Category Archives: Relativism

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.

Not Open for Debate

The following is a letter written on behalf of the Harvard College Anscombe Society in response to the university’s recent recognition of the “Harvard College Munch,” a student “BDSM” sex club. It was intended for publication in the Harvard Crimson last week, but was not accepted by the Crimson editors.

The Anscombe Society is certainly not in the business of curtailing free speech, but nor do we believe that respecting speech necessitates recognizing student groups that take absolutely any point of view. While the administration does not endorse the views of any group, recognition of a group does send the message that the activities of the group make a valuable contribution to our campus. Thus, when a student group like “Harvard College Munch” gains official recognition, the effects reach far beyond the club’s own membership and bear on the lives of all Harvard students. The Anscombe Society sees this newly approved group for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism, or “kinky sex,” as a symptom of the hypersexualized culture prevalent in our own university and many others today. We believe that BDSM itself trivializes sex, promoting a selfish and anarchical sexual ethos that can be very harmful and destructive not only to those who engage in these practices, but also to all of Harvard’s undergraduates. While students’ personal sexual choices may be their own, they nevertheless form the basis of our campus culture and sexual milieu. The fact that such degrading sexual practices now have a recognized and university-funded group devoted to them will have a wide-ranging impact, profoundly effecting students’ daily lives.

These recent events also call into question the standards by which the Office of Student Life decides to grant recognition to student organizations. Clearly, there would be some groups that OSL would decline to approve because of a problem with their missions; groups professing racist, anti-religious, or otherwise bigoted views, for example, would not be constructive or worthwhile additions to undergraduate life. What constructive purpose, then, does Munch serve on our campus? Supporting the group’s approval in the name of fostering discussion of “kink,” as many have done, is only a smokescreen; clearly any discussion within the group will promote and affirm kinky practices, and outreach to other groups is impossible as long as the group remains completely anonymous. The decision over recognition ought to boil down to this: if you think that more violence and humiliation, especially where sexual practices are concerned, are good things, you should support the recognition of Munch. If you think that more violence and humiliation are bad things, you should oppose it.

The Anscombe Society, believing that the currency of academia is reasoned argument, has throughout its history engaged in debate and discussion with other groups and individuals on campus, including those with very different views of sexuality from our own. However, unlike every other student group, Munch is a group with whom we simply cannot have a debate. We believe that human sexuality is a thing of great beauty and dignity and have always assumed that other groups, even those with very different views from our own, share that common starting point. We have always been eager to discuss with these other groups our competing views of how best to honor the dignity and beauty of sex, but we do not even share this much common ground with Munch, which instead seeks to associate sex with violence, humiliation, and oppression. That is one disagreement that is not open for debate.

James P. McGlone, Harvard Class of 2015
Vice President, Harvard College Anscombe Society

This letter was originally posted by the Love and Fidelity Network here:

True Love Revolution officially renamed The Harvard College Anscombe Society

True Love Revolution is officially renamed The Harvard College Anscombe Society. We have renamed ourselves after Elizabeth Anscombe, a Cambridge professor and celebrated British philosopher of the 20th century. In her work, Anscombe defended many principles shared by our organization, including chastity and the importance of marriage and the family. Inspired by her intellectually rigorous support for our group’s beliefs and by her witness to those values as a wife and mother, we have renamed our organization in her honor. Our mission remains unchanged, but we think that this new name will be very important in continuing to build our club and further its mission on campus.

The Moralism of the Culture Wars

True Love Revolution President Rachel Wagley publishes “Old War, New Weapons” in the Harvard Crimson today. Her article examines the moralistic rhetoric utilized by the traditional and progressive camps of the culture war.

February 07, 2011

Old War, New Weapons

In cultural debates, both sides use moral rhetoric

“I’m Barbara Bush, and I’m a New Yorker for marriage equality,” declares George W. Bush’s daughter on last week’s Human Rights Campaign video. Unsurprisingly, critics are up in arms. Some, like a writer on “Dispatches from the Culture Wars,” insinuate that Daddy Bush’s support for the Federal Marriage Amendment was mere political pandering “to bigots.” Others, like a writer on the “Republican Redefined” blog, solemnly suggest that this video is the end of the beginning of the road toward legalization of gay marriage. These predictions are all well and good—God forbid journalists fail to exaggerate the impact of the younger, more progressive Bush’s opinion—but far more fascinating are the moralistic claims about the nature of marriage that this video inspires.

