portion of these immigrants are violent criminals and should be sent back to protect American citizens.
Should the death penalty still be allowed?
Many states have done away with the death penalty, yet some states still support it. Many have questioned if the death penalty is a moral, ethical, and effective way to deal with crime. On the pro side, the argument is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime and can help bring closure to families affected by heinous criminal activity. On the con side, the argument is that it violates the 8th amendment and that sometimes innocent people have been put to death.
Should abortion be allowed?
Recently, several states have enacted new legislation limiting access to abortion. The pro-choice/pro-abortion side argues that women should be allowed to control their bodies without any interference from the government or religious authority. The pro-life/anti-abortion side argues that abortion is murder and inflicts pain and suffering on the unborn fetus. They are also opposed to Roe vs. Wade, a court decision that made abortion legal in the United States.
Should doctor-assisted suicide be allowed?
In January of 2019, Hawaii will join six other states in enacting Death with Dignity laws for patients with terminal illnesses. However, unlike in countries like Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada, and the Netherlands, doctor-assisted euthanasia is still illegal according to US federal laws. Many believe it should also be legal on the federal level. Those for doctor-assisted suicide argue that allowing those with chronic pain or terminal illnesses to end their lives is a compassionate act that relieves their suffering. Those opposed argue that it violates the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” and allowing euthanasia is a slippery slope that will lead to doctors deciding who is worthy of life and who is not.
Should the government legalize recreational marijuana?
As of 2018, there are 11 states that have legalized recreational marijuana: Alaska (2014), California (2016), Colorado (2012), DC (2014), Maine (2016), Massachusetts (2016), Michigan (2018), Nevada (2016), Oregon (2014), Vermont (2018), and Washington (2012). Legal marijuana proponents argue that the War on Drugs was a failed initiative that unfairly affected minority communities,and that marijuana isn’t any worse for you than drinking alcohol. Those against legal marijuana argue that the drug is addictive and leads to a higher percentage of school dropouts, car accidents, and crime.
These are topics based on current controversies happening in the scientific field.
Are humans causing global warming?
As the polar ice caps continue to melt, people question whether or not human activity is responsible for raising the temperature of the Earth. Proponents of this idea argue that due to human-generated waste and carbon dioxide, we are responsible for this rise in temperature. Opponents argue that the earth has gone through many warming and cooling cycles and that human activity is not to blame.
Are GMOs good or bad?
In recent years there has been an increase in the number of controversial questions raised by GMO, or genetically modified, crops. Those in favor of GMOs, which stands for genetically modified organisms, argue that without genetically modified crops and animals, there would be food shortages; they also argue that GMOs have been around for millennia. Those opposed to GMOs argue that GMOs could be the cause of the rise of cancers and that the pesticides needed to grow GMO crops contribute to pesticide-resistant pests.
Will work done on artificial intelligence eventually lead to our demise?
Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more sophisticated, which raises questions about the ethics and eventual outcome of creating artificial intelligence. Proponents believe artificial intelligence will keep us safer and solve many of the world’s problems; but opponents believe that developing AI might not be ethical, they ask whether or not robots programmed with AI count as conscious beings and should be given rights, or if AI will eventually lead to humanity’s downfall.
Should we allow gene editing on human beings?
2017 saw exciting advances in the science of gene editing with the arrival of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing method. However, it’s also raised some controversial debate topics regarding the ethics of allowing gene editing. Gene editing proponents argue that gene editing will allow us to cure genetic diseases and prolong life. But opponents argue that the technology will create more social inequity because only the rich will be able to afford it. They also argue that editing the genes of human embryos is tantamount to playing God.
Are self driving cars really safe?
In 2018, a car accidentally ran over and killed a pedestrian as she was crossing the street in Tempe, AZ. Despite this, driverless car manufacturers like Tesla and transportation companies like Uber argue that driverless technology is ultimately safer than human piloted transportation. This is due to the fact that driverless cars would feature many sensors and safety features whereas human drivers have a tendency to get distracted or sleepy while driving, and some may be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There are many pro and con arguments about the controversial issues related to driverless technology, which makes this a great controversial topic for essays and debates!
Should anti-vaxxers be forced to vaccinate their kids?
Recently a measles outbreak has spread throughout Europe. According to the World Health Organization, there have been at least 40 measles-related deaths associated with the outbreak. Many blame anti-vaxxers, or parents who believe vaccines cause autism and other illnesses, for the spread of this disease. Those who are pro-vaccine argue that vaccines save lives and by not vaccinating their children, anti-vaxxers are putting others at risk. Anti-vaxxers argue that vaccines can cause serious side effects like autism, seizures, or Guillain-Barre Syndrome. They also argue that getting vaccinated is a personal choice that should be respected by the government.
Do we really need a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?
In April of 2016, the European Union enacted the General Data Protection Regulation, which is designed to protect EU citizens’ personal data. Proponents for the GDPR argue that it will prevent the number of wide-scale data breaches and hacking that occurs on a day to day basis. Opponents argue that the GDPR doesn’t do enough to protect data and that it will negatively impact the economy because of the fines that will be enforced if a company fails to comply with GDPR guidelines.
Should we grow our meat in a lab?
Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to experiment with lab-grown, edible meat that doesn’t require animal slaughter. Supporters of lab grown meat claim it is better for the environment and does away with the moral issues surrounding animal husbandry, including animal abuse and inhumane farming practices. Opponents claim lab grown meat may have adverse health effects on people who eat lab-grown meat, especially since the technology is so new. Opponents also argue that lab-grown meat could end the farming industry and put thousands of people out of work.
Uber is great when you need a lift...but does it treat its employees fairly?
Society & Culture
These are current topics that involve our day to day lives.
Should transgendered people be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice?
Earlier last year, North Carolina passed a law that prohibited transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice based on their expressed gender rather than their biologically assigned sex. The “bathroom bill” is the first of its kind to specifically address the issue of transgender public restroom access. Proponents for the bill argue that allowing biological males and females to use the same restroom will lead to a higher percentage of sexual assault and was a risk to public safety. Opponents argue that the bill is discriminatory.
Is it still okay to use UBER?
In 2017, UBER was rocked by claims of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and false advertising. The hashtag #DeleteUber went viral in January 2017, and many users and drivers boycotted the company. This situation raises two controversial questions. First, what rights do contract workers have in this new, emerging gig economy? And second, is UBER the victim of cancel culture, or do customers have an ethical obligation to boycott companies with shady practices?
Cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? What’s the difference?
Katy Perry has been criticized for her 2017 music video "This Is How We Do” because the singer wore cornrows in her hair. Many have claimed the appearance of a Caucasian woman with a traditionally black hairstyle is cultural appropriation. These opponents argue that because people of color have been discriminated against for wearing traditionally black hairstyles, white women who sport the same hair styles profit from it. However, some argue that without cultural appropriation, many elements of minority cultures have become popularized, like rap music and R&B.
Should we give men accused of sexual misconduct a second chance?
In 2017, comedian Louis CK was accused of sexually harassing his female colleagues. Since these accusations went public, Louis CK has tried to rehabilitate his image, and he has since publicly apologized. But this raises the question of whether we should give men accused of sexual misconduct a second chance if they seem to have learned their lesson.
Is social media ruining society?
According to a 2018 survey, approximately 70% of Americans use at least one social media site including Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Those in favor of social media argue that it promotes a sense of community and helps create social interactions. But social media detractors argue that sites like Facebook or Reddit waste time, trigger mental illnesses, and encourage dangerous bullying.
Should people get fired for what they say on social media?
Recently, James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy, was fired by Disney because there were several tweets on his Twitter feed they believed were offensive. He is not the only one, either: Roseanne was fired by Netflix after she made an offensive tweet towards politician Valerie Jarrett. This has raised some controversial questions, like whether someone be held professionally accountable for what they say on social media. Proponents for social media accountability argue that what someone posts on social media is a reflection of who they are as a person. Opponents argue that posting on social media is protected by free speech and that the context of the posting should matter.
Is the #MeToo movement helping or hurting women?
The #MeToo movement began in 2017 with a series of articles that accused Harvey Weinstein of rape and sexual assault. These articles led to Weinstein’s ostracization from Hollywood and eventually led to criminal investigations into his behavior. The #MeToo movement has brought down several powerful men with accusations of sexual misconduct. But some argue the movement has set the feminist movement back by discouraging companies from hiring women due to their fear of lawsuits.
Is Gen Z worse than previous generations?
Someone is always complaining that the generation after them is worse than their generation. As members of Gen Z mature and reach adulthood, they face many criticisms from the preceding generations. For example, detractors have accused Gen Z of being lazy and introverted. However, others think Gen Z might be the generation that saves the world.
Arts & Entertainment
These are topics that are currently affecting sports, tv, Hollywood, literature, music, and art.
Should movies and television shows be forced to hire more diverse casts?
Hollywood has come under fire for “whitewashing” or the act of casting a white actor when the role should have gone to a person of color. An example of this is when Rupert Sanders, director of Ghost in the Shell, cast Scarlett Johansson as the Asian protagonist Major. Opponents of this practice argue that “whitewashing” takes jobs away from deserving POC actors. However, others argue that art should be free of any restrictions or boundaries.
Should the show 13 Reasons Why have removed its controversial scenes?
In 2017, Netflix released an original show based on the young adult novel 13 Reasons Why, which focuses on the suicide of 17-year-old Hannah Baker. Parents and educators opposed the release of this show due to the fact that it involved several controversial topics for teens such as suicide and rape. But those that support the show have argued that it provided a way to start conversations with teens about these tough topics. Ultimately, Netflix went back and edited out the controversial scenes. This topic gives you the opportunity to talk about whether mature content like suicide and rape is appropriate in shows aimed toward teenagers. You can also discuss whether Netflix’s removal of the offending scenes is the right decision or not.
Should male and female actors make the same amount of money?
In 2018, Hollywood came under fire after the internet learned that Michelle Williams was paid substantially less for her role in “All The Money In The World” than her male co-star, Mark Wahlberg. Some argue that as the bigger star, Whalberg deserved to be compensated at a higher rate. Others argue that Williams did the same amount of work as Wahlberg and should receive the same amount of pay. This issue plugs into the larger social issue of pay discrepancies based on race and gender.
Should athletes be allowed to kneel during the national anthem?
People have started to boycott Nike for their commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is a San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has received a lot of press for being the first athlete to kneel during the national anthem in protest the treatment of African Americans and minorities in the United States. President Trump has publicly stated that any athlete who kneels during the national anthem is being disrespectful and should be fired. Yet others defend kneeling during the anthem, regarding it as an expression of free speech that’s protected under the First Amendment.
The 5 Best Tips for Treating Controversial Topics With Sensitivity and Respect
In order to write a good argument and convince your reader/listener to agree with you, you will need to treat your controversial issue with sensitivity and respect. This helps the reader/listener to trust you.
But that can be really hard when you feel passionately about your topic and your opinions! Here are the best tips for making sure you stick to the facts, not the feelings.
Tip #1: Avoid Charged Language
An author is accused of using loaded language when they substitute words with positive or negative connotations instead of using more neutral language. Some examples of this are using the word “superior” instead of better, calling the opposition “stupid,” or using biased terminology (“infanticide” vs. “abortion”). While emotional appeals are a great tool to persuade people to your point of view, when they’re used in the wrong way, they come across as overly aggressive and biased.
Tip #2: Avoid Logical Fallacies
A logical fallacy is an error in your argument’s logic because it presents the topic’s information in a deceptive way. Below are some common logical fallacies to watch out for.
Straw Man Fallacy: this is when you ignore your opponent’s real argument and instead argue that your opponent believes something easily ridiculed or proved false.
Slippery Slope: this is when you argue that something seemingly benign will lead to an unlikely extreme.
Generalizations: generalizations are statements about an idea that do not have any facts to support them. They tend to play into stereotypes and often rely on exaggerations or over the top statements.
For more information on logical fallacies and how to avoid them, check out this resource.
Tip #3: Do Not Attack Your Opponent Personally
This is called an ad hominem fallacy, and is often referred to as “mud-slinging” or “bashing.” When you do this, it implies that the only way you can counter your opponents viewpoints is through personal attacks. (Also, it’s just not cool.) Instead, stick to using facts and figures to show why their argument is wrong.
