search instagram arrow-down
Jack Weinstein

Need advice? have a philosophical question or comment?

Explore a topic:

Top Posts & Pages

Enter your email to follow PQED.

Join 3,076 other subscribers

Recent Comments

Jefferson Baugh on Mad Max: Fury Road is a very v…
Jack Russell Weinste… on What is the first question you…
s. wallerstein on What is the first question you…
Jack Russell Weinste… on What is the first question you…
s. wallerstein on What is the first question you…

Click image for the Why? Radio podcast

Why? Radio’s Facebook


No Instagram images were found.

Follow PQED on Twitter

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.

4 comments 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.

  2. Because of today’s society being, “I’m offended, you hurt my feelings”, boohoo, we have adapted to the environment, and learned how to fight back.

    Examples like:

    ” aww so sad”

    “snowflake” (easily gets offended, like a snowflake that melts when you touch it.)

    (and my personal favorite from the man himself, Ben Shapiro): ” Facts don’t care about your feelings”.

    It’s like since we’re not waging war with other countries, we’re waging war amongst ourselves.

  3. RJ says:

    The individual that is offended decides what is offensive to them, you shouldn’t be afraid to offend others if it means sharing your thoughts. If we are not allowed to offend then we are not allowed to think freely.

    1. darkangelis says:

      Is it impossible for someone to share their thoughts & opinions, without saying offensive things? Have we become a society that no longer is capable of thinking of alternative phrases, or words, that effectively communicate our thoughts, views, and creativity without being crass, brutish, non-empathetic and uncaring towards others? Whether we feel the same as others feel, or understand why it’s considered offensive, I believe a civil society should have concern for others and their feelings. It may be difficult to find other ways to effective communicate our thoughts in a way that is the least offensive to others, but it is not impossible. Just requires effort and work. Something people in society today don’t want to do. People simply want to do what they want to do, and how they want to do it, without regards for anything. Then we turn on people for being human and having feelings, and blame & scapegoat them for expressing their hurt because our being mildly inconvenienced trumps their feelings. That’s a cause of a dark society in the horizon. Thinking freely can not be stifled. Think whatever you like. It’s when those thoughts escape our heads and become exposed to the world and forced upon the world to see, or hear. That’s when there is a potential issue. Those who are offended have every right to be. They have every right to express their anger. They have every right to request and apology, which should be given, even if it is not requested. What the offended do not have a right to do, is act in a retaliatory fashion by pushing for someone to lose their employment, or be ostracized, fined and overtly & severely punished. That is when the offended becomes the offender times ten. Civil societies apologize for hurting others, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. We don’t tell others to just get over it, or grow thick skin. It isn’t the at of being offended that is the problem. That’s being human. It’s the overreaction and need for retaliatory punishment that is, together with a defiant dismissal of the offender’s feelings and humanity, just so we can say and do whatever we would like.

Leave a Reply
%d bloggers like this: