“The nature of moral judgments,” Susan Sontag wrote, “depends on our capacity for paying attention.” A lot of horrors seem to compete for our attention these days, from Trump’s temper tantrums which are destabilizing the world’s economy and security, to the burning of the Amazon, which is undermining its climate. So, if I choose to attend to my home town, Oberlin, Ohio, and the college where I spent the last 33 years, it’s not because it is the most important of the many issues that demand our consideration, but because, in its own small way, examining events here can offer some insights on the moment we are living.
The students have begun to repopulate the town after a summer spent near and far. (There is no summer session at the College.) The sports teams are the first to return; my days of working out in a nearly empty gym are coming to an end. The first-years arrive in a few days, to be followed soon after by all the others. For the most part, they have been absent as the Gibson’s issue played out in a nearby Lorain County court room as well as in hundreds, if not thousands, of news reports, commentaries, and social media streams. Unlike most of those, and similar to my commentaries from earlier in the summer (here and here), I am more interested in exploring some broad contextual themes that can help us understand the terrain on which “Gibson’s” is playing out and not re-litigating the events themselves, including the trial.
The Action-Reflection Cycle
Let me begin with a useful piece of pedagogical advice known as the action-reflection cycle. The cycle begins with thinking (theorizing) about what you want to accomplish by any action (say, what you hope students will learn in a particular class). Based on that, you plan a strategy for action (your lesson plan), put the plan into action (teach), observe and consider the results (via various assessment mechanisms), and then determine whether, in actual practice, you were able to achieve the outcomes you hoped for. If you didn’t, you need to modify the strategy, rethink the theory, rewrite the lesson plans, and try again, try better.
There’s a lot to be gained by applying the action-reflection cycle to the “Gibson’s affair,” my shorthand way of referring to the series of events that began shortly after the November 2016 election with a shoplifting incident and a student protest against what they at the time perceived to be an attack on a Black student by a local merchant – it would, of course, prove more complex. All this led, nearly three years later, to a jury verdict awarding a massive sum to the plaintiffs, the Gibsons. Despite the fact that the legal wheels are still turning, the moment is ripe for some reflection. And, if many points remain in dispute, perhaps we can agree on a few, and see them as starting points for the next action-reflection cycle.
- The jury’s verdict in the Gibson’s case has produced a disastrous outcome for the College and its students, those who engaged in the protests as well as the far larger number of students who didn’t. It has caused and will continue to cause financial and reputational damage to the College without advancing the student protesters’ implicit goals. The events haven’t helped us think about, or respond to, race and racism in our town, surely the protesters’ central goal. Because what happened does not appear to be the outcome that the protesters, the student body, or the College wanted, it would be more than warranted for everyone to reflect on the actions that were taken and, more importantly, ask what they would do differently in the future, what needs to change to arrive at a better outcome. In my opinion (which others might not share), this shouldn’t involve retreating from deeply held principles or from the social justice goals that, along with academic and artistic excellence, have long been a part of Oberlin’s “peculiar” tradition, but rather finding better ways to advance them.
- The jury’s verdict has also produced a troubling outcome for the town. It has soured town-gown relations, historically uneasy, as many studies have shown. Gibson’s v. Oberlin now snakes through the town like a live electrical wire: touch it at your own peril. Some merchants have declared their establishments “Gibson’s-free zones,” where no talk of the controversy is allowed. Hundreds of incoming students, as well as faculty of color, recently received hateful and threatening emails from an unknown source. Because these are outcomes that (hopefully) few would celebrate, it is important that those who live and work in town and would wish for a different outcome now reflect on what happened and on what we need to do to help the healing process. This is not a question of “loyalties,” of how one views the events or the outcome of the jury trial. It is a question of how we reach for deeper understandings of the ways in which our actions impact human well-being, how we can find better ways of living together.
- Finally, this is, I believe, the moment to draw a line under one activity that needs to stop: shoplifting from local merchants. College administrators need to establish clear deterrents which can be written into the College’s Honor Code and the rules and regulations governing student behavior. Oberlin should make it clear that students found guilty of shoplifting will be placed on probation and that repeat offenders will be suspended. As with all aspects of the Honor Code, adding this should offer a teachable moment, encouraging students to reflect on their own role in improving town-gown relations.
