History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
— Maya Angelou, Inaugural Poem
I had planned to blog on a John Dower web project cited by Alan Baumler, because it’s a fantastic collection of historical images, nicely curated. Now, if you follow the the link, you get redirected to an MIT Press Office Statement that explains that the exhibit is offline while Dower and Miyagawa negotiate with members of the MIT Chinese student community who objected to an image of a Chinese being beheaded, a classic piece of Japanese propaganda, one that sets the tone for the next half century. The problem, according to the articles I’ve seen (thanks to both Manan Ahmed and Ralph Luker) was a lack of “accessible historical context” clearly warning viewers of the violent and racist content of the imagery.
Perhaps they need something like my syllabus boilerplate:
History is about real people, diverse cultures, interesting theories, strongly held belief systems, complex situations, conflicts and often-dramatic actions. In certain contexts, this information may be disturbing. Such is the nature of historical study.
I don’t see it myself: unless you happen to read Meiji Japanese and stumble across the image by accident, and are inclined to think that we need more, not less, beheadings in the world, isn’t it pretty obvious that this is old, bad, material? (the woodblock prints should be a giveaway, if nothing else) If you know anything about the history, it’s pretty obvious that it’s racist, that it leads to great tragedy, and that it’s important visual evidence. If it wasn’t obvious beforehand, then reading the attached commentary would make it pretty clear: my recollection (Alan can throw in his two cents here) is that the accompanying text was pretty clear on all these issues (Update: Alan confirms my recollection, and adds some useful thoughts, including a look at Chinese language discussions.
This raises concerns for me. Part of the value of creating an on-line exhibit is to allow the images to be used by students and teachers and researchers as evidence in their own researches. Insisting on immediate warnings and commentary (and how, technically, they’re going to make those inseparable from the image, I’m not sure, but I am nervous) will make it harder to use the material, pedagogically.
There are those who argue that nothing offensive to anyone should be published anywhere without caveats and controls; I’m not one of those. There are those who argue that “it’s only speech” excuses everything, and that we cannot have a truly free society without license to express everything, everywhere, anytime; I’m not one of those, either. There are some who say that the classroom is no place for controversy; I reject that. There are some who say that the classroom belongs to the teacher, without exception; I reject that, as well. I do think that teachers ought to be given a great deal of leeway with regard to how they present and handle sensitive topics, particularly those with track records of balanced and sophisticated scholarship, public writing and teaching, and that attacks (and it’s very clear from the MIT President’s statement that there have been some very vigorous attacks) without context and from outside the student and scholarly community which has some understanding of the issues and people, are injurious to academic freedom and accomplishment.
Even scholars are sometimes prone to put blame before understanding, but that doesn’t mean that we should privilege this. On the other hand, I have the greatest respect for John Dower as a scholar, teacher and individual: if he agrees that these images need more context, I will respect that.
I think it’s very important for scholars of Japanese history to be clear about the impact that Japan had on its neighbors and the world in its modern imperialist phase; I don’t understand attacking a scholar who is addressing precisely these issues with evidence, publications, teaching, etc.