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Life along the fault lines of civility

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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Last week’s stories and subsequent commentary regarding “Conservative Coming Out Week” revealed the tension and conflict that exists below the fault lines of civility.

I celebrate the notion that universities should be spaces for civil discourse. However, asking for civility without ever engaging in tough conversations around emotionally charged issues is not practical — it does nothing to address the deeply held beliefs that some folks have on issues of rights, morality, and justice.

I am ambivalent about whether it was appropriate for Professor Ellen Lewin to send a volatile e-mail to a student organization. In the end, such questions take away from the “teaching moment” that Associate Professor Timothy Hagle has called for in his recent opinion piece in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. I am dubious about his claim of “both sides” needing to take some time to be more intentional in action, considering his sarcastic sentiments regarding homophobia, racism, and sexism just a few short lines above this teaching moment.

As Natalie Ginty and Hagle have repeatedly pointed out, “coming out” is not copyrighted. However, Lewin suggested that the UI College Republicans appropriated a marginal group’s phrase — one that has historically been used to celebrate people stepping out of a shame framework around their sexual and gender identities. I agree with Lewin but extend this idea further in arguing that the College Republicans used the phrase as a form of mockery.

What if our attention turned away from the words Lewin chose to use,to the potential for such mockery to be considered a threat and form of bullying? These are not “light” issues, as Ginty suggests. I am enraged that President Sally Mason’s response to this controversy was an implicit nod to the College Republicans’ right to send out an e-mail that for some people, felt hurtful and created the potential for an unsafe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations on this campus.

Civil discourse requires intentional self-reflexivity and compassion toward those with whom we disagree. It also requires mindfulness of other groups and basic empathy. Perhaps the College Republicans do not realize that members of the LGBT community are fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, bullied in schools and on the streets, harassed, maimed, beaten, and killed.

The trope of coming out is still significant because of these truths about the existence and everyday lived experience of being queer and/or transgender. While I will not argue against the notion that conservative students may feel silenced in the classroom, mockery is harmful and oppresses members and allies of the LGBT community and other groups that were disparaged through the College Republicans’ rhetoric.

stef shuster is a UI graduate teaching assistant in sociologyand a leader of TransCollaborations.


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