My last entry asking whether pin-ups are always sexist led to a variety of interesting conversations. One of the threads brought up a scenario in which a student walks into a professor’s office and finds a photograph offensive. The examples cited were photos of Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, and a painting by Gauguin. If that happens, the professor may be under an obligation to remove the art. Should the student’s personal standard be enough to make this happen?
It is clear that being offended is a psychological issue; some people are offended by images that others regard as benign or beautiful. But is there not a difference between someone finding something offensive and something actually being offensive? Can we objectively say that someone is wrong to be offended by an image (or wrong to not be offended), or is offensiveness only in the eye of the beholder?
This has been a central issue at the University of North Dakota, which had, for many years, a sports logo that offended many. (The controversies were much the same as those surrounding the Washington Redskins, although the were complicated by UND being an educational institution and there being a large Native American population in the area.) But, I would rather not get sidetracked by those details. Instead I’m interested in whether there are independent standards for offensiveness that are distinct from a person’s individual experience. If there are, who decides them?
And that’s why the examples of Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, and Gauguin are such good ones. The professor could claim that these pictures are art, or inspirational, or kitsch and genuinely mean it, while the student could claim that the objectification or the overt sexuality is immoral, and hold to the belief with all his or her heart. Both genuinely believe their claims and both want the best for the other person, but this doesn’t resolve the issue, because one of them is going to have to give way. If it is the professor, than he or she is being “censored” and the student is being “intolerant,” but if the student has to endure the images, then he or she is facing a “hostile environment” and the professor is being “insensitive.” Certainly, someone has to win and someone has to lose, but a more interesting scenario is the possibility that one of them might be right and one of them might be wrong.
Which is it? Are there objectively offensive images and if so, who decides what they are? I’d love to read your thoughts below.