Reflections on the "Visualizing Cultures" Incident
Who would have imagined that a 100-year-old Japanese woodblock print could have caused so much trouble? It all began innocently enough, on April 23rd, when the MIT homepage, in its “Spotlight” section, posted a link to the ““Visualizing Cultures”” project, a multi-media educational Website on East Asia directed by Professors John Dower of the History Faculty and Shigeru Miyagawa of Foreign Languages and Literatures. This simple act led to a cyber-onslaught on the site from Chinese Internet users around the world. It drew MIT faculty, graduate students, top administrators, alumni, historians, scholars, and students into passionate engagement with crucial issues of modern East Asian history, in a very tense atmosphere. The Website was taken down in response to a tidal wave of criticism, but on May 10th the site was restored. The immediate crisis had passed, but ominous echoes lingered.
Here I would like to describe briefly the course of the incident and reflect on some of its implications. Since I was a participant in these events, this is by no means a neutral account. I hope, however, that its immediacy will compensate for its lack of detachment. Since the incident itself opens a window on to fascinating contemporary issues concerning MIT’s role in international education, China’s place in a globalizing world, and the powerful impact of historical memories and emotions, I believe that it is worthy of some comment.
The “Visualizing Cultures” project is a prize-winning compilation of visual imagery and textual explanation focused on Japan’s relations with the world from the nineteenth century to the present. The first unit, “Black Ships and Samurai,” examined the impact of Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1854 through contemporary graphics. It won a prize from the National Endowment for the Humanities as “one of the best online resources for education in the humanities.” Other units now on the site discuss the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Each unit contains vivid color images done by Japanese artists for a popular audience, accompanied by detailed discussion of their historical background written by John Dower. Posted on the OpenCourseWare site, this educational project combines advanced Web technology with thoughtful humanistic commentary to educate a global audience about Japan’s encounter with the modern world.
The unit entitled “Throwing off Asia” looks at the consequences of the Sino-Japanese war for Japan’s view of China. By defeating the massive Qing empire in 1895, Japan had demonstrated that it truly met Western standards of global power. At the same time, Japanese came to despise the Chinese as backward, weak people hopelessly incapable of building a rich and powerful state in an imperialist world. “Throwing off Asia” meant that Japan should reject the stagnant societies of Asia and model itself on the advancing Western powers, especially the imperial power of Britain. Woodcuts celebrating the Japanese victory delivered powerful impressions of Chinese weakness to a Japanese mass audience.
Many of the woodcuts were racist, shocking, and gruesome.
Dower’s text describes one such print, entitled “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers,” which depicted Japanese soldiers executing helpless Chinese prisoners of war, as “an unusually frightful scene.” (It is important to clarify that this picture of atrocities did not appear on the MIT homepage; one had to click on many links to find it.)
He continues, “Even today, over a century later, this contempt remains shocking. Simply as racial stereotyping alone, it was as disdainful of the Chinese as anything that can be found in anti-“Oriental” racism in the United States and Europe at the time – as if the process of “Westernization” had entailed, for Japanese, adopting the white man’s imagery while excluding themselves from it. This poisonous seed, already planted in violence in 1894-95, would burst into full atrocious flower four decades later, when the emperor’s soldiers and sailors once again launched war against China.”
Most viewers, I think, would read the explanation of this image and passage as unequivocal condemnation of Japanese militarism. Several Chinese student viewers, however, saw just the opposite: they believed that by posting the picture of atrocities, Profs. Dower, Miyagawa, and MIT were celebrating Japanese racism, not condemning it. Ripping the image out of its surrounding context, they posted a link to this image alone on the Internet with e-mail messages attacking the project. Soon these messages circulated around the Internet.
A torrent of vituperative e-mail and phone messages poured in on Profs. Dower and Miyagawa. Some were so threatening as to require police action.
Clearly the image had inflamed very sore nerves, but why? It was very difficult to understand how an educational project dedicated to overcoming the destructive effects of war, racism, and violence could be seen as doing just the opposite. And many feared that the verbal violence could easily turn into physical attacks. After meeting with several students and discussing the issue with MIT administrators, it was agreed to take down the site temporarily, and hold a meeting with members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student group comprised of graduate students from the People’s Republic of China, to hear their concerns.
I attended that meeting on April 26th, along with other member of the HASS faculty. From 50 to 80 students packed the room. The atmosphere was tense, but Chancellor Philip Clay ran the meeting with consummate skill. He allowed everyone a chance to speak, but cut off long-winded speeches, and called for constructive proposals. John Dower took full responsibility for selecting the images and writing the commentary, explaining that to present propaganda images for educational use was not to condone their message; it only meant analyzing the power of propaganda in order to understand its devastating effects. But the students could not grasp this point. Blinded by passion, they shouted that Dower and Miyagawa had been insensitive to the tremendous suffering of the Chinese people at the hands of Japanese militarism. One student undertook to edify Prof. Dower on the finer points of Japanese history by proudly presenting him with a copy of a popular book on the Nanjing massacre! Written demands circulated at the meeting included shutting down the site permanently, demands that MIT officially apologize to the offended “Chinese community,” and cancellation of academic workshops related to the site. At their best, the students’ patriotism evoked the May 4th movement of 1919, but their arrogance and intolerance also reminded me of the Red Guards of 1966.
At this point I had had enough. I stood up and stated that, having taught Chinese history for 25 years at MIT, I could see nothing wrong with the presentation of graphic violence on the “Visualizing Cultures” Website: all historians use images for teaching, and as John Dower had said, to present an image is not to endorse it. I proposed that the site be restored intact, with no apologies, but that an open online discussion forum be attached to the site to allow anyone to post comments. When I stated that this was a clear case of academic freedom, I was shouted down with a chorus of “No!”. Then I left the room.
Statements issued by Chancellor Clay and Professors Dower and Miyagawa expressed sincere regret at the offense caused by the single image and noted that the Website had been temporarily taken down in response to criticism. The statements also condemned hostile criticism from “outside the MIT community” and defended the academic freedom of the authors.
These well-intentioned efforts to respond to the feelings of the students had the unfortunate effect of making it appear that MIT had failed to defend its own faculty against attack.
The Boston Globe article of April 28 said that MIT had “apologized” to Chinese students for an offensive Website. Many observers outside MIT thought that, in the words of one colleague, MIT had “crumbled” under an assault from irate Chinese students.
Seething, I sat down and wrote an open letter to the Chinese students, specifically targeted at those who had initiated and supported the hostile e-mail attacks. The letter praised them for their intelligence and dedication to the honor of the country, but told them that they had violated fundamental academic norms of civil discourse and respect. As future leaders of China, they had a responsibility to open their minds, in order to make China strong, and not to indulge in destructive narrow-minded self-righteous indignation.
The mood in the History faculty was one of fury and despair. The prevailing tone of apology signaled to the outside world that the administration would not defend one of our most respected senior colleagues against attacks that besmirched his reputation and endangered his career. With the approval of Department Head Harriet Ritvo, I posted my open letter on the History faculty Website as a personal expression of one scholar of China on the issue.
Not being an expert in media relations, I had no idea whether anyone would even notice the letter, but such is the magic of the Internet that the letter had the desired effect. The hostile e-mail campaign shifted its target from Shigeru Miyagawa to me, sparing him some further harassment. The messages, all of them passionate, varied in coherence and length. Some preferred lengthy tirades, while another epitomized his opinion with the pithy phrase, “fuk yu (sic).” They claimed that the letter insulted all Chinese students, that it failed to recognize the tremendous suffering of the Chinese people, that foreigners had no right to claim superior authority over the interpretation of Chinese history, and that MIT had no business exposing the painful side of Asian history before the world. Others demanded disciplinary action or worse against Profs. Dower and Miyagawa.
I decided to respond to nearly all the e-mail messages (except the obscene ones). I wanted to engage these writers just to understand how their minds worked, even if there was little hope of changing their opinions. My responses were forceful but, I hope, not intemperate. After reading many accusations of cold-heartedness toward the suffering of Chinese who had lost family members to Japanese militarism, however, I felt obliged to remind some writers that many Americans, too, had family members who lost their lives while defending the Chinese people against Japanese aggression in World War II. Chinese did not have a monopoly on suffering. I also pointed out that Chinese had inflicted a considerable amount of suffering on each other, during the turmoil of the Boxer Rebellion, Cultural Revolution, or Tiananmen Square, 1989. The exchanges were spirited; if we did not convince each other, we at least clarified our positions. This was, after all, an ideal “teaching moment.” Because of the efficiency of e-mail communication, it required only [?] a few hours a day in the midst of regular teaching and service duties. But not much research got done!
Over the next few days, however, the responses took an extraordinary new turn. The Chinese alumni of MIT began to weigh in. Led by their organization, CAMIT, they engaged in intensive discussion of the issues surrounding the site in messages to each other, copied to me, Prof. Miyagawa, and President Hockfield, among others. Bear in mind that they could not verify any assertions about the site, since it had been shut down. All they had to go on were incomplete news reports and the messages from the denunciation campaign. Yet they conducted themselves with remarkable intelligence and civility, setting a model for how to address difficult controversial issues with clarity and insight. I would like to thank especially Ms. Greer Hsing Tan Swiston '87, chair of CAMIT, for moderating the discussion with consummate skill, and Ms. Yee Wah Chin '74, for responding so thoughtfully and elegantly to a variety of views.
