… and another disgraceful episode of University self-censorship. An article at Inside Higher Ed describes how a university took down a course website because it contained and described art depicting historical events in what a pressure group deemed to be a culturally insensitive and racist manner. Others accused the professors of cultural insensitivity, and recommended they be fired.
OK, now fill in the blanks: the university is MIT. The professors are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John W. Dower, and Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and of foreign languages and literature. The course is "Visualizing Cultures". The art in question consists of wood-block prints used as Japanese propaganda in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. As you might expect, the Chinese opponents aren't pictured respectfully in all cases. And the "racism" in question is based in that depiction.
The article goes into some detail on the firestorm generated by the MIT Chinese Student and Scholar Association (the major, if not the whole, source of the complaints). The CSSA's complaint to the MIT administration is here; they profess to be "disappointed at the nonchalance with which this emotionally provocative and demeaning material was presented" and "appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images."
Without getting into the details or accuracy of the charges: their feelings were hurt. Once the well-tuned machinery of Cultural Offense was put into motion, it was only a couple days before the offending pictures were removed from the web and apologies issued. The response of MIT and the professors can be read here; the CSSA's response to that is here. In addition to the self-censorship, MIT has apparently promised to "organize a public forum to facilitate a discussion on the use of sensitive imagery."
A couple random comments:
From the CSSA's
However, the "Throwing off Asia" exhibit recently Spotlighted on MIT's homepage has shaken our confidence in the cultural sensitivity we have come to associate with this accepting environment.
Lesson for University administrators: setting up a culturally sensitive "accepting environment" doesn't make it less likely that the cultures you are coddling will confront you over some outrage to their sensibilities; it makes it more likely, since you've (ironically) made them far more sensitive to even minor perceived offenses against their worldview.
From MIT's official response, emphasis added:
One section of the web site -- Throwing Off Asia -- authored by Professor Dower, refers to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and displays images of Japanese wood-block prints that were used as wartime propaganda.
Is there any reason for the words I've bolded above, other than so people can read it as: "Hey, it wasn't the Japanese professor who put up the the pictures you're griping about; it was the other guy!"
Immediately after the section quoted above comes:
Some of these images show the atrocities of war and are examples of how societies use visual imagery as propaganda to further their political agendas. The use of these historical images is not an endorsement of the events depicted.
<sarcasm>That's a really important point to make. Because, you know, otherwise, we might think MIT did endorse war atrocities and propaganda.
Fearless prediction: the response of Universities to cultural pressure groups makes this sort of thing extremely likely to happen over and over. Pressure works, whether accompanied by violent threats (as with the Muhammed cartoons), or in its absence. Modern academe simply lacks the language (or the spine) to stand up to such bullying. As a result, there's little to stop higher education on its trip down down the slippery slope into complete smiley-face inoffensiveness. And worthlessness. (Also check out this post at the Torch from Sean Clark.)