University of York academics 'cancel' the three wise monkeys

That’s bananas! University of York academics ‘cancel’ the three wise monkeys after deciding the centuries-old characters are an oppressive racial stereotype

  • Art history conference organisers used image of them in promotional material
  • They have long symbolised the proverbial ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’
  • Image became popular in Japan in the 17th century before spreading to West 

They’re a cultural trope that have been used to symbolise the proverbial ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’.

But it appears the three wise monkeys have been cancelled after academics at the University of York decided they are an oppressive racial stereotype.

Organisers of a forthcoming art history conference for the university have apologised for using a picture of the monkeys in promotional material and have pulled the image from their website to avoid offence.

They’re a cultural trope that have been used to symbolise the proverbial ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’. But it appears the three wise monkeys have been cancelled after academics at the University of York decided they are an oppressive racial stereotype

‘Upon reflection, we strongly believe that our first poster is not appropriate as its iconology promulgates a long-standing legacy of oppression and exploits racist stereotypes,’ academics wrote in a statement seen by The Times.

It continued: ‘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 origin of the Three Wise Monkeys 

The phrase ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ probably came to Japan from Buddhist legend in India and China in the 8th century.

The three wise monkeys are thought to have been used in Japan because of the similarity in Japanese of the negative suffix ‘zaru’ to ‘saru’, meaning monkey.

The proverb acts as a reminder not to be nosy or gossipy but is also used today to refer to someone who turns a blind eye to the immorality of an act in which they are involved.

The three monkeys are depicted as having one with its eyes covered, another with its ears covered and another with its mouth covered.

The image became popular in Japan in the 17th century before spreading to the West.

It is associated with the Tendai school of Buddhism where they are perceived as helpers for divine figures.

But a spokeswoman for the University of York said academics were concerned the image could be insulting to ethnic minorities.

‘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,’ she said.

‘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.’

The image was used on a call for submissions page for the online conference Sensorial Fixations: Orality, Aurality , Opticality and Hapticity.

Experts in Japanese culture last night hit out at any suggestion that the monkeys could be insulting.

Lucia Dolce, who has been studying Japanese Buddhism at the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London for 20 years, told The Times: ‘The monkey is a sacred being. They are vehicles of delight.’

Organisers of a forthcoming art history conference for the university have apologised for using a picture of the monkeys in promotional material and have pulled the image from their website to avoid offence

The image of the three monkeys was first mired in controversy in 2007 when four activists in the union Unison used the image to criticise leaders who were turning a blind eye to their concerns.

Unison leaders responded by saying that the image was intended as a racial slur against them as one of the activists was black.

An employment tribunal ruled in 2013 that no reasonable person would interpret their use of the monkeys as racist.   

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