The outpouring of opposition to the College Events Board’s decision to make Tyga the headline act of Yardfest has been entirely warranted. The lyrics that have been circulated around campus attached to petitions for the last week are utterly vile, and anyone who objects to his coming to Harvard is justified in doing so. We should be careful, though, not to object on the grounds that Tyga is “offensive,” for the real problem is not that he is offensive. That charge alone does not provide sufficient grounds to rescind his invitation, and when the College Events Board and Harvard Concert Commission attempted to assuage concerns about “offensive content” in Tyga’s music in a statement released last Monday, they were dodging the issue entirely.
The charge of offensiveness is problematic for a number of reasons, all of which suggest that we have no absolute right not to be offended. First, the phenomenon of offense exists in two parts: that which gives offense and he who takes offense, and the existence of offense in any particular situation says as much about the latter as it does about the former. Sometimes, people are rightly offended at bad things. At other times, they are wrongly offended at things that are not so bad. The difference between being rightly and wrongly offended, moreover, can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Offensiveness is entirely unworkable as a standard of conduct, that is, as a standard by which we determine whether speech, behavior, etc. is acceptable, as it could easily include or exclude things improperly. Take the hypothetical example of a very misogynistic campus community. This community would not be offended by a speaker or performer whose message was degrading to women. On the other hand, it probably would be very offended by a guest lecturer who upheld the equal dignity of the sexes and condemned misogyny in the strongest possible terms. The problem in such a scenario is not the fault of the offending lecturer, but with the community that receives him with hostility. Furthermore, in this case, the community would be better served by hosting the offensive guest than the non-offensive one.
Read more at the Harvard Anscombe Society.