Lessons From A Tragedy in New Jersey
Dan Solove, at Concurring Opinions, offers the responsible view.
From the facts I’ve learned thus far, it remains unclear precisely what motivated Ravi and Wei’s actions. What is clear is that this case illustrates that young people are not being taught how to use the Internet responsibly. Far too often, privacy invasions aren’t viewed as a serious harm. They are seen a joke, as something causing minor embarrassment. This view is buttressed by courts that routinely are dismissive of privacy harms. It continues to persist because few people ever instruct young people about how serious privacy invasions are. Another attitude that remains common is that the Internet is a radically-free zone, and people can say or post whatever they want with impunity.
The fact that we don't know either Dharun Ravi's intent in posting videos of Clementi online, or the thoughts that went through Clementi's mind in deciding to jump to his death, precludes any responsible person from imposing their notion of the wrong done, or extrapolating from it greater messages or calls to action, Yet that's exactly what many have done.
Was this a prank gone horribly wrong, an example of bullying, whether generic or online, or a hateful attack based on Clementi's sexual preference? From the single bit of information available, a twit by Ravi, it appears that he thought it quite the joke:
'Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay,'
Whether he knew his roommate's sexual preference is unknown. Whether he harbored any ill-will toward gays is unknown. Whether he meant to hurt Clementi is unknown. I can easily see him explaining himself, saying, "Come on, dude, it was just a joke. Chill out." It's quite possible that Ravi's purpose was more nefarious, but to impute such motive without basis is irresponsible. To then take such imputed motive and use it to further an agenda is disgraceful.
The death of this young man is a tragedy. Whether this online airing of his private moment drove him to suicide, was the straw that broke the camel's back, somewhere in between or entirely unrelated, will never be known. The secret truth of Clementi's purpose died with him.
It's fair to assume that Clementi's sexual preference, that the video of his encounter with another man, was a significant motivating factor. To use this tragedy to urge and educate about tolerance and sensitivity toward gays presents no problem, regardless of whether it's an accurate assessment or not. This is a worthy goal regardless of what role sexual preference played in Clementi's decision.
But to use this as a call to action for a new crime or enhanced punishment is an abuse of this tragedy. The abuse of tragedy to further irrelevant agendas has become so common that we barely notice anymore. We're particularly blind when we happen to like the disconnected agenda, happy to see any outcome, no matter how tragic and irrelevant, used to further a cause in which we believe.
This tragedy has also been seized upon by applying the pejorative "bullying" to it, despite a near total absence of connection whatsoever. Bullying has become a trendy cause, both because it's a very real problem as well as a convenient shield to deflect criticism and responsibility, and a facile means to create victimhood whenever feelings are hurt. Vague notions like bullying, which are as easily derived from the sensibility of those hurt as those doing the hurting, have enormous potential for misuse.
But to use this as a call to action against bullying, and particularly cyber-bullying, is an abuse of this tragedy. While Ravi's prank, if that's what it was, was callous at best and came at Clementi's expense, it demonstrates the stunning insensitivity rather than an intention to bully.
Mike Cernovich at Crime & Federalism made an important point by putting this tragedy in real-life context.
Clementi's roommate was an 18-year-old boy. Although 18 is old enough to die in Iraq, 18 is not a man. An 18-year-old brain isn't fully developed. Most of us - especially we males - who are free and successful people are free and successful because of luck.
The stupid shit we [did] didn't have consequences. We embarrassed and ridiculed people, or we joined the mobs in laughing at others unlike us. Fortunately our victims did not kill themselves.
What if they had? Would our pranks had taken on a greater moral significance? Must we measure a boy's conduct based on his motives, or upon the consequences?
Or should we stop looking at this boy?
Regardless of whether Ravi's conduct was a stupid, schoolboy prank or an attack on Clementi's sexual preference, it's too late now for Tyler Clementi. But if you want to take a lesson from this tragedy, here it is:
Do you speak out against bigotry? When people oppose gay marriage, do you remain silent and polite, like a passive-aggressive beta? When instead you should say, "Get the fuck out of here with that homophobic bullshit."
Most of us dare not offend, and so we tolerate the intolerable. We say that opposing equal rights for gay is a matter of "reasonable dispute." We say that not because it's true, but because we lack to courage to stand up against hate and bigotry. We use politeness as an excuse for cowardice.
If each of us took responsibility for what happens in our society, large and small, and showed the courage to call out those who create the culture where bigotry, lies and cowardice thrives, Ravi's conduct wouldn't have altered Clementi's life choice. Rather than shame, Clementi might have ripped Ravi a new one for his behavior, whether a prank or an attack.
Imagine if Tyler Clementi's reaction was to metaphorically (or maybe not) smack his roommate upside the head for what happened rather than kill himself. There's far more to the interaction than shame for his sexual preference, but succumbing to his hurt feelings rather than standing up for himself. This culture of cowardice not only prevents us from confronting wrongs, but compels us to suffer in silence and bear the consequences rather than stand up for ourselves.
Ironically, the same tragedy that gives rise to Mike's point about showing the courage of speak out against wrongs will be used by those being called out, crying that they are the victims of the bullies. To recognize this, unfortunately, requires a depth of understanding that most people lack, which is why we can't seem to move beyond these tragedies. Standing up to wrongs takes character, courage and understanding. These traits are not popular anymore.