More Than Just “Offensive”

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.

Finally, we must resist using “offensiveness” as a litmus test because its chief effect is putting a damper on discussion. There is little, if any, room for debate about whether something is offensive. Those who are unbothered by the matter in question will find the mere assertion of offense thoroughly unpersuasive, while to those who are offended will find that no further discussion is necessary. We can see this in recent debates over Tyga. While many students have signed a petition asking that he be removed from the program for Yardfest (and rightly so, I believe), other students have effectively responded, “I don’t find Tyga that offensive,” leaving the discussion at an impasse. In the interest of robust dialogue, therefore, we must resort to better, more engaging, albeit more complex, reasons to oppose bringing Tyga to campus.

The real reason to oppose bring Tyga to Harvard is that his music celebrates and promotes a debased and corrupting sexual culture. It strips sexuality of any semblance of dignity or beauty, replacing those attributes with a mentality of selfish exploitation. It removes love, commitment, and authentic and healthy relationships from consideration and views human beings as sexual objects, convenient tools to be used for one’s own pleasure. This view of human sexuality is incredibly degrading, especially to women, in Tyga’s case, and ought not to be celebrated at Yardfest.

In light of this, the CEB and HCC’s response to the controversy is unsatisfactory. They have moved Tyga’s performance to later in the evening, so that students will be able to eat dinner and leave before he takes the stage, but the problem with his appearance is not that his lyrics will shock and offend some ears. Rather, it is that he expresses themes about women and sexuality in his music that should not be welcome at all on this campus, regardless of whether or not certain offended students are made to listen to him.

As an academic community, Harvard should not be in the business of banishing that which some of the people in its community find offensive, which is largely a matter of perceptions, feelings, and visceral reactions. That which is socially corrupting, degrading to our humanity, and detrimental to our community, is a very different matter. Tyga’s music fits this description in its lyrics and themes, and it is for this reason that the College Events Board should never have invited him in the first place.

James P. McGlone ‘15 is a history concentrator in Kirkland House and the Vice President of the Harvard College Anscombe Society.

This article was originally posted in the Harvard Crimson. You can read it on the Crimson here.

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