Tip #4: Avoid Hyperbole, Stereotypes, and Clichés
These are common issues that crop up in argumentative writing that ultimately weaken your position.
Hyperbole happens when you exaggerate. When you use hyperbole, you risk misrepresenting the issue at hand—which is an argument killer. For example, take this statement: “If we don’t stop climate change now, we’ll all be dead in 10 years.” While climate change is definitely a huge risk to humanity, saying everyone on Earth will die in a decade if we don’t fix is a significant exaggeration. It would be better to say something like, “If we don’t start to solve climate change now, we’re risking the livelihoods and safety of future generations.” This is a more moderate statement that you can back up with facts, like scientists’ belief that climate change will put coastal cities underwater.
Stereotypes are oversimplified, misinformed, or prejudiced assumptions held about other people or things. For example, a common stereotype is that all women love pink. (Spoiler alert: they don’t.) While stereotypes like this seem harmless, most are not. For example, a stereotype like the idea that all immigrants are criminals is extremely harmful. Stereotypes are not only false, they make you seem biased and ill-informed.
Finally, clichés are overused or commonplace phrases, themes, or expressions. These are often phrases that have been said so much that they’ve lost all real meaning. For example, the idea that people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” is a textbook example of a cliché. Instead, it’s better to explain the idea behind the cliché in more detail. In this case, it would be better to say that people—no matter their station in life—can create opportunities for themselves through hard work.
Tip #5: Don’t Beat a Dead Horse
Remember that your job is to present them with the facts in an open and honest way. If you have done a good job, your reader or listener will come away with the same opinion as you, or at least more informed. It’s okay to state your opinion in your paper as long as you use other sources to back your opinion up and are fair to the other side. (Also resist the urge to restate your opinion every other sentence—it’s monotonous and doesn’t do much to win your reader over!)
5 Resources for Finding More Controversial Debate Topics
If you’re not inspired by the topics we’ve already mentioned, don’t worry. There are many other controversial topics out there! Here are some other places you can look to find a topic that’s perfect for your essay or debate.
You probably noticed that we’ve included links in this article that take you to ProCon.org. That’s because this website is a treasure trove of controversial issues! The website has lists of ideas that they break down into general pro/con lists, and each topic links you research starters.
#2: National & Local News
Much of the modern news cycle is devoted to discussing hot-button topics of our time. If you’re looking for topics related to current events, news sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post will help! Also, don’t discount your local news resources, either. They’ll give you valuable information about what’s going on in your community and how larger, national issues are impacting where you live.
#3: They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Fourth Edition) by Cathy Birkenstein & Gerald Graff
Writing argumentative papers where you have to pick (and defend) your perspective is a skill you’ll use throughout high school, college, and beyond. They Say/I Say walks you through everything you need to know to write an argument. Even better: the book uses controversial issues as a way to teach writing, so you’ll get expert instruction on how to use them to write an amazing paper.
Documentaries provide more in-depth perspectives on topics—both historical and contemporary—that have shaped the world. A great documentary can give you a thorough overview of an issue, and often they dig into different perspectives around an event, idea, or historical moment. The PBS series, Frontline, is a good place to start, but don’t be afraid to look at critically acclaimed films (like The Times of Harvey Milk or How to Survive a Plague) for inspiration as well.
#5: The Learning Network
The Learning Network, a blog run by The New York Times, is a great resource for students and teachers. They have lots of great resources, and their article on 200 prompts for argumentative writing is amazing for anyone looking for essay or debate topics. The article split into categories by topic and links to articles that can help explain each issue. It’s a great place to find a topic that interests you.
Controversial topics are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things you can research and write about for class. Check out our list of 113 amazing research paper topics to put you on the path to an A+ paper grade! (If you’re looking for speech topics or argumentative essay topics, we’ve got you covered, too.)
Researching a controversial topic is just the first step in the argumentative process. You also have to be able to persuade your reader or listener to believe in your point of view. Here are 3 killer tips to help you write an amazing argumentative essay.
Learning how to read critically, come up with an argument, and communicate it is one of the fundamental skills you’ll need to tackle the writing portions of the SAT and ACT. To make sure you’re prepared, check out our step-by-step guide to the essay portion of the SAT (and the ACT).
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.