Oberlin students, I’m glad to say, have retreated a few steps in recent years from the sort of divisive, outrage-fueled politics that would routinely erupt into conflagrations of bad discourse and unsolvable conflict on campus. This paradigm of activism flourished under Obama, but it doesn’t play as well in the current political era. The 2016 election offered something of a reality check. Suddenly our righteousness didn’t look so noble; our dogmatism didn’t look so pure. We are a little more open-minded now, and a little less reactionary. The campus feels calmer and more welcoming. It’s been a gratifying transformation to watch.
So, I was disheartened when last week The Grape chose to publish a flippant and brazenly misleading piece shoring up support among first-years for the now two-year-old boycott of Gibson’s Food Market and Bakery. The Gibson’s controversy is complex, subjective, and highly personal. The events were tragic and traumatizing. Newcomers to Oberlin ought to have a much fuller picture of the conflict than The Grape’s article offers before coming to any conclusions.
The author side-steps any substantive engagement with the facts of the case by suggesting that because of the lawsuit and because they once worked at Gibson’s, they must be careful to avoid “libeling” their former employer. Their caution is reasonable on the surface, and yet, when the article gives an account of the origin of the boycott, it is reductive to the point of being deceitful.
I don’t think it was meant to deceive — more likely, it was just ill-considered and under-informed — but nonetheless, publishing a piece this lacking in context and nuance was irresponsible. Writers should feel obliged to discuss serious issues affecting our community honestly and in good faith.
I was especially disturbed by the line chosen as the pull-quote by the editors: “I’m not going to tell you not to shop at Gibson’s, but I will tell you that the social implications of being seen at Gibson’s are much worse than most other freshman year faux pas I can imagine.” Is this really the sort of discourse we want to encourage? Threatening social blacklisting — a very real problem on this campus — to anyone who acts contrary to a prevailing set of ideas?
As the “Support Gibson’s” lawn signs sprouting up around Lorain County remind us, the Gibson’s boycott is not like the abstracted, at-a-distance activism typical of college campuses. Our actions on this front have a direct and dramatic impact on the lives and livelihoods of dozens of people in the greater Oberlin community. These people are not caricatures. They are not merely the sum of their worst inclinations. They are our hosts — when they push back against us, we owe them our sincere consideration. As students, we inevitably leave Oberlin behind, and with it, the repercussions of the choices we made here. But the residents of the town remain. They inherit our legacy.
I understand that dedicated proponents of the boycott like the author of the article in question are motivated by a genuine commitment to justice. But if we want to continue down this path, we have to ask ourselves — what would justice look like? What are our long-term goals? Why did we enter a boycott in the first place? Trump was elected the day before the protests started — did shock and dismay affect our judgement? And does an alleged history of racial profiling and the untoward violence of one angry young man justify shuttering a beloved small business that has served Oberlin since 1885? Because the chance that Gibson’s will have to close its doors for good is more significant than most of us seem to realize. Do we really want that, if it means alienating hundreds of our neighbors?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but they demand our engagement.
I encourage anyone so inclined, especially underclassmen, to talk to the Gibson family and its employees. Ask them about their motivations for the lawsuit. Talk to students, and ask about their motivations for the boycott. Read the reports. Read the coverage in The Grape and the Review. Then come to an informed decision.