The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently censored a website which contained pictures of Japanese war atrocities during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. This raises more than a few questions.
First, it is an affront to academic freedom and the freedom of speech for a university to censor instructional content merely because it is perceived as offensive. The pursuit of knowledge requires students to be confronted with offensive or uncomfortable content everyday. Should universities not teach of the horrors of the Holocaust because it might be uncomfortable for Jewish students to see images of Nazi concentration camps? Or, perhaps, universities should refrain from teaching about the African slave trade because depicting European and Arab involvement may produce negative feelings about one of those groups? In order to teach about the evils of history so we can learn from our ancestors’ mistakes, we must be confronted with images and descriptions of these evils.
Furthermore, in a rather oddly worded statement released by MIT, the university states:
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. (Emphasis added.)
When did simply displaying an image denote that the displayer endorses the events depicted? The National Holocaust Museum uses disturbing pictures of concentration camp prisoners in its displays. But who thinks this means that the museum somehow endorses the Holocaust? It would defy common sense to hold such a belief.
Perhaps MIT felt compelled to make this statement because of the recent Mohammed Cartoon Controversy. During this controversy, many newspapers chose not to run the cartoons for fear that their actions would be perceived as endorsing the cartoons. Do we live in a world where the simple display of an image automatically means that somehow the person displaying it must endorse its content? Probably not, but universities have been a world of their own for a long, long time now.
At least MIT did point out in its statement that censoring course content is not an appropriate reaction. The university wrote:
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.
But if MIT, a red light school on FIRE’s Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource, really believed what its PR department is peddling, it would have outright refused to censor the website in the first place. Furthermore, if MIT really believed that universities were “place(s) for the free exploration of ideas” it wouldn’t maintain immoral speech codes that stifle the marketplace of ideas.