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Monday, October 4, 2010


(above, Tyler Clementi; at right, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei)

The suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after his roommate secretly recorded him having a gay tryst and then streamed that recording on the internet has attracted must attention recently. Some are demanding that Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi and his accomplice Molly Wei be charged with manslaughter and receive sentences of up to ten years.

There have been other similar cases recently: thirteen-year-old Seth Walsh, from Tehachapi, California, hung himself in his backyard after classmates teased him about his sexual orientation. Gay teenagers are evidently four times more likely to commit suicide; certainly there should be protections for the vulnerable against this kind of bullying.

But it's hard not to wonder about the nature of the punishment warranted here. What if Tyler Clementi had not committed suicide, but had merely laughed off this intrusion into his privacy? What would be the appropriate punishment for the other two be in that case? Explusion from school? There certainly wouldn't be any calls for ten year jail sentences. But had Clementi laughed them off, their crime would have been no different than it was: a grotesque invasion of his privacy. Ravi and Wei had no idea he was going to commit suicide after they exposed him. They thought they were playing an ordinary practical joke. It was certainly an insensitive and cruel joke, but it could have turned out relatively harmlessly had Clementi not reacted so dramatically.

Neither of the the two culprits looks like a prototypical bully. In fact, both look more like types more likely to be bullied themselves. But the internet has allowed technological skill to replace physical dominance as a vehicle for harassment. This raises the question of exactly what constitutes bullying. Is it bullying when someone makes fun of someone else? It would seem that one person's bullying is another person's well-deserved putdown. Do pretentious people not deserve to be put down? I recently made fun of artist Richard Serra in this blog. What if, Serra, in a depressive mood, happened to stumble across this blog and then committed suicide? Would I be guilty of bullying? Should I be charged with manslaughter? (Three guesses as to where I alight on this issue.) Making fun of some pretentious public person is a far cry from invading a closeted gay boy's privacy. But what of the classmates of the 13 year old boy who hanged himself in Tehachapi? They didn't invade his privacy, they merely mocked him; should they be charged with manslaughter?

What if, after seeing that his secret gay tryst had been exposed, Clementi had merely punched Ravi in the face? Wouldn't we all cheer this well-deserved comeuppance? But then of course Clementi would have been guilty of aggravated assault, and he would have been the one to be legally liable for what most of us would regard as a perfectly understandable outburst. And what if, when Clementi punched his roommate, his roommate had then run out of the room (without Clementi pursuing him), and in the process of doing so, slipped, broken his neck, and died? Then Clementi would be the villain of the piece, and would undoubtedly be incarcerated -- even though this would have been a direct outgrowth of a reaction we were all cheering for a moment ago.

Outcomes cannot always be predicted.

And what of Clementi's partner in that gay tryst? His name hasn't been aired, which is as it should be. But what has his reaction been? He is probably saddened by Tyler's death, outraged by the invasion of his privacy, and gratified that Ravi and Wei are now going to be punished severely. But he himself hasn't committed suicide; he evidently has a more sturdy temperament. Are Ravi and Wei less culpable in his case?

And what other factors may have led to Clementi's drastic action? He undoubtedly had a history that predisposed him to suicide. Is it possible that his father at some point communicated a visceral disgust for homosexuals and Tyler was afraid of coming out for that reason? Does his father bear some responsibility here? And what of the high school classmates who may have picked on Clementi for being a wimpy violin player? Did they contribute to his state of mind -- and thus this tragic outcome -- as well? If Ravi and Wei are to be charged with manslaughter, these others might as well be charged as accomplices.

Ravi and Wei should be expelled from Rutgers and charged with the applicable laws regarding invasion of privacy. And they richly deserve whatever social ostracism is coming their way. But they are not responsible for Clementi's fragile emotional state, and should not be charged with manslaughter.


Paavo said...

What if Ravi and Wei would have just told everybody.

That's the traditional way, and a lot of suicides are caused by someone first witnessing, then telling everyone. The tattletale would not be punished.

And all those politicians and other wealthy important men whose lives are destroyed by compromising photographs of them having extramarital sex. Some commit suicides. Ravi and Wei were just amateur paparazzis.

I think the world is just becoming more like it was before. You just cannot have secrets. Like in the olden times in the village everyone knew everyones dirty secrets.

John Craig said...

Paavo --
Good point; it is harder to keep secrets in the internet age. But it's my impression that powerful men are far, far less likely to commit suicide over a sexual scandal than some fragile 18 year old who's still in the closet.

The idea of a Bill Clinton, or an Al Gore, or a Larry Craig killing himself out of mortification is hard to imagine. These powerful guys gained their power in the first place for reasons relating to their lack of shame, so tend not to be particularly susceptible to the emotion.