Moral rhetoric is the culture war’s current weapon of choice, but the culture war’s real meat lies in the orthodoxies that compel the moral intensity at the front lines. We cannot adequately understand how the culture wars evoke such moralistic passion until we recognize the authority of these orthodoxies. Effectively, two camps wage the culture war: the secular orthodoxy, composed of those who identify with the medley of feminism, pluralism, liberationism, and multiculturalism, and the traditional orthodoxy, wed to Judeo-Christian values. As the incessant unrest over Roe v. Wade illustrates, the intrinsic disparities between these orthodoxies render them philosophically incompatible.

Both orthodoxies utilize moral rhetoric and indeed must utilize moral rhetoric in order to gain public approval on the three major battlefields: religion in the public sphere, issues of human life, and sexuality. On the sexual battlefield, the secular approach to sexual morality is as fiercely moralistic as the traditional approach to sexual morality. A Harvard “contraceptive justice” event this fall advertised Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards as “a leader in the reproductive justice movement” and perfectly illustrates the self-righteous rhetoric of justice wielded by secularists. This social justice rhetoric is particularly persuasive to our generation, which is programmed to stop, drop, and roll whenever we hear the words “equality” and “fairness.”

But the secularists’ use of moral rhetoric should not be taken for granted. Secular morality owes its origin to a conscientious shift in language resulting from centuries of philosophical debate. This is the shift away from moral relativism and toward the rationalist, objectivist approach of traditionalists.

Traditionalists maintain that reason must reign over emotion and passion. Intellect must master appetite for the common and personal good, and desires must never seek their own fulfillment. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle also came to view reason as the master of passion: Plato spoke of the rightly ordered soul in which virtues lead to happiness, and Aristotle saw moderation as the divine virtue. The traditional view of morality presupposes intrinsic goods that humans must affirm to enable human flourishing. The belief that all human life, regardless of age or “quality,” has intrinsic value serves as a good example of this view of morality.

In contrast, classic secularist thought revolved around the idea that reason is the instrument of emotion. As one of the first secular philosophers, David Hume, wrote in “A Treatise on Human Nature”: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and may never pretend to any office other than to serve and obey them.” Reason itself is thus utilitarian, existing to manipulate, rather than to discover the rational.

In “A Clash of Orthodoxies,” Princeton Professor Robert P. George gives credit to 20th century liberal philosopher Joel Feinberg for pointing out the dangers of relativism, which denies the validity of moral judgments. Feinberg once reminded his own secularist camp that those waving its flag “must beware of [using] relativism—or, at least, of a sweeping relativism—lest they be hoist on their own petard.” Both George and Feinberg wondered where we acquire fundamental rights if reason is instrumental. What is the foundation for freedom of religion? Speech? Equality? This became immensely problematic for Hume-influenced secularists as they defended their beliefs. In a cultural theater judged by public opinion, relativism is futile, and moralism is persuasive.

Many modern secularists found that relativism did not serve their own purposes. For instance, the right to abortion is a moral claim and can exist only if we deny holistic relativism. In one of the greatest recent philosophical shifts, the secular orthodoxy awoke from its moral neutrality; secularists are now as moralistic as the traditionalists.

The secular orthodoxy has taken a page out of the traditional book (no Biblical illusion intended). While the competing orthodoxies have irreconcilable philosophies on life, community, and happiness, shared rhetoric is a rare point of accord. But does our mutual moralism compel us toward common understanding or simply drive us further apart under the fire of name-calling and assumptions that “the other side” is morally reprehensible? The American cultural landscape currently suggests the latter. After all, as British politician Tony N.W. Benn once observed, we would die for our faith, but we would kill for our doctrines.

Rachel L. Wagley ’11 is a sociology concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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Poisonous Humility of Conviction

Great quote from G.K. Chesterton about a poisonous modesty that inhibits people from owning their views, learning, and discerning right from wrong:

“But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”

The man is insightful. We are indeed on the road to produce people who cannot rationalize believing that something is right. And this is very scary for the future of the world.

