Sam Courtney-Guy, Metro, January 22, 2021
Academics at the University of York have removed an image of the three wise monkeys from their website after deciding it ‘exploits racist stereotypes’.
The animals, a cultural symbol originating in Japan which represents the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ proverb, were depicted on a online poster about an upcoming art history conference.
The organisers of the conference worried the image of a monkey could offend people from ethnic minority backgrounds in its context.
A spokesperson for the university suggested it was deemed offensive because the webpage included a call for research papers ‘that represented black, indigenous and people of colour’.
In a statement reported by The Times, the academics said: ‘Upon reflection, we strongly believe that our first poster is not appropriate as its iconology promulgates a longstanding visual legacy of oppression and exploits racist stereotypes.
‘We bring this to your attention, so that we may be held accountable for our actions and, in our privileges, do and be better.’
The symbol came to represent a popular Buddhist maxim in 17th-Century Japan before spreading to the west.
It is still used to refer to people who respond to wrongdoing by turning a blind eye, although the saying dates back to at least the 8th century.
Dr Lucia Dolce, an expert in Japanese Buddhism at SOAS, told the newspaper the animals were seen in a positive way in their culture of origin and could not be seen as belittling any culture.
‘That would be wrong because the monkey is a sacred being. They are vehicles of the deities.’
In 2013 a tribunal ruled that ‘no reasonable person’ would interpret the use of the three wise monkeys image in a union dispute as ‘racist’.
Unison had accused four activists of racially abusing one of their bosses, who was black, in 2007 after they used the image to criticise a leadership which was allegedly ignoring their concerns.
The University of York spokesperson said: ‘The Japanese symbol of the three wise monkeys was used to represent a postgraduate conference about the sensory experiences of the body, and it also appeared on a document that asked for submission of research papers to the conference on a range of areas, one of which included papers that represented black, indigenous and people of colour.
‘It was considered . . . that a monkey, which has been used in a derogatory way in the past, could cause offence in this context, despite this not being the intention of the organisers, so the image was removed.’