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Opinion A blackface ‘Othello’ and the broken debate over cancel culture

The University of Michigan football stadium in Ann Arbor in 2020. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Is it okay for a professor to show his students a movie involving blackface? This complicated question is roiling the University of Michigan — and as is often the case in campus speech debates, the answers from all quarters are too simple.

Composer and educator Bright Sheng began his fall composition seminar by playing the 1965 film of Shakespeare’s “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier in thickly applied dark face paint. What followed was unsurprising to those familiar with the racist history of minstrel entertainment, as well as the present-day tendency toward so-called wokeness in higher education: Upset students complained, including to the composition department. Eventually, though Mr. Sheng had delivered two apologies, the university announced that the professor would no longer teach the class to ensure a “positive learning environment.” A fellow faculty member described the screening as “a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions.”

The incident has inspired a fervor among two opposing camps that fits neatly into a national argument. One group believes this is an example of a discourse-destroying cancel culture that poses an existential threat to American academia; the other believes it is an example instead of the marginalized finally empowered to challenge an oppressive institution with a habit of ignoring minority perspectives.

Universities need to support their faculty’s right to make occasional mistakes without career consequences and to hold views that might not be popular; that is the essence of academic freedom. Too often, academic bureaucrats are falling short. The Michigan case is far from the only example: This fall, under pressure, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology disinvited from delivering a prestigious public lecture a geophysicist who had expressed skepticism of affirmative action. MIT’s decision reflected a distressing unwillingness to tolerate views that offend the liberal majority, especially baffling given that the subject of the lecture was climate change and possible life on other planets.

Mr. Sheng’s decision to kick off a course with, free of context or explanation, a trope that justifiably causes some people to feel distress was mistaken. Certainly it wasn’t conducive to the aforementioned positive learning environment. Yet the decision to respond to this mistake only with punishment-seeking recrimination was wrong, too. Mr. Sheng reportedly hoped to show how Giuseppe Verdi turned the classic literary text of the play “Othello” into the opera “Otello.” Would an explanation of this aim and an acknowledgment of the deplorable custom of the era have helped? Was there any intellectual reason it was necessary, or even especially instructive, to show this production instead of one that didn’t feature blackface?

These are matters that deserve discussion. Now, however, they won’t get any. Sometimes an instructor or other authority figure’s actions are so egregious, there’s nothing to debate, but the default should be to invite dialogue rather than foreclose it. The status quo is shifting so that people whom society often ignored are heard. That’s welcome. Yet the shift is a lost opportunity if the result is only to silence others instead.

The students can’t teach the teachers if the teachers aren’t given a chance to be taught.

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