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Admitting that morality is so not last millenium

“Stop judging me,” jeers a friend recounting a tale about his scandalous Friday night escapades. I’m grimacing and probably not using my best endorsement-of-your-behavior facial expression, but I insist that I’m not judging. “Stop being paranoid. And stop judging me!” I counter pathetically.

It takes me a few days to realize that we are both ridiculous for distancing ourselves from judgments. In a culture that persistently hisses “don’t judge, don’t judge,” we lose our ability to articulate why judgments are an integral part of life. But moral judgments are the indispensable instruments enabling us to live the best life.

We regularly make moral judgments in so many aspects of our lives. Our generation is radically concerned with helping the poor and seeking social justice. PBHA is blessed with a plethora of Harvard students dedicated to the Boston community. President Obama hosted a fatherhood event in June that James Dobson could not have done better himself. David Brooks and Ivy League philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah dismiss the psychologist’s claim that character is nonexistent. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the backbone of a moral education no morally confused Harvard student should graduate without, contends that nature provides humans with a capacity for virtue. When we consciously develop virtue, or moral excellence, we are fully in accordance with our nature. A virtuous lifestyle engenders happiness, and a virtuous man acts morally with pleasure. The problem is that we fall into the paradox that the only unjust moral judgment is the judgment offering objective value. Relativism breaks down our ability to label some actions objectively right and others universally wrong.

Wondering if moral judgments are as condemned as they are passé, I embarked on True Love Revolution’s Operation Platform Change with a bit of curiosity. True Love Revolution was Harvard’s abstinence advocacy group, but dissatisfied with advocating abstinence without the philosophical context of what gender and marriage mean, the organization adopted an expansive pro-marriage, pro-family, and pro-equity feminism platform. Students rarely hear moral judgments that aren’t sufficiently doused with post-enlightenment political correctness. Tolerance trumps self-control, diversity trumps veracity, and experimental relativism trumps traditional virtues.

But what happens when you claim children ought to have a mother and a father, women and men are inherently different, people aren’t sexual animals, and the right to sexual privacy is not a right to normalcy? An objective moral judgment that condemns objective moral judgments. In fact, an invasion of objective moral judgments crawling out from all nooks and crannies on Harvard’s dusty campus.

Since we are all proponents of objective moral judgments, we must move past debating whether moral judgments are right and wrong. Harvard students must honestly accept that we constantly make moral judgments in pursuit of living well. True Love Revolution’s mission statement offers a set of moral judgments that must be examined, debated, and justified on their philosophical, moral, intellectual, and social merit. True Love Revolution seeks a dialogue where students who embrace other moral judgments challenge ours and defend their own, creating a culture that admits we all define morality instead of claiming to shun it.

True Love Revolution defends the reality of the best life. Our platform statements confidently address what we believe to be ramifications of degenerating traditional American love, marriages, and families. Dialogues about morality cannot exist without moral claims, and True Love Revolution starts the dialogue by presenting such claims. While we all make moral judgments to pursue the best life, we choose different routes.

So defend your routes, challenge our platform, offer your alternative moral judgment. Move past denying the validity of judgment, recognize that judgments are a fundamental characteristic of life. If you disagree with our definition of the best life and the choices that lead us there, stand up for your own. But join us in confronting the suffocating culture of praising tolerance while intolerantly demanding adherence to a relativist framework.

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Response to an anti-TLR Crimson editorial

Some people find it easier to let hostility carry their writing rather than honest criticism, as Silpa Kovvali did in her Crimson editorial against True Love Revolution last Wednesday, October 21st.  If I had to distill her piece, it would run: “I interviewed the co-president of a group I disagree with, I misconstrued her statements, and thereby showed the whole group is irrational.”  Kovvali makes no real attempt to understand and counter our claims and substitutes caricaturing our views for argument.

I can only presume that Kovvali thought her audience shared her distaste for TLR and so wouldn’t question her tactics. She levels the charge of “ignorant intolerance” at TLR, which is strong indeed.  Since the only cardinal sin on a college campus is being intolerant, if you can make that label stick to a group it becomes shunned.  Kovvali is not the only one to make this accusation, so it’s worth responding to.  TLR makes a stand for objective truth in sexual ethics and marriage and isn’t shy about claiming to be right, but is it fair to call it intolerant?

