A recent [April-June, 2006] controversy at MIT is relevant to our exploration of "Dangerous Discussions." The conflict about MIT's "Visualizing Cultures" Website demonstrates some confusing and painful unintended consequences of even well-intentioned and sophisticated uses of new media (the Web, visuals). This scholarly project explores the development of Japan’s relationship to Western powers and China since the mid-nineteenth century, and raises questions about the cultures of war, imperialism, and nationalism.
Here are some excerpts and links about the "Visualizing Cultures" controversy.
Main source: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/visualizing-cultures.html
Statement from MIT Chancellor Phillip L. Clay April 27, 2006:
Visualizing Cultures is an interdisciplinary research project, history course and educational outreach program that uses historical images and texts of different cultures in order to learn from them. We deeply regret that a section of this web site has caused distress and pain to members of the Chinese community. Visualizing Cultures is an important and pioneering undertaking by two esteemed members of our faculty, Professor John Dower of the history faculty and Professor Shigeru Miyagawa of linguistics and of foreign languages and literatures. Professors Dower and Miyagawa have MIT's strongest support. 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. 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.
Many readers, however, have indicated that the purpose of the project is not sufficiently clear to counteract the negative messages within the historical images portrayed on the site. Professors Dower and Miyagawa have been meeting with members of the MIT Chinese community to discuss their concerns and have temporarily taken down the web site while these concerns are being addressed.
The response from some outside the community, on the other hand, has been inappropriate and antithetical to the mission and spirit of MIT and of any university. This is not only unfair to our colleagues, but contrary to the very essence of the university as a place for the free exploration of ideas and the embrace of intellectual and cultural diversity. In the spirit of collaboration, MIT encourages an open and constructive dialogue. We need to preserve the ability to confront the difficult parts of human history if we are to learn from them.
Phillip L. Clay Chancellor
Excerpts from statement by MIT faculty May 23, 2006:
"...Because it brings advanced technology together with humanistic research, it is a jewel of the MIT curriculum, and the Open Course Ware project makes it available to the entire world. ... The challenge to this project threatens the core values of MIT’s educational and research mission. ... We also express our strong sympathy to Professors Dower and Miyagawa for the ordeal they have suffered, and reaffirm our commitment to MIT’s basic values of academic freedom and scholarly integrity. " -
Statement from Professors Dower and Miyagawa April 27, 2006:
"We wish to express our deep regret over the emotional distress caused by some of the imagery and are genuinely sorry that the web site has caused pain within the Chinese community. This was completely contrary to our intention.
"Our purpose is to look at history in the broadest possible manner and to try to learn from this. One section of the project displays images of Japanese wood-block prints that were used as propaganda during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and are examples of how societies use visual imagery to further their political agendas. These historical images do not reflect our beliefs. To the contrary, our intent was to illuminate aspects of the human experience -- including imperialism, racism, violence and war -- that we must confront squarely if we are to create a better world. These complex issues are addressed in the long text that accompanies the images. We must learn from history if we are to have a better future.
"Many people who have seen the web site, however, have indicated that the purpose of the project is not sufficiently clear to counteract the negative messages contained in the historical images portrayed on the site. Acknowledging this, we have been meeting with members of the Chinese community and others here at MIT to discuss how we might present these materials in a way that more effectively fosters understanding across cultures. In the meantime, we have temporarily taken down this web site while these community concerns are being addressed.
"We wish to make clear that this is a scholarly research project, and there is no art exhibition associated with it. We are grateful to those members of the MIT Chinese community who have met with us to address this issue and help heal our community.
"In these discussions, we have been guided by the central values of the university: the free exploration of ideas and the embrace of intellectual and cultural diversity. We are committed to those ideals."
John W. Dower Professor of History
Shigeru Miyagawa Professor of Linguistics and of Foreign Languages and Literatures
Statement from President Susan Hockfield May 4, 2006:
"The Visualizing Cultures web site will be relaunched within the next few days. This project -- the work of two outstanding members of our faculty -- is in the finest traditions of MIT: deep and rigorous scholarship, pioneering and innovative pedagogy and a commitment to serve society.
"Drawing on these traditions, the project illuminates complex historical and cultural issues. The web site will include all the original materials as well as added context and navigational aids that have been developed in response to thoughtful comments by members of our community. Unfortunately, among the comments received over the past week from all over the world were some that were abusive or threatening to the authors; some called for the web site to be suppressed and/or for the Institute to take action against Professors Dower and Miyagawa.
"We affirm in the strongest way possible our support for the work of these professors, and for the principles of academic freedom. While some of the text and images on the web site are painful to see, the attacks on our colleagues and their work are antithetical to all that we stand for as a university dedicated to open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. As scholars and educators, we have an obligation to explore complex and controversial ideas, and to do so in a manner that respects those with whom we may disagree.
"As Visualizing Cultures is relaunched, we hope people will read the text, view the images and consider the important questions the authors raise. They welcome, and we all benefit from, thoughtful discourse and the learning that results from serious intellectual engagement with these matters.":
Susan Hockfield President, MIT
Statement by MIT faculty May 23, 2006:
"As faculty members of MIT, we endorse in the strongest terms the scholarly value of the Visualizing Cultures project directed by Professors John Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa.
"This prize-winning web site was created by two of the world’s leading scholars. By going to visualizingcultures.mit.edu, readers of this letter can see for themselves how, by bringing together textual explanation with thousands of images, the web site explores in detail the development of Japan’s relationship to Western powers and China since the mid-nineteenth century. It also evokes broader questions about the cultures of war, imperialism, and nationalism.
"Many of the subjects it analyzes are painful to recall, but since the authors are professional scholars of the highest caliber, the site in its entirety enlightens everyone who examines it carefully about the deepest questions of social and historical change. Because it brings advanced technology together with humanistic research, it is a jewel of the MIT curriculum, and the Open Course Ware project makes it available to the entire world.
"A small group of individuals took one image on this site out of context and broadcast it across the Internet. By doing so, they fomented an email campaign directed against MIT’s educational mission that quickly exploded out of control into a global incident. The site was temporarily shut down in response to these attacks.
"Some critics claim that the site endorses Japanese racism and militarism and therefore urge that it be permanently shut down or substantively revised. In fact, the site describes and strongly condemns the racist propaganda that supported Japanese militarism. The challenge to this project threatens the core values of MIT’s educational and research mission. We commend the eloquent statement from President Susan Hockfield in support of the project.
"We call on all interested parties to join with us to ensure that the Visualizing Cultures web site will remain in its entirety and be protected against any future attacks. We also express our strong sympathy to Professors Dower and Miyagawa for the ordeal they have suffered, and reaffirm our commitment to MIT’s basic values of academic freedom and scholarly integrity."