Wars over words


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That’s how UI Professor Ellen Lewin responded to a mass e-mail from the UI College Republicans about their annual “Conservative Coming Out Week.”

Her response to the e-mail underscores the issue the College Republicans were trying to publicize.

The perceived liberal majority on the UI campus can make life difficult for conservative students.

While this point is valid, any language equating the victimization of conservatives at the UI with the victimization of gay people is offensive.

In general, even if being a conservative on a liberal campus is difficult, ideological proclivity is not used as the basis to deny housing, employment, marriage rights, or immigration.

Iowa City and the surrounding region are so left-leaning that they are often jokingly referred to as “the People’s Republic of Johnson County.” This large liberal majority does have its effect on UI students.

The most visible consequences of this ideological tilt can be seen in the classroom. While no conclusive studies have shown that professors’ ideologies have negative effects on students, research has shown that students are affected by the ideologies of their peers. Students may not want to become involved in a discussion in which they know the entire class will disagree.

Ideological homogeneity and self-imposed silence can be harmful for all students at Iowa. Part of a rewarding academic experience is having viewpoints challenged and hearing different sides of an issue. If conservative students believe that they can’t make their views known, whether because of a real bias or a perceived one, other students will fail to reap the educational benefits of other beliefs.

The question is not simply what is argued but how it is argued, and the UI College Republicans are right to resent the tone and language of Lewin’s e-mail. The visceral statement she made in response to the Conservative Coming Out Week e-mail was not constructive and not what we expect from our professors at Iowa.

Aside from the way the message was sent, it’s important to consider the reason for Lewin’s reaction.

Why would an academic specializing in gender and sexuality studies feel the need to send a profane, emotionally charged statement in response to an e-mail?

The first line of the mass e-mail sent by the UI College Republicans reads “Conservatives in Iowa City, it is now time to come out of the closet.” The phrase “coming out of the closet” has made its way into our vernacular for many related situations, but its most common use refers to a gay people embracing their sexuality.

The College Republicans may feel the gay-rights movement should not be the only group allowed to use that phrase, but the irony of that view is laughable. The Republican Party of Iowa has staunchly advocated positions against gay rights. The party of Lincoln is also the party of Bachmann and Vander Plaats, and the Republican Party of Iowa in particular has consistently advanced an agenda at odds with the gay-rights movement. This is the same organization that lists on its platform that it opposes teaching children that homosexuality is normal behavior and espouses that gay students should not be allowed to form groups like gay-straight alliances. A Republican organization using this phrasing appears to be mocking gay people who are afraid or unwilling to reveal their sexual orientation.

Sure, conservative students may feel uncomfortable expressing their views in public. But while conservatives may feel uncomfortable speaking their mind in class, they still probably feel comfortable speaking their mind to their parents without fear of being disowned.

Although the College Republicans may feel victimized, they certainly aren’t being told by any organization that their group does not have the right to exist. Although conservatives at the UI may feel they are not always treated fairly, they are not bullied and ostracized to an extent that leads them to commit suicide.

I doubt the College Republicans had any malicious intent with their questionable phrasing; it’s more likely they were simply trying to get attention — attention that Lewin only inflated. But while it’s important for conservatives to be able to express their views on campus, trivializing the struggles of an oppressed minority is unacceptable.

It’s insensitive at best and bigoted at worst.

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