SHIFT Festival

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard leads a discussion at the 2015 SHIFT Festival.

Last week’s article “SHIFT imbroglio reveals much work remains” purported to treat the SHIFT controversy in an objective manner. Significant parts of the article, however, were not reportorial, but drifted into opinion, while neglecting to examine the serious claims made by the critics of SHIFT.

The SHIFT controversy turns on whether or not SHIFT is a racist organization and whether its leader, Christian Beckwith, perpetuated that racism through his treatment of people of color, non-heteronormatively gendered people and other marginalized groups. In a Nov. 5 letter, 17 of SHIFT’s 2018 Emerging Leaders Program participants claimed that, “Mr. Beckwith’s leadership has caused irreparable harm that continues to haunt many ELP and SHIFT participants long after the programs have concluded.”

The site defines “irreparable harm” as “a legal concept which argues that the type of harm threatened cannot be corrected through monetary compensation or conditions cannot be put back the way they were.” The site goes on to outline the D.C. Circuit’s definition of the standard for showing irreparable harm by saying, in part: “First, the injury must be both certain and great; it must be actual and not theoretical. ... Bare allegations of what is likely to occur are of no value since the court must decide whether the harm will in fact occur.”

The “incidents” the opponents of SHIFT describe do not rise to this standard of proof. Indeed, they do not seem to have been incidents at all, or even actionable grievances, but rather differences of outlook and approach.

Instead of investigating the claims on their merits, reporter Tom Hallberg largely adopts the ideological position of the critics of SHIFT (and of distant outside observers).

When there is a claim of irreparable harm the press should engage the critically important task of attempting to obtain precise details — medical or police reports, for instance, and attributable quotes from participants and attendees — then report fairly. A reporter’s commitment to social justice does not grant license to violate fundamental journalistic principles. Assertions require evidence and facts.

I attended SHIFT’s closing events in 2017, in which the ELP leaders and their organizations were impressively showcased. Had they not participated and spoken, I likely wouldn’t have learned about them.

Were the 2018 ELP participants were sincere in their commitment to the environment and outdoors — key areas of SHIFT’s mission? Or might they have intended from the outset to disrupt or dismantle the organization? Good faith is a critical ingredient in the successful function of nonprofits. Beckwith worked tirelessly on fundraising and programming, with a dedication to diversity. How was his lengthy, effusive apology to the complainants inadequate?

I’ve been around long enough to see — if through headlights that reach only so far into the darkness — how history repeats itself. During the Great Famine of the late 1960s, an estimated 37 million died in China. Tibet, where I lived and worked, still bears scars from the Cultural Revolution. This slow-motion atrocity was facilitated not so much by coercion or force as it was by society and one’s neighbors constructing an environment of social fear, in which citizens volunteered to write self-criticisms and recite formulaic adages while calling out their neighbors and kin who resisted doing so. The call-out of SHIFT may seem like a distant comparison to this, but it set off all my alarms.

It is tempting, and even heady, to righteously frame the claims against SHIFT as issues of race, social justice and empowerment.

But the issues are more accurately vested in the core tenets of the precious, and sometimes precarious, liberal democracy upon which our jurisprudence is based: presumption of innocence, due process, rule of law, evidence and equal rights.

SHIFT and Beckwith might reasonably claim that they have been harmed by the complainants’ grievances, and it would be understandable if they opt to explore legal recourse. The recent $44 million judgment against Oberlin College is one sobering precedent.

And where was the coverage of SHIFT’s and ELP’s valuable, thought-provoking discussions and the inspiring convergence of ideas and experiences? Unfortunately, last week’s piece didn’t sufficiently explore the entire event, the broader story and issues, the evidence for the claims, nor their implications for fairness and due process in America.

Wilson resident Brot Coburn is the author of several nonfiction trade books. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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