A recent critique of the College’s actions in the “Gibson’s affair” quoted John J. Shipherd, one of Oberlin’s 19th century founders, who observed that “Oberlin is peculiar in that which is good,” and then refers to a more contemporary inversion of Shipherd, one that implies that the college is now seen as being “good in that which is peculiar.” I would suggest that “eccentric” is a more appropriate term than “peculiar,” agreeing with J.S. Mill (On Liberty) that “precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.” Still, it is useful to explore, however briefly, why Oberlin, the college, is seen by the “outside world,” including Lorain County, as “peculiar” in the first sense. This is particularly important as the reputation of the college often depends more on how it is seen than on what it actually does.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
On November 6, 2015, an article by Clover Linh Tran appeared the Oberlin Review under the title, “CDS Appropriates Asian Dishes, Students Say.” In it, a College junior from Japan, Tomoyo Joshi, is quoted as saying, “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture. So,” she concluded, “if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.” If a shoplifting incident set off the “Gibson’s affair,” this statement sparked the “banh mi affair,” an incident, leading to a labeling of the College that continues to shape the way many who “don’t know the original” (and some who do) have come to view it. The “banh mi” affair has not only been used to ridicule the College, but has been employed as an example in the contention that a “radicalized 5 or 10 percent” of students determines “the tone for the entire institution.” This reasoning has been repeated in explaining other events at the College, leading up to and including the Gibson’s protest. In “condescending” to these radical students, the charge implies, the College continues to “betray its finest traditions, and make itself a national laughingstock.”
So let’s explore how a dining hall complaint turned Oberlin into “a national laughingstock,” and who, to borrow from Hamilton, is telling Oberlin’s story. It just might suggest something about how others, maybe even Lorain County jurors, think about the College.
In the Oberlin Review’s article, the author reports on conversations with six students, five of whom were from Asian countries; the sixth was Asian-American. Three of the students quoted were critical of the “Asian Dishes” served and mentioned that others were, as well; one had no problem with the food; and two didn’t comment on the food but instead recommended ways in which conversations between CDS (Campus Dining Services) and the students might be used to avoid further conflicts. As one of the latter students argued, “We — including myself — can always learn more about how to admit that we don’t know everything about every culture in the world and have a ‘We’re still trying to learn more’ kind of attitude.” In short, hers was the kind of response one would hope to hear from any college student, whether at Oberlin or elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, the Review had reported on food issues at Oberlin many times before, but none of those articles raised any national eyebrows. A commentary about a Diwali meal served in the dining hall (“On my third Diwali at Oberlin, I had one of the best Campus Dining Services dinners in my three years on campus”) somehow didn’t make it into the New York Time’s Wednesday food section, nor did reports of Kosher Passover meals being more widely available capture the attention of the Jerusalem Post. All that reportage stayed where most campus writing remains: on campus.
Not so for the issue of “cultural appropriation” (a term, one should note, that was raised in the offending article only once, and only by one student). Six weeks after the Review article, a story ridiculing Oberlin appeared in the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid boasting the 4th largest circulation in the United States. The article appeared under the headline, “Students at Lena Dunham’s College Offended by Lack of Fried Chicken.” Not quite as historic as the Daily New’s “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” but catchy, nonetheless. The chance to skewer the “gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College” and throw in alumna Lena Dunham to boot was too good to pass up. Still, who is going to bother with an article six weeks past its sell-by date?
As it turns out, everybody. The story was picked up by Newsweek two days later (Dec. 20) and then quickly found its way to the New York Times (Dec. 21: “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall”) and the Washington Post (“Oberlin College Sushi ‘Disrespectful’ of Japanese”). From there, it sprinted to The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Campus Reform, and dozens of others. One could read of Oberlin’s culinary contretemps in The Orange County (CA) Register as well as The Santa Fe New Mexican. Nor did it stop at the water’s edge. The Jerusalem Post picked it up on January 18, 2016, and the story was covered in The Independent (UK) (highlighting “undercooked sushi”), The Telegraph (UK), the Korea Times (South Korea – I haven’t been able to peruse the North Korean press), and the NZ Herald (New Zealand!), which didn’t get the scoop until July 24, 2016. It must have arrived by boat. Maybe one could escape this onslaught by avoiding the news and just sticking to sports? Not really: “247Sports” carried it, as did “Inside Hoops.” Was there nowhere to hide? Apparently not, since it popped up in Seventeen as well as Vanity Fair. And don’t even talk to me about “Breitbart” (“Campus Crazies at Oberlin…”) or The Federalist Papers.
