Post #2: The First Law of Holes

On November 11, 2019 –as the second day of  protests against Gibson’s Bakery was about to get underway  -–Oberlin’s then President Marvin Krislov and Meredith Raimondo, the College’s Vice President and Dean of Students,  issued a joint public statement in which they promised to  “commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident.”

Let’s take a closer look at those twenty-two words. Was there ever a phrase more  at war with itself? On the one hand, it professes a desire to “determine the full and true narrative.” So far so good.  But the question of “whether this is a pattern” rather than “an isolated incident” suggests that the real question under investigation  is not whether the Gibsons are racists, but rather how often they discriminate against people of color. The second half of that loaded phrase presupposes racism on their part . It’s a not so subtle variation on the old trick- question, “(Mr. Gibson) have you stopped  beating your wife?”

But ironically , Krislov and Raimondo wound  up hoisting themselves on their own petard. By raising  the specter of “a pattern and not an isolated incident,” they stumble , however  inadvertently , into the truth. That’s because the problem at the heart of the November 9th incident did involve “ a pattern and not an isolated incident. “ But as I argued in last week’s post , the underlying pattern had nothing to do with  racial profiling by the Gibsons and nearly everything to do with a routinization of shoplifting by the students. If you were to ask the demonstrators outside of Gibson’s Bakery the previous day, “What are you protesting against ?”   the answer would surely have been “racism.” But every serious attempt to ascertain the “full and true narrative” has concluded that –for all intents and purposes—the protests were a two day “Rally for The Legalization of Shoplifting.”

It should thus come as no surprise that Krislov and Raimondo were eventually forced to admit that they never conducted an investigation of the sort they promised to undertake in their joint statement of November 11th.  Both Krislov and Raimondo knew full well –from the very beginning– what had (really)  happened. They knew that the evidence in this case would  exonerate the Gibsons and incriminate three of their  students. And that is what they were loath to admit.

Their joint strategy was to make it appear   as if the Gibsons , rather than three Oberlin students,  were the ones “on trial.” For example, the decision to stop serving Gibson’s pastries in the dining halls was made before their joint statement was even issued. By contrast , if anyone had  proposed that the three student defendants  be suspended from classes while awaiting trial,  the College would have rightfully refused, citing that founding principle of American jurisprudence:  the presumption of innocence. To deny the same presumption to the employees of Gibson’s is not only presumptuous; it’s Alice in Wonderland -style justice  (where the Red Queen declares “First the verdict and then the trial.”) All the while,  Krislov and Raimondo remained stubbornly wedded to the improbable notion that the true victim in this case was not the bakery but  rather Oberlin College and its students. 

What I want to focus on today  is the clumsy, ever -evolving way the college  kept redefining the nature of its own victimhood. Every time the credibility of an earlier  claim to victim status collapsed under the weight of its own untruth, the college would dig an even deeper hole for itself.  At some point along the way, one would have hoped the official spokespersons for the College might have learned the first law of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. No such luck. 

Hole #1 : The  nebulous intimation (if not outright accusation) that Gibson’s Bakery was guilty of racial profiling. This strategy quickly  collapsed for two reasons: The college’s lawyers were unable to find any legally admissible evidence of such profiling ; and the three students who were arrested  outside of Gibson’s on November 9, 2016 didn’t just plead guilty to attempted shoplifting. They also read statements in open court absolving the Bakery of any racially discriminatory motivations. 

Now, it’s  true that anyone who reads Oberlin’s so called student “newspapers” on a regular basis  knows that there are students who continue to  claim that they have been racially profiled by Gibson employees. But when asked to substantiate that claim,  they invariably answer “I was approached by an employee who asked me to remove my backpack and leave it at the  front of the store.” In such instances, the employee was merely asking the customer to comply with a policy that is clearly spelled out  on a prominently posted sign near the bakery’s front door. 

