We Killed Tyler Clementi

Dharun Ravi was sentenced for spying on his gay roommate Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. Clementi killed himself two years ago, after Ravi used a webcam to spy on an intimate moment between Clementi and his boyfriend.

According to the New York Times, Ravi sent out Twitter messages such as, “Roommate asked for the room until midnight. I went into molly’s [sic] room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” He attempted to set up a live internet broadcast two days later, but Clementi had by then learned about the Twitter messages and disabled the camera. After requesting a room change, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He was eighteen years old, had just come out of the closet to his parents, and played violin.

The jury convicted Ravi on 24 charges, including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and tampering with a witness and evidence. The judge ordered Ravi to serve thirty days in jail, pay $11,000 in fees, perform 300 hours of community service, and take counseling on cyberbullying and “alternative lifestyles.” According to the judge and Clementi’s family, Ravi has yet to apologize.

What’s concerning about this case (besides the judge’s use of that term, which smacks of grudging tolerance) is the way that it seems to be an example of scapegoating. I don’t just mean scapegoating Ravi, who is presumably stupid and mean but not evil. Rather, this case appears to be an example of how we, as a society, refuse to deal with widespread social issues like institutional homophobia; then, when they inevitably boil into an individual tragedy, we look for someone to blame. The current controversy over the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Martinez is another example of this: Martin didn’t die just because Martinez subscribes to racial profiling and imitates John Wayne. He died because we practice racial profiling, because we glorify violent confrontation, because we have refused to face and address the way that race (and all the stuff connected to it, like generational wealth and institutional bias) continues to work in our country.

Politicians, so far as I can tell, function in the same way. More than administrators or statesmen or negotiators or leaders, American politicians seem to primarily function as the people upon whom we can blame all our problems. (For evidence, see liberal hatred of Bush and conservative hatred of Obama.) Blaming our leaders relieves us of the responsibility of citizenship.

Tom Wolfe does a great job of portraying this in Bonfire of the Vanities: how we search for an individual villain to blame for complexly-caused tragedies, as a way of ignoring our own complicity.

This, I suggest, is what has happened in the case against Dharun Ravi. It’s not that he’s innocent: he played a role in the death of Tyler Clementi. But so did the rest of us.We have built at society in which being outed by your roommate can lead to suicide. We did this. We are all responsible. And we evade our responsibility by creating situations (of oppression, of fear, of injustice) which can only lead to tragedy, and then laying blame solely on the shoulders of individual actors such as Ravi when such tragedies occur.

Clementi’s mother suggested something similar during the trial, speaking of the other students who watched with Ravi and read his Twitter feed:

How could they all go along with such meanness? Why didn’t any one of them speak up and try to stop it?

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