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The student panic industrial complex


The endless supply of columns and articles denouncing CAMPUS PC tend to be built around a few anecdotes that are unrepresentative even when they’re not outright bullshit. Despite the extreme skepticism I keep ready for these stories, I had assumed that the Oberlin CULTURAL APPROPRIATION story was in the “unrepresentative” category. This was a mistake — it turns out that it was in the “outright bullshit” category:

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 happened, in short, was this: the Oberlin cafeteria was serving pulled pork sandwiches and calling them “banh mi,” and serving ground chicken over rice and calling it “sushi.” A good story in a campus newspaper asked international students about this, and they pointed out that it was bad. The college heard their complaints and tried to improve the menu. One student did use the term “appropriative,” but they weren’t claiming that it was inherently wrong for someone not of Japanese heritage to prepare and offer sushi, just that chicken loaf on rice is not “sushi,” a perfectly reasonable complaint. Basically, the theory that this was Campus PC OUT OF CONTROL seems to posit that Henry Hill was the original Social Justice Warrior.

But a phrase that can sometimes been misused, LENA DUNHAM (who had absolutely nothing to do with this story but did attend Oberlin and hence was prominently mentioned in many of the articles)”, pundits constantly on the look out for Campus P.C. thinkpieces, LENA DUNHAM, and a fake narrative was off and running.

[Edit by Farley:] Scott left out the best part of the Beauchamp article, which is this callout of Sincerity Warrior-in-Chief Connor Friedersdorf

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