On the "Visualizing Cultures" Controversy
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Since then, Dr. Dower and Dr. Miyagawa have successfully relaunched the “Visualizing Cultures” Website, with constructive feedback from CSSA officers before and after the amendments. Unfortunately, outside of the team directly working to resolve this issue (the two professors, the MIT administration, and CSSA), some members of the MIT community without complete information have caused grave misconceptions of the Chinese students at MIT. The opening paragraph of The Tech’s initial reporting of the issue (April 28th) misleadingly cast the issue as one of censorship versus sensitivity. It also conveniently excluded Chinese students from any of its dozen or so quotes, and decided not to place the official letter or statement from CSSA alongside those from the two professors and the Institute.
As stated clearly in our official letter, statement, and multiple meetings with the two professors and the MIT administration, we have utmost respect for academic freedom and the quality of research presented in the “Visualization Cultures” Website.
We have asked for proper context, but never censorship. As The Tech stated in the Corrections section of their next issue, their initial reporting was “incomplete in its portrayal of the views of the Chinese students, many of whom wanted the sensitive material on the site introduced with better context, rather than removed altogether.” Nevertheless, it is very tempting for anyone who disagrees with the views of Chinese students to denounce this as censorship, for censorship is one of the few issues that all of us at MIT would unanimously oppose. One should, however, realize that, to blatantly ignore the actual request CSSA put forth on behalf of Chinese students and stubbornly insist on calling our demands censorship, is as inappropriate and irresponsible as the act of condemning the Website without reading its content.
We also hope that the MIT community would not generalize from the irrational behaviors of some Chinese individuals from outside of MIT. Just as the personal opinions of some students at the Wednesday public forum did not represent the majority of Chinese students at MIT, these irrational behaviors were but the most extreme reactions among Chinese people. Right from the beginning, CSSA and its members clearly and repeatedly stated our strong opposition to irrational behavior and acted swiftly to diffuse the tension, and indeed the majority of CSSA members were strongly supportive of the achieved resolution.
This controversy has been an invaluable lesson for all parties involved. As readers, we must bear the responsibility of carefully reading the materials. As authors, professors and researchers must carefully consider the possible impact of any highly-sensitive materials to their audience. Sometimes highly-sensitive materials, especially powerful visual imagery, exert such irreversible emotional damages on the unprepared readers, that they in fact present an obstacle to the readers’ complete comprehension of the authors’ original intent.
In particular, it is important for professors and researchers, especially in a prominent institution like MIT, to recognize their potentially wide audience. In the case of “Visualization Cultures,” “the homepage brought it to the attention of such a wide audience that we have to think about how it will be interpreted,” as Suzana Lisanti (MIT homepage coordinator) pointed out in an article in The Tech. The materials’ emotionally damaging potential was amplified by their publication on the popular OpenCourseWare and Spotlight on MIT’s homepage for two consecutive days. All of this, together with the “Visualization Cultures” Website’s exhibit-style presentation, indicated a mainstream audience.
Beyond the current controversy at hand, when presenting highly sensitive materials for a mainstream audience, it is paramount that authors provide proper guidance, to avoid the possible emotional damage for the unprepared reader. Again, this is not an issue of censorship. The question is not whether these materials should be shown, but rather, how?
We at CSSA would like to express gratitude once again for the two professors’ openness to suggestions and for the MIT administration’s support. The sensitive way in which this controversy has been handled could not have been accomplished without the collaborative attitudes we all brought to the table. We encourage anyone who would like further clarifications and who have additional comments to please contact us, and/or Drs. Dower and Miyagawa. We welcome continued conversations on this issue, and look forward to future developments of powerful educational tools like “Visualizing Cultures.”
MIT Chinese Student and Scholar Association
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