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One of the most famous incidents of campus outrage was totally misrepresented

How a single article in Oberlin’s student paper about food got turned into a major national controversy — and why this matters.

A bánh mì sandwich, one of several food items involved in the Oberlin controversy.
Greg Powers/Washington Post/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There’s an enduring feature of the national media that I’ve taken to calling the “student panic industrial complex.”

Here’s how it works: Minor college campus controversies involving diversity and/or free speech get breathlessly reported by the right-wing press, laundered into the mainstream by click-hungry neutral outlets, and eventually become fodder for breathless takes from conservatives and moderate liberals about the supposed authoritarianism of Kids Today and their “woke” ideology. The cycle uses a few absurd-sounding cases to create a sense of crisis about the state of American college campuses, in complete contradiction of both the aggregate data and sometimes even the basic facts of the campus controversy in question.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an extraordinary piece dissecting an example of the student panic industrial complex in action. The article, by reporter Vimal Patel, digs into one of the most infamous cases of alleged excess by overly sensitive students: the 2015 controversy at Oberlin College about alleged “cultural appropriation” in dining hall dishes.

Sounds silly, right? As such, the incident has become a go-to example of how privileged, overly sensitive snowflakes are derailing the American left — referenced just a few months ago in a New York Times opinion column.

Yet Patel’s article shows that the entire situation was largely a manufactured controversy: an overhyped blowup originating with a journalism class and centering on interviews with five complaining students. The comments from these students, who weren’t representative of the American left for the simple reason that they mostly were not American, are more justifiable in original context than they were portrayed as in hindsight — a sign of the student panic industrial complex in action.

What really happened at Oberlin

The story begins with Ferdinand Protzman, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who was teaching a journalism course at Oberlin, a highly ranked liberal arts college in Ohio with a reputation for being politically left wing. Protzman had instructed his students to be on the lookout for potentially good stories on campus; one of these students, who was Vietnamese, pitched him on a piece on international students grousing about the nature of the Asian-inspired cuisine in the dining hall food.

Protzman told Patel that he was initially skeptical of the story, but was won over by the sheer absurdity of the situation:

The more he learned, the more Protzman, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, thought his student might have a useful local story. The bánh mì wasn’t just inauthentic — it didn’t even resemble bánh mì. Instead of grilled pork, pâté, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork, and coleslaw, according to the student. And the ‘chicken sushi,’ Protzman said, was just chicken loaf draped over a little mound of bad rice.

‘I don’t know what culture it wouldn’t offend,’ he says.

In other words, the dining hall was making food that’s almost nothing like the dishes it was allegedly inspired by — hardly a cosmic injustice, but certainly something that a journalism student could write up for class or publish in a campus paper.

The resulting story, published in the student-run Oberlin Review, quotes a total of six students on the Asian food issue. One student, from Malaysia, had no problem with the dining hall’s treatment of Asian cuisine, seeing it as a cultural blending of sorts. The remaining five (four of whom were from Asian countries whose cuisine had been adapted, and one of whom was Vietnamese-American) all had some degree of problem with it.

A Japanese student’s take on the “sushi” was one of the harshest comments, and would become a staple of national media coverage due to its use of the left-wing language of “cultural appropriation”: “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 if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

The concept of “cultural appropriation” can be tricky to define and has notoriously fuzzy boundaries. Still, it hardly seems unreasonable for a Vietnamese student to complain about labeling something “bánh mì” when it isn’t bánh mì, or for a college student to cover complaints about the dining hall in a student paper.

The university seemed to agree. About a month later, the Oberlin Review reported that the university had agreed “to improve the naming process of meals by not associating excessively modified dishes with specific cultures.”

This was a minor, easily resolved issue involving a handful of students. But everything went sideways, in Patel’s telling, when the New York Post got involved. The right-wing tabloid, part of the Rupert Murdoch empire, published a piece on food controversy at the school titled “Students at Lena Dunham’s college offended by lack of fried chicken.”

a campus building and an isolated railroad track
A memorial to the Underground Railroad on Oberlin’s campus.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

It’s true that actor and writer Lena Dunham went to Oberlin, and it’s true that a single Chinese student interviewed in the original Oberlin review article complained that the General Tso’s chicken (a Chinese American dish) was served steamed rather than fried and with the incorrect sauce. It’s also true that, in a separate incident discussed by the Post, members of the African Student Union protested to demand that the food at a dorm dedicated to African and African American heritage be more culturally specific (including one demand to permanently add fried chicken to the Sunday dinner menu).