Hole #2   When that strategy fell apart , the College’s allegation(s) against the Bakery  morphed  from racism per se to the  behavior of Allyn D. Gibson, who confronted the Oberlin student, Jonathan Aladdin, as he attempted  to steal two bottles of wine. The college’s early legal briefs cited a “violent physical assault by Allyn D. Gibson on unarmed Oberlin students.” That claim too was relatively short lived, if only because the  investigation by the Oberlin Police Department revealed no such assault. But the college refused to stop digging. (We’ll deal in due course  with the strangest component of that phrase: the word “unarmed.”) But for the moment, let’s continue to examine the way the college’s  quest for a  plausible -sounding defense kept unraveling. 
The suggestion  that Gibson committed a “violent physical assault”  against three students is absurd on its face. In fact, it inverts the truth of what Oberlin Police Officers witnessed  when they  arrived on the scene. Their investigative report describes  three individuals  piled on top of Gibson, pounding him with their fists  and kicking him with their knees and feet. And yet, despite the abundance of evidence suggesting no wrongdoing of any sort  on the part of Allyn D. Gibson,  the college refused to stop digging around for ways to rationalize the bad behavior of the three Oberlin students.  

Hole #3  When the Oberlin Police failed to find evidence of a  “physical assault” by Allyn D. Gibson, the college’s legal team concocted a  variation on the same theme: The bakery would now be accused of practicing “an archaic chase and detain policy.” (i.e. a policy of physically detaining suspected shoplifters until the police arrive.)  Now, that at least is an argument. I’m sure there must be owners of small businesses who instruct their employees  to never, under any circumstances, get into a physical “altercation” with suspected shoplifters. Better –they might argue—to have merchandise vanish from the shelves than to run the risk of an employee or a customer getting injured in a fight.  

But once again, the inconvenient facts in this case show that Allyn D. Gibson initially attempted to take the higher road. The police investigation determined that it was Aladin, not Gibson, who initiated the  “altercation.” In fact, at first Gibson made  no  effort to physically detain Aladin. He sought merely  to  photograph him, with his i Phone,  in hopes of acquiring a visual ID the police could subsequently use to identify the suspected shoplifter. Aladin, by contrast, was determined to prevent this from happening. So  he smacked the i phone out of Gibson’s hand (and squarely into his face). Then again, even if Gibson hadn’t tried  to resolve the matter in this relatively un-intrusive way, Ohio law permits store employees to (physically) detain shoplifters in a reasonable manner while awaiting the arrival of the police. 

Of course, some of Allyn D. Gibson’s critics  will forever argue that his  original sin was to have physically pursued the suspected shoplifter as he fled    the store. But I would remind them of an incident that occurred in Oberlin  back in April of 1981. The College’s  head librarian, William Moffat, physically tackled and detained a notorious  book thief named James R. Schinn . After taking  Schinn into custody, Oberlin police discovered $30,000 worth of rare stolen manuscripts in his  Oberlin Inn hotel room.   Moffat   was hailed as a hero by both  local and national media. (Of course, my analogy between Gibson and Moffat  is imprecise , if only because — to the best of my knowledge—the Bakery doesn’t have a wine cellar stocked with bottles of  Dom Perignon, Vintage 1959.) 

But let’s give the college’s legal team the benefit of one last doubt: Were there any   mitigating circumstances that might lend even a shred of credibility to their claim that the Oberlin  students were victims , after all ? Was there some “already existing narrative” the college might exploit?  Unfortunately, there was.

How else to explain the otherwise puzzling decision of the college’s lawyers to describe the three Oberlin students as “unarmed.”  Was it to differentiate these three innocent victims from the majority of their classmates who, presumably, feel so unsafe in Oberlin that they rarely leave their dormitories without strapping  an AK47 over their shoulders? (Ohio remember is an open carry state.) 

Unfortunately, there is only one plausible explanation for the otherwise unfathomable  decision to use the word “unarmed” in a legal document : The college was attempting ( shamelessly, unconscionably)  to piggyback its phony defense onto the all -too- real narratives of Michael Brown in Fergusson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Social justice is one thing. One very good thing.  But Self Righteous Posturing by “Social Justice Warriors” is quite another. This defense strategy becomes even more offensive when considered in relation to the specific historical context in which the shoplifting and subsequent protests took place.  Donald Trump– an unapologetic fan of police brutality– had just been elected President . 