And if you think the media’s reputation-crushing onslaught would draw to a close when everyone was tired of General Tso and had more worry about with General Trump, think again. The New York Times returned to it in two articles in 2019, and (liberal) Nicholas Kristof referenced it in his comments on the Gibson’s case as an example of how “knee-jerk liberalism” damages its own cause. The Washington Post reprised the story on May 12 and June 2, 2017, and again in its Gibson’s coverage on June 19, 2019. The recent Commentary critique, written by a former colleague (and friend), finds in the food affair yet another example in which the “radicalized few” set the tone for the college as a whole. “[S]tudents protested ‘cultural appropriation’ in the dining hall,” he observes. “The banh mi sandwich was made with soggy ciabatta not a crispy baguette, General Tso’s chicken was steamed not fried, and so on.”
The Banh Mi Effect
So, let’s recap: An article written in a local campus newspaper reporting on complaints by three students (and balanced by the quite measured comments of three others), was picked up six weeks later, weaponized (add Lena Dunham and remove any reasonable comments), and sent out into the world by a right-wing tabloid where it was picked up by, seemingly, every media outlet on God’s green earth, only to return, time and again, as an example of Oberlin’s privileged, radical, preposterous students.
But, why retrace the banh mi debacle here? In part, to answer the charge that it is “the radicalized 5 or 10 percent of the population [that] establishes the tone for the entire institution,” whereas, quite often, it is others who are telling our story, most often in ways that don’t come close to representing the College accurately. Deep within the on-going culture wars, in the age of the internet where no comment, however small or unrepresentative, won’t find its way into somebody’s outrage machine, we should be cautious about suggesting that the institution has fallen under the thrall of a small number of “radicalized students” when, often, it is those outside of the College (both conservative and liberal, it would seem) who have made those “radicalized students,” – those three who complained about the dining hall’s preparation of ethnic food – its voice. Is it any wonder that the College comes to be viewed with mild wonderment, as if animals at a zoo, suspicion, or disdain?
Of course, the banh mi effect is not the whole story, nor would I argue that it is. I trace the history of this story not to whine about poor Oberlin’s media coverage, but to observe that this is the world which we inhabit, like it or not. And yet it’s not one that we are required to promote by re-circulating the false images that it generates. Our story is literally being written by others, often in ways that are deeply problematic, and that have serious consequences not just for Oberlin, but for other colleges and universities targeted by reactionary activists. (Why the liberal press often eats this up is beyond my remit.) Attention is required when an organization like Turning Point USA, an ultra-conservative student group that encourages its members to report faculty who espouse “liberal” ideas in class, offered a workshop at its recent conference (addressed by no less than Trump, himself) titled “Suing Your School 101.” I’ve said this before: this is about more than Oberlin.
A Pew Research Center poll released a few days ago confirms the already noticeable partisan division on the importance of higher education. From 2015 to 2019, the share among Republicans saying colleges have a negative effect on the country jumped from 37% to 59%. That is a monumental shift in only 4 years. But why is higher education so reviled in the eyes of Republican voters, particularly when they are aware of the fact that those with college degrees will do much better economically than those lacking a degree? Obviously, there are many reasons, including rising costs and admissions scandals. But, added to these, according to a study in The Atlantic, is the fact that the “Conservative media has focused heavily on campus protests, free-speech clashes, and debates over…whether offering ethnic food in dining halls constitutes cultural appropriation.” Who knew that comments by three Oberlin students could influence the entire Republican electorate? (As for speech issues, recent research by Georgetown University’s “Free Speech Project” found that the “free-speech clashes” on college campuses in the last few years were directed against both conservative and progressive speakers and, in any case, the 60-some cases represented about 1% of all institutions of higher education in the country. And yet “free speech” on campus, which has drawn the President’s attention, has become one of the Right’s most frequent complaints about higher education in general.)
The challenge of the “banh mi effect” is how one separates issues ginned up in the outside world and made to represent the College, from issues that actually require our consideration. College officials never proposed, nor should they have even considered, censoring the original Review article, wary of what (in fact) came to pass. (Liberty University officials often have done exactly that, with no outcry in the conservative press.) Nor should administrators police student statements, snipping out anything they think might cause offense anywhere from Lorain to New Zealand. On the other hand, cultural appropriation, the issue at the heart of the story, is complex and serious and actually perfect for discussion on college and university campuses, including Oberlin’s. And so it can become an issue for reflection if the faculty feel they are unable to promote and develop the kinds of reasoned and reasoning discussions in class that can help illuminate complex matters such as those presented by cultural appropriation.