First of all, moral claims are difficult to defend when directly attacked; even a shoplifter could spin out a dozen rationalizations for why they “really don’t hurt anyone” if they wanted.  And when you do defend moral claims, you run the risk of being criticized for imposing your views on others.  Since many people view sexuality as a purely private choice, they don’t see the point of taking moral positions on it.  An analagous private choice fraught with moral issues is recreational drug use.  As a side note, the moral arguments are different from pragmatic arguments about effects on society and individuals, although these can certainly illustrate negative consequences.  But just because no immediate damage is evident does not mean a choice is morally justified.

So, imagine that you had a strong moral stance against recreational drug use. If you really felt that it was a serious enough problem, you might write an article in a campus journal.  If your friends complained to you about the intolerance of your views and said you were arrogant for thinking you knew what was best for others, how would you respond?  Would you back down and say: “Well, it really is just a personal decision and my moral philosophy doesn’t apply to others,” or would you stand by your beliefs out of personal integrity and concern for them?  However the conversation went, it’s clear there’s a huge difference between arguing against drug use and condemning individuals.  If you couldn’t convince your friends, you would just have to acknowledge your differences and live with the tension.  This is TLR’s position on campus.

Secondly, the reality is that everyone has views about objective truth, and no one is “tolerant” of conflicting views.  So when two people of good-will disagree sharply about a moral point, it’s all the more important to argue honestly. For instance, Kovvali unfavorably compares TLR with the Queer Students and Allies (QSA) and says that queers don’t demand that everyone else be like them.  However, their philosophy has real implications, to which a fair comparison would point.  The QSA shares the supposedly “neutral” liberal position on sexuality that sex is morally value-free and can be engaged in as one wants.  This gives a strong bias toward sexual experimentation and relations because it uncritically gives free rein to desire.  An extreme example is the recent article on gay Craigslist hookups in the Yale Daily News.  This moral position, which is prescribed for the whole campus, is a direct threat to students who are committed to abstinence because it undermines the reasons for waiting until marriage to have sex.

On another philosophical issue, the QSA clearly advocates gay marriage, as evidenced by their recent phone bank effort to change the vote in Maine.  Their position says that the definition of marriage should be between two unisex partners, and they’re quite willing to “impose” that definition on everyone else.  So please, let’s not pretend that TLR is the only group on campus with strong views.  Our philosophical and moral positions provide the framework for our lifestyle, and we’re not afraid to make the case for views that have universal import.  We invite the campus to think about these issues, see why we hold them, and argue in kind.  The last thing we’re interested in is compelling anyone to agree with us or change their sex life.  What could be more counter-productive?

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Thoughts on Princeton’s Chastity Center

They’re going the distance. Princeton’s Anscombe Society began advocating for a Center for Abstinence and Chastity last week.

A group of students, many of whom are Anscombe Society members, has stepped up its efforts to lobby the University to launch a Center for Abstinence and Chastity. The students have organized a series of events with the goal of convincing Nassau Hall to establish a center, in the style of the LGBT and Women’s centers, which would support students’ decision to live chastely and abstain from sex… Still, McGinley said his group maintains that since the University has centers to support groups like women and members of the LGBT community, the implementation of the Center for Abstinence and Chastity would be natural.

Our favorite Ivy League prof Robert P. George is rallying behind them. While we think it’s a long shot and would rather campuses just make established centers more friendly to conservative beliefs, we can’t help but respect Princeton’s efforts. Best of luck with the endeavor. Yet is a center really going to change the ethos? Indeed, it is most difficult to change the tenor of already created LGBT and Women’s Centers that are hostile to any other lifestyle or belief system than complete relativism, “tolerance,” and subjective virtue.

We can’t imagine how Harvard would react if we did this. Actually, we can imagine. So maybe another year.

But ultimately, TLR doesn’t want a center just promoting abstinence. What about a center that focuses on objective truth, virtues, self-respect, the strength of morality, and upholding the community? Maybe another decade.

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