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Jack Weinstein

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What is Philosophy?


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.

One comment on “Who decides if something is offensive?

  1. MOzarker says:

    Who determines what is offensive and what is not, in my view, is perhaps the first question related to this issue. An offending act causes anger, resentment, or affront. In other words: being offended is an emotional reaction. In other, other words: “I'm offended” equals “My feeling are hurt.”

    So the first follow-up question is: Who's feelings matter more? Let's suppose I say or do something that you find offensive. If my words or actions make me happy, but anger you, who's feelings are “more important” ? My happiness, or
    your anger? The offending symbol or the offending word inflict no tangible damage, so it's difficult for the offended to say they are hurt by the offense. This is not to say that emotional pain is not real, but strong words from one's father, spouse, or boss is in a different category than a bearded stranger in the swamp quoting the Bible.

    In today's America if a person is offended, he or she assumes that they have the right to control the “offender”. So the next question we must ask is: What gives the offended the right to control the behavior of the offender? It goes like this: You offend me. I therefore have the right to control you and/or your behavior. Take down that flag; don't say that word; don't do what offends me. I'm offended so I'm in charge and I demand the you, as the offender, be fined, fired, or otherwise punished for something I don't like. But you must stop because I say so! Don't forget, I'm offended! I contend that offense assumes no rights. Remember, offense is really nothing more than a gripe and a more sophisticated, socially acceptable way of saying: “You hurt my feelings”.

    Your next-to-last sentence is very telling about where we are as a society. To state that one of them is right and one of them is wrong assumes a moral standard. So perhaps a third question is: “How is right and wrong determined”? Our society purports that there is no moral standard – what is right for you is right for you. Without an objective source of morality, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Absent of a moral standard, all we have is opinion. Without an objective moral standard tolerance is no better than intolerance, it's just your preference.

    So in summary – absent of a standard of right or wrong the only measuring stick we have are the hurt feelings of the offended which in turn grant him or her the right to control another person's behavior. Tell me how this makes sense.

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