Similarly for the Gibson’s affair. I don’t believe that the actions of the students in protesting Gibson’s were well thought out (acting in the heat of the moment rarely produces reasoned responses), and they certainly didn’t produce the kind of results they might have hoped for. But if the College has issues to deal with – and it does – these should not be centered on how to “control” a small number of “radicalized” students. The issues Oberlin needs to deal with are those that arise if the faculty find that they cannot carry out the tasks of teaching and learning in the most productive ways, if they cannot discuss certain topics in class – whether race and racism, the role of activism, or the nature of protest. The issues we need to address are those that come about if faculty feel that students are not raising in class the difficult questions they are capable of raising, not taking the risks with their arguments that they should be taking. But we should also understand when we are being “banh mi-ed,” and not abandon long-standing, mission-driven, progressive (and certainly academic) goals, turn against student activists, or forsake our historic commitment to social justice. Action-reflection: Correct and revise those actions that don’t advance your goals, but don’t give up the goals, certainly not in the face of those who will only be satisfied if Oberlin stops being (in the Millsian sense) “eccentric.”
The Many Views of Reality
If the heart of Gibson’s v. Oberlin was whether the College or the students acted as the “libelous speaker” (and I continue to believe strongly that the jury found incorrectly on that score), the heart of the student protest was based on whether Gibson’s had a “racist history” or whether the actions of Allyn Gibson in confronting the shoplifter were motivated by racial animus (the students charged in the case would concede in a plea deal that they weren’t). In a recent New Yorker article, Kelefa Sanneh writes of the contemporary “crusade against racism.” “It is a fierce movement,” he observes, “and sometimes a frivolous one, aiming the power of its outrage at excessive prison sentences, tasteless Halloween costumes, and many offenses in between.” Whether the students’ protest against Gibson’s was “fierce” or “frivolous,” in my opinion, and as noted above, it not only failed to advance the discussion of an issue that has been a concern in Oberlin (town and College) for a very long time, but made such conversations quite a bit harder. (On the latter point, I recommend Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser’s recently published, magisterial study, Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, OH.)
One central aspect of the discussion of race and racism is rooted in the different lived experiences of whites and people of color, particularly African Americans, in this country. It also happens to be an issue severely critiqued in the previously mentioned Commentary article. In it, the author, Abe Socher suggests that Oberlin’s president, Carmen Ambar, brushed away the “guilty pleas, allocutions, and an exhaustive six-week civil trial” to imply that the matter of racial profiling still wasn’t closed. “In interviews,” he continues, “Ambar has hit on a bit of bad philosophy to obfuscate this point. ‘You can have two different lived experiences, and both those things can be true,’ she told the Wall Street Journal editorial board.” Socher concludes by remarking, “One is tempted to say that the facile relativism of this—there is a Gibson truth and an Aladin [the Black student shoplifter] truth; a townie truth and a college truth—reveals the sophistry behind Oberlin’s self-destructive approach…”
When we are talking about race in America (and in Oberlin) – and that is precisely what we are talking about – there can be two (or more) truths, and to ignore this is to ignore history. What is true for a Black motorist and what is true for a white policeman, history has shown and continues to show, can be different but, to each, no less true. What a Black high school student carrying a backpack feels on entering a store in Oberlin, including Gibson’s, or just about anywhere else in the United States, and what the store owner feels on observing that young man, may be quite different, but no less true for each. This is neither facile relativism nor sophistry. It is a product, as President Ambar states, of the “different lived experiences” that have marked Black and white lives in this country for 400 years. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was making the same point in a 2001 lecture, when she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Juries are required to select a single “truth” in deciding a case; they cannot argue that both sides contain some truth. But they, too – as was made explicit in the famous Batson decision, by which prosecutors were prevented from excluding jurors solely on the basis of race – are products of their own histories and lived experiences. We, however, are not a jury looking to settle a case on the basis of one “truth,” one verdict. We are a town and a College that has before us some difficult tasks requiring reflection and revision if we are to heal. In that process, we must be aware of how different lived experiences shape our worlds, as well as being aware of our moral and empathetic obligations to each other. We will move forward if we pay attention, as Sontag recommended, to those issues that demand our consideration, while quieting the outside voices that would be happy to see the College sink back into the swamp that was once the Western Reserve. That, we cannot, and will not, let happen.