What Does Justice for Tyler Clementi Look Like?
In September 2010, the national media finally discovered the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth. After the rise of social media, Lady Gaga, and years of hard-won LGBT activism that prompted the mainstream media to cover the issue, it was finally in the spotlight.
In the hoopla around this once-underground phenomenon, there were all sorts of proclamations of crisis, public handwringing, and hysterical Lovejoy-esque cries of “Think of the children!” Seasoned activists wearily explained that LGBTQ youth had been at horribly higher risk for quite some time but thanks for noticing, and opportunists began to position themselves as experts on the newly-christened bullying crisis.
Then 18-year old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide.
Immediately, a sensationalized version of the young man’s final hours tore across cable news and the Internet, accompanied by his Facebook profile picture. Reports on the tragedy contained hasty assertions from experts saying how this event was representative of the epidemic of queer teen suicide and Clementi’s “bullies” must be swiftly brought to justice. Narratives on hate crimes, campus climate, and crises facing queer youth quickly overtook any and all details specific to the tragedy of Clementi’s suicide.
On Friday, Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate whose digital spying was reported as the primary cause of Clementi’s shame, was found guilty for a long list of crimes tied to Clementi’s death, including bias intimidation, in New Jersey.
But besides providing a tidy ending to the public narrative around Clementi’s suicide, what does this verdict do?
It does not make us better equipped to handle bias incidents against LGBTQ youth, since this case did little to clarify the ambiguities of the situation or point out avenues of redress. It ignores the ways that the unique social interactions of young people provided the context and medium for the incidents and how emerging technologies and social media present new paradoxes in navigating adolescent interactions. In its harsh sentencing and media circus, another young man’s life has been destroyed because of the unforeseen outcomes of his callous cruelty, though his actions were not nearly as anomalous as the subsequent reaction suggests.
So, what was it about this particular case? Beyond its timeliness and its extreme consequences, was there anything in this case that helps us sort through this newly recognized crisis facing LGBTQ youth?
Once you move away from the MSNBC coverage and the trial reporting and the breathless Anderson Cooper specials and look at the details of the situation, a much muddier and more complex series of events begins to emerge that bears little resemblance to what was widely reported.
Last month, Ian Parker published an in-depth examination in The New Yorker on the circumstances surrounding Clementi’s and Ravi’s lives around the time they met each other, Ravi spied on Clementi, and Clementi took his own life. The essay presents a picture that is almost impossible to summarize—one of a lonely, depressed and very, very private Clementi whose reasons for taking his own life are likely never to be known and a very callous and insecure Ravi whose thoughtless actions were part of a larger pattern of clueless, damaging behavior from a very smart and very insecure and impudent teenager. Ravi wasn’t notably driven by anti-gay bias and his intimidation of Clementi came more from adolescent resentment than a place of malice, according to Parker’s reporting.
It should be noted that most of what we know about this case is speculation resulting from reconstructions of events based on electronic activity. These events were deeply personal, and the conflict between the two young men at hand is psychological and fundamentally beyond our reach, especially in the case of the deceased. Despite this fact, it’s hard to square the tragedy depicted in Parker’s piece with the tidy narrative of bullying that spread like wildfire. In Parker’s words:
It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet. But last spring, shortly before Molly Wei [a former student also charged] made a deal with prosecutors, Ravi was indicted on charges of invasion of privacy (sex crimes), bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering.
So, clearly the public narrative diverged pretty widely from the actual events we know about, and a lot of the really crucial details about what happened will always be beyond our grasp.
It’s pretty clear that finding Ravi guilty of bias intimidation is a logical conclusion of the public narrative, but does it fit the more complex, real life version of events? Does the verdict help us learn what we can do better in the future? Does it help us make concrete improvements in the lives of LGBTQ youth?
Immediately after the verdict, Steven Goldstein, the chair and CEO of New Jersey LGBT rights advocacy group Garden State Equality, released a statement that read: “The fundamental question in this trial was whether Dharun Ravi would have similarly invaded the privacy of a roommate having intimate relations with someone of the opposite sex . . . In our view, the answer is no—that Ravi would not have invaded the privacy of a straight roommate.”
This statement, as brief as it was, seems to miss the point. Ravi’s spying had been done to other people, as Parker details in the New Yorker, and just because he recognized that Tyler was gay and talked about it does not mean that he’s biased against gay people. It also continues the false logic that Clementi killed himself because he was spied on, a claim Dan Savage deconstructed quickly (if a little myopically) six months ