MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 5
May / June 2006
Meritocracy and a Diverse Faculty
A Brief History and Workings
of the MIT Corporation
Committees of the Faculty:
An End-of-Year Recap
Lippard and Sharp Awarded
National Medal of Science
Energy Research Council and Forum:
A Major New Institute Initiative
Efficient Use of Energy:
Part of MIT's New Energy Initiative
Fueling Our Transportation Future
Lighting a Fire in MIT's
Undergradute Education
Some Thoughts on the Arts
Reflections on the "Visualizing Cultures" Incident
On the "Visualizing Cultures" Controversy and its Implications
Communication Requirement
Evaluation Process Begins
A Modest Proposal:
A Dental Insurance Plan for All Students
New Resource on Faculty Website:
"Current Practices"
"Soft Skills" to Help Avoid the "Hard Knocks"
Computer Space Planning for MIT
Tops IT-SPARCC's Priority List
Seniors Report Increased Satisfaction
with Faculty Interaction
Smart Buy Purchasing Initiative
Primary Form of Support
for Doctoral Students
Printable Version

On the "Visualizing Cultures" Controversy
and Its Implications

MIT Chinese Student and Scholar Association

After actively participating in the resolution of the recent controversy surrounding the “Visualizing Cultures” Website, we at the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) are grateful for this opportunity to directly communicate with the great academic and research community at MIT. We want to introduce to you what CSSA does, report on the resolution of the controversy, clarify our position on this issue, and share our views on the greater implications of this issue on cultural sensitivity.

CSSA is one of the largest student groups at MIT, with over 600 official members, most of them from mainland China. They include 400 graduate students, 150 post-docs and visiting scholars, and 50 MIT affiliates. The main mission of our organization is to serve the needs of our members, promote Chinese culture, and facilitate communication within the large Chinese community both on and off MIT campus. Towards this goal, CSSA regularly organizes social activities (dancing parties and outings), conducts seminar series (career and academic development, insurance, immigration), and celebrates Chinese culture with various events (Mid-Autumn Harbor Cruise and Chinese New Year events).

CSSA’s role in resolving this controversy

Although the recent controversy surrounding the “Visualizing Cultures” Website generated headlines worldwide, the issue was swiftly resolved within four days, thanks to the close cooperation among the MIT administration, the two professors (Dr. John Dower and Dr. Shigeru Miyagawa), and CSSA. The controversy originally unfolded with the website being Spotlighted on MIT’s homepage on April 23rd and 24th (Sunday and Monday).

By Monday afternoon, CSSA had received numerous e-mails from distressed students protesting against the inappropriate presentation of Japanese wartime propaganda depicting atrocities inflicted on the Chinese people in the “Throwing off Asia” unit of the Website.

As CSSA officers, we held an emergency meeting to decide the course of action. Based on the email responses we received and the thunderous outcry from the worldwide Chinese online community we observed, CSSA wrote an official letter on behalf of Chinese students at MIT that was sent to the two professors as well as to the MIT administration on Tuesday (see CSSA Website The letter detailed the emotional damage the inappropriate presentation had caused to thousands of Chinese people worldwide, and requested that, i) "the authors should provide the proper historical context for the prints" and ii) "MIT should pay special attention to the presentation of culturally-demeaning content, particularly to its emotionally-damaging potential."

Also on Tuesday April 25th, CSSA officers met with the MIT Ombuds Office and Graduate Dean Ike Colbert. We greatly appreciate the promptness and attention with which they listened to our concerns, and the helpful guidance they offered. On Wednesday, while CSSA and Dr. Miyagawa corresponded by e-mail to set up an official meeting, the two professors and the MIT administration held a public forum that evening. Some Chinese students from MIT as well as some from Chinese communities outside of MIT attended the forum and voiced their personal opinions.

Finally on Thursday morning, CSSA officers had an in-depth discussion with the two professors and the MIT administration. We were most impressed by, and thankful for, the two professors’ willingness to seriously consider our requests, and the Institute’s efforts in resolving this issue. The meeting resulted in a mutual recognition of the need to contextualize these sensitive materials and a constructive plan to do so. In the afternoon on the same day, one final detailed discussion led to the joint release of three official statements. The two statements from the professors and the Institute can be found at the MIT News Website, while the statement from CSSA is available at the CSSA Website and was sent to Chinese media worldwide (click here to view statement). CSSA also contributed to the translation of the three statements into Chinese, with the help of Dr. Jing Wang.

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This is not about censorship

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.

Implications on cultural sensitivity

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

Edward Chin Wang Lee, Officer
Shan Wu, Member
Lin Han, Vice President
Huan Zhang, President

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