The alumni views were diverse, but all of them were insightful. Almost all defended vigorously the rights of Profs. Dower and Miyagawa to teach and propagate their perspectives; many condemned the arrogant attitudes of the students.
Some thought that MIT should not expose such painful visual materials to the raw emotions of the global community, even though they were appropriate within the MIT classroom. Others argued that since we can never predict precisely how our views will be received, we cannot let excess concerns for “sensitivity” inhibit our teaching and research.
As Yee Wah Chin put it, “as for taking things out of context or even altering them, there is always that risk, and if we were to refrain from posting anything from that fear, we may as well not post anything at all.”
More important than the particular positions was the tone of this debate, so radically different from that of CSSA and its supporters. This amazing outpouring of moderate civil discourse on a vital contemporary subject was the most heartwarming aspect of the whole affair. It showed that the Internet truly can be a global village in the hands of rational, concerned citizens. As I wrote to President Hockfield, “We can be very proud of our alumni (after all, they used to be our students), …. I am sorry to be bragging so much.”
If some future social scientist used this correspondence as “data” for a research project, she might conclude: “A content analysis was done of the opinions contained in the complete database of e-mail correspondence, arranging them on the following ordinal scale from 1 to 5: 1. Dower and Miyagawa were completely justified in their project; the students’ actions were ridiculous and embarrassing; 2. The Website contained some unintentionally offensive portions, indicating the need for some clarification, but it should be restored as soon as possible with warnings about the need to view its content carefully; 3. The site was unbalanced, because it leaned too much toward the Japanese perspective; it needed to include Chinese materials and be substantially revised; 4. The Website indicated such bias against the Chinese people and in favor of Japanese militarism that the Website should be suppressed, MIT should apologize, and Profs. Dower and Miyagawa should be fired; 5. Even more violent threats…
“A frequency distribution of the responses would find them arrayed in a normal distribution with its median at about 3.0, with the median response from members of CAMIT lying one or more standard intervals to the left (<=2.5), and the median response from members of CSSA lying one or more standard intervals to the right (>=3.5). There is most likely a significant statistical difference between the two populations, but this subject requires further research.”
On May 4th, a memorable date in Chinese history, the anniversary of the great student movements of May 4th, 1919, President Hockfield issued a statement in English and Chinese strongly supporting the “Visualizing Cultures” project. She said, “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.” Finally, I was ready to cheer for the administration.
In the end, the authors resolved the crisis by adopting mainly position #2, with some parts of position #3. The Website has been restored intact, with the same images and text unchanged, but with warning labels attached to the most shocking images. A strong “gateway” statement in Chinese, English, and Japanese recognizes the power of images and the need to view them with extreme care. It insists, “Some of these images are harsh, for history itself is harsh…graphics that depict dark aspects of history – such as violence, intolerance, racism, aggressive nationalism, war and atrocity, abuse of others and of the environment in general – have not been censored… PLEASE VIEW & USE THESE ““VISUALIZING CULTURES”” UNITS CAREFULLY & IN THE SPIRIT IN WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN PREPARED…To take images out of context and use them irresponsibly and provocatively destroys the highest ideals of uncensored sharing and communication that technology now makes possible.” Existing units will have Chinese translations, and I intend to work with the authors to add new Chinese units to the site.
What can we learn from this affair? Was it a tempest in a teapot or a straw in the wind? We learned about the terrifying power of images to strip very well-educated people of their capacities for reason, the large cultural gaps between different populations on this as yet incompletely globalized planet, the vital need for responsibility in presenting and responding to painful media material, the central role of MIT in propagating deeply insightful perspectives on the modern world through technological and humanistic research, and, most encouraging, the deep dedication of our faculty and especially our alumni to the critical academic norms which we all share.
The incident could also inspire many fascinating interdisciplinary research projects: How do historical memories embed themselves in student populations, through schools, media, and family stories (History)? Is there something special about the wiring of the brain that connects the visual cortex to emotional centers, bypassing the rational faculties (BCS)? Can modern computer technology both broadcast painful material widely but ensure that it cannot be misused (EECS)? When do students specializing in the sciences engage intensively in global political campaigns (Political Science, STS)?
Just leave it to an academic to turn a crisis into a research project!
Click here to view an "MIT Faculty Statement on the Visualizing Cultures Website."