But the article was written in such a way that both belittled the students and made the complaints seem like a massive campus uprising, accusing “gastronomically correct” students of “filling the school newspaper with complaints.”

The juicy frame — students at an expensive “ultra-liberal” private college attacking famously bad campus food using over-the-top SJW (social justice warrior) language — proved irresistible to not only conservative publications, but nearly the entire national media.

What we can learn from the absurd national backlash

According to Patel, the New York Post article lit a fire under national media. Dedicated conservative publications that cover campus controversies like Campus Reform published on it; so too did the New York Times and the Washington Post. The national coverage painted the students as both frivolous and indicative of a bigger movement; the Times, for example, described it as “the latest skirmish in a year marked by [campus] protests.”

It was also fodder for opinion columnists who make a living documenting the alleged follies of college students, like the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, to connect this incident to broader flaws in social justice ideology and the modern university — despite the fact that, by Friedersdorf’s own admission, it’s “an outlying story about a small number of students:”

It’s possible to glean insights from the most absurd events at Oberlin as surely as it’s possible to learn something about America by observing the biggest Black Friday sales, the most over-the-top displays of militarism at professional sporting events, or the most extreme reality televisions show. Every subculture and ideology has its excesses. And Oberlin, where the subculture is unusually influenced by ‘social justice’ activism, can starkly illuminate the particular character of that ideology’s excesses...

I understand why some observers are inclined to defend young people when they become objects of ridicule in the New York Post. I certainly oppose demonizing these students. But constructive criticism is not only legitimate, it is salutary. It confronts students who’ve been acculturated into a seductive ideology with the diversity of thought they need to refine their ideas. From the outside, Oberlin seems unable to provide dissent in anything like the quality and quantity needed to prepare these young people for the enormous complexity of life in a diverse society, where few defer to claims just because they are expressed in the language of social justice. Is that how it looks from the inside, too?

What you see there is the author blowing right past his own caveats about the small number of students involved and turning a single absurd-sounding incident on campus into a broad generalization about how “ideology” is rendering an entire campus “unable to provide dissent.”

The data is, of course, insufficient to support this kind of generalization. We don’t know that the students were indoctrinated by the university — the international students could have formed their worldviews in their home countries. We don’t know what the broader campus thought about the food or whether anyone beyond the few people quoted in the article was offended or insulted by it. We don’t know how angry the quoted students themselves were about it; giving an opinion to a campus newspaper reporter who asks is quite different from spending a lot of one’s own time and energy trumpeting how the food is offensive.

Finally, we don’t know that the fact that some of the students used “the language of social justice” led the Oberlin administration to “defer” to student demands. The administration might have simply agreed that calling a pulled pork sandwich a bánh mì was bad.

Fundamentally, this is all so low-stakes and specific that it would be tricky to draw big conclusions even if the answers to these questions were clear in the original reporting, which they were not. Yet Friedersdorf, who’s one of the more responsible and careful writers on the campus outrage beat, proceeded to conclude his article with sweeping generalizations about What It All Means.

Today, Patel reports, the Oberlin food fight is still trotted out to support these kinds of claims. It is, as he puts it, “a shorthand national reporters often use to convey the excesses of Oberlin-student activism — and, by implication, the excesses of higher education more broadly.” It was referenced earlier this year, for example, in a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof lamenting the “prickly intolerance” of left-wing campus activists.

Whether that will stop now is an open question. But at least one prominent critic of campus activist culture, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt, tweeted that he’d mentioned the incident “in some of my talks” but plans to “stop that” after the Chronicle article.

I recognize that there’s a bit of a contradiction in complaining about the misplaced focus of the national media on college campuses by writing about an old incident on a college campus for a national news website. But reactions like Haidt’s to the Chronicle revelations illustrate why it’s worthwhile.

This is not, fundamentally, a story about Oberlin. It’s a story about how parts of the national media have developed an unhealthy relationship with college campuses, treating the low-stakes controversies that characterize students as far more important than they actually are. It’s also a story about how public debate is pushed to focus on the stories of tiny numbers of college students — young adults who are still learning how to think about the world — by a bad-faith right-wing press.

It’s the story, in miniature, of how the student panic industrial complex warps our debate and how it causes us to obsess over things that don’t matter, a distraction we can scarcely afford given the very real problems facing the country at this particular moment in time.

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