The disbelief, confusion and anger that gripped the Oberlin community that week were both understandable and justifiable. If  only that tidal wave of emotion had been directed toward its most deserving target, Trump and his supporters, the result could  have been commendable—not only cathartic , but strategic : an initial act of collective resistance toward a shockingly illegitimate “president.” 

Actually, I’m tempted to go a step further and suggest  that if Oberlin students had simply resumed “business as usual” in the wake of Trump’s election, that would have been almost as irresponsible as their misdirected protest against the Bakery. If ever there was a moment for a college like Oberlin to demonstrate (not only to itself but to  the outside world ) what a liberal arts education is supposed to be all about, this was it. 

In the  immediate aftermath of Trump’s election , the very faculty of reason appeared to  give way, almost entirely, to the irrational . (Is there really any other way to describe the hallucinatory sense of the unreal  that arose when one accepted the idea that Donald Trump would soon be occupying the White House? Rarely has irrationality become so thoroughly mainstream.  As in “This can’t be happening…. But it is….”

The psychic jolt  of the election, compounded by the shock of student arrests and  subsequent  protests outside of Gibson’s began to feel like a phantasmagoric acid trip of the sort that  Hunter Thompson used to chronicle (e.g. “Fear and Loathing in Oberlin.”) It is precisely at “runaway” moments like these that liberal arts institutions should be functioning  as a reality-check, as a reminder that some things are still verifiable  (even in the age of Trump. ) 

What a “teachable moment” this might have become! What an opportunity  for both students and faculty to examine the ways in which their own behavior, however inadvertently, might have helped elect Donald Trump. Wasn’t the Gibson affair destined to become precisely the sort of lightning rod  that would re-affirm every stereotype of “political correctness” that Trump and his enablers at Fox News had gleefully campaigned against? And how many of the demonstrators outside the Bakery that week had either refused to vote for Hillary Clinton or, even worse, not voted at all? 

But  that sort of self-reflection  would have required the very tools of  critical inquiry that are no longer key components of  an Oberlin education : nuance, self-doubt, independence of mind –none of which will ever provide  the immediate gratification that comes from  surrendering oneself (completely , passionately unthinkingly)  to  a collective “cause” —no matter how misguided or ill conceived that cause might be. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once (famously) put it: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” 

Applied to the Gibson case, this dualism   might be phrased as follows :

(1) Structural Racism still exists in this country . Even though (in what now feels like a distant era)   we elected Barack Obama to the Presidency not once, but twice, we have not — as a society–  entered into a post-racial era and (2) Oberlin students, even African-American Oberlin students,  sometimes do stupid things that are “against the law.”  But because we insist that  our students respect not just the rules and regulations of the College, but also those of the surrounding community , we can’t have one set of rules for the Town and another set of rules for those who wear (or aspire to wear) the collegiate  Gown. 

Why is it so difficult for the Oberlin College community to acknowledge that both of these things are true? One of the great contrarians of all time , Christopher  Hitchens, once quipped, “The truth seldom lies, but when it does lie , it lies somewhere in between.” It would be nice if the truth weren’t  often so complex ; but  it appears that many of Oberlin’s current crop of students would prefer to believe that truth  is both pure and simple. The great literary critic, William Empson, argued for “Seven Types of Ambiguity.” At Oberlin, we’re lucky if students are willing to acknowledge even one type of ambiguity. In times like these, it becomes the sacred responsibility  of both faculty and administrators to disabuse their students of such naïve certainties (rather than shield  them from the often unresolvable  paradoxes  of real life. ) 

 Let’s face it: if the only thing you yearn for is what Yeats called “passionate intensity,” you can find that pretty much anywhere. Shouldn’t liberal arts colleges offer their students something they can’t find  outside of academia ? But, the challenges are immense, if only because  the embrace of complexity and contradiction is  likely to “trigger” cognitive dissonance, the very sort of uncomfortable, even discordant sensations Oberlin students are referring to these days when they complain that they have been made to feel “unsafe”  in the classroom. In a subsequent post, I’ll talk about the way in which this safe space mantra contributed to the Gibson fiasco. In the meantime, a word about today’s new entry to the video diary at the bottom of my homepage. It’s actually two- for the -price -of- one this week. So be sure to watch both#2 and #3. Thanks.

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