Lessons From A Tragedy in New Jersey

The presumptive suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi is a potent one for use to make any number of important points.  It’s similarly potent for abuse, as tragedy invariably is, by seizing upon this poor young man’s death as the hook for tangential, or even completely unrelated, agendas.  The former is a teaching moment.  The latter is reprehensible.

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.

13 comments on “Lessons From A Tragedy in New Jersey

  1. Bad Lawyer

    Drawing lessons from the suicide of someone is shaky stuff at best. Even in a firmly contextualized situation like Tyler Clementi’s act, the cause and effect connection that leads one to conclude that “this caused that” necessarily subtracts out mental illness. Suicide is the end stage of depression, and while some act may be a catalyst, for an act, we jump to conclusions in these scenarios without knowing as much as we could or should know.

    Of course, wrong is wrong, but a suicide should not be where that process starts or ends. I frequently hear well-meaning people in AA meeting talk about how so-and-so killed himself with alcoholism, adding “isn’t that a shame?” The real shame is that they were depressed and they treated their depression with alcohol, a depressant. A much bigger shame would be if they killed some else along the way.

    Scott, you’ve done a terrific job of sorting out the sloppy thinking as it pertains to cause and effect, these tragic premature deaths present the same intellectual challenge as some of your earlier examples of forensics gone awry. We need to be rigorous in thinking about why these awful things occur.

  2. John R.

    Without getting into the gay thing, there were two “sins”, related to the law’s concept of defamation, recognized in traditional Christianity. If they were taught to young people it might help with things like this.

    The first was “calumny”: saying or repeating something derogatory about another person that is false; the second was “detraction”: saying or repeating something derogatory about someone that, while true, is done gratuitously, such as to amuse or for personal or vindictive reasons.

    Whatever else may be true of Ravi’s intentions, he would at least be guilty of the sin of detraction. A lot of idle gossip would fit into one of these categories.

    There’s a lot of old wisdom that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, and this is an example in my opinion.

  3. SHG

    The sloppy thinking is quickly becoming the aspect of blawging that sickens me the most.  Particularly the baby lawyers, who are filled with their brilliance and self-importance, some of whom are thicker than a brick.  And I’m supposed to meet their expectations.  It’s a strange and different world.

  4. Max Kennerly

    There isn’t any dispute that Ravi satisfied each and every element for collecting or viewing sexual images without consent, a fourth-degree crime, and transmitting said images, a third-degree crime. Gay, straight, male, female, it doesn’t matter, it’s illegal to secretly videotape someone having sex and then distribute the video.

    What better way to instruct society as to the wrongness and illegality of such conduct than to prosecute the perpetrators?

  5. mirriam

    Are you saying that the current generation is not speaking out about this tragedy? You realize that during your generation there probably wouldn’t have been a video, but the roommate probably would have kicked his ass as soon as he even got wind that his roommate was a fucking fag. I think you’ve got this one all wrong. Did you not know people who were closeted, who were afraid of their fathers and friends’ reactions? Did you not have to keep their secrets and feel their heartbreak? Clementi could have been any one of a number of people I knew as a young adult. Now, I know kids who are out at a young age and their friends have their backs. There are youth and support groups. They don’t have to carry around the sadness, shame and pain. This current generation has allowed them to live lives, this current generation is voting in favor of gay marriage and against don’t ask don’t tell. It’s not us, my friend. It’s not us. Bullying has been around since the dawn of time. And you know I hate hate crimes, so that’s not even an issue for me. But, Clementi was depressed. He had a million other issues we don’t know about. People do not kill themselves because of a video. He might have killed himself because he was gay and couldn’t handle it. Perhaps he should have done what generations before did – marry a woman and drink himself to death.

    Whew. I feel better now.

  6. SHG

    Separate the two issues.  First, when I went to college, acceptance of homosexuality was first becoming an issue, and it was still quite acceptable to hate and fear gays.  When my father went to college, it was acceptable to be prejudiced against blacks.  Enlightenment comes over time, unfortunately.

    But when I went to college it was not acceptable to be prejudice against blacks, and it was anticipated that anyone making a racist statement would be subject to direct confrontation for what he said.

    Today, there is far broader acceptance of sexual preference, but on a generic level.  How many college students today would directly confront someone making a homophobic statement?  While gays may be far less subject to prejudice, though by no means fully accepted, direct confrontation is no longer in vogue.  It’s easy to support gay rights.  It’s a lot harder to kick someone’s ass for calling someone a fag.

    And I’m glad you agree that we really have no clue what drove Clementi to commit suicide, and it’s arrogance to suppose that we, who don’t know him at all, know him well enough to draw such a conclusion.

    I’m glad you feel better now.

  7. mirriam

    I have a tough time believing it wasn’t acceptable to be prejudiced against blacks. I’d like to let my friends know we are over that already, they didn’t get the memo. I saw it happen and people didn’t stand up, and I went to college after you did, but a few years. I can tell you that there is a lot more ass kicking going on now when someone is called a fag than there was 20 years ago. Like you said, it comes over time.

    Not only that, but as Macchiavelli said, there are two ways to fight, with laws and with arms. The first is the way of men, the second of beasts. Damned, that macchiavelli quote is too good to waste on a comment in this blog. I’m gonna save the rest for my own post.

    Thank you for acknowledging my feelings.

  8. SHG

    I would be circumspect about promoting your reliance on Macchiavelli for philosophy.  As for what you can “tell me,” you’re entitled to whatever anecdotes you like.  You will forgive me if I don’t substitute yours for my own.

  9. Nancy

    I’m not convinced that homosexuality is the entire problem. Broadcasting (or streaming) any kind of sexual encounter can be hideously humiliating to the victim. From what I’ve read about Tyler Clementi he was quiet and sensitive, and the humiliation alone, no matter who his sexual partner was, might have pushed him onto that bridge. I suppose many people will say, “come on, can’t you take a joke?” without recognizing that people have different pain tolerances, both physical and mental.

  10. SHG

    We don’t know anything about it, whether it’s the homosexuality, sexuality at all, or even whether it’s the video.  As for the particular sensitivity of people, had Ravi and Wei prank not involved videotaping and airing Clementi, but been of a different sort, there might be nothing criminal about it, and still because of Clementi’s sensitivity, driven him or contributed to his suicide.

  11. Tern

    “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.”

    “But if you want to take a lesson from this tragedy, here it is . . . 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.'”

    All-rightey-then. Where did gay marriage come into here anyway? Not going to discuss the merits, but that’s quite a non sequitur, linking this guy’s tragic decision to same-sex marriage.

  12. SHG

    I don’t think he was connecting the two per se, but rather using gay marriage as a common example of an opportunity take action that most people avoid rather than confront.  Those coming out now to feel badly about the treatment of gays have plenty of opportunity to express their ideas during the gay marriage debate, but sit quietly instead because they are happy to express the easy opinion but lack the guts to stand up for it.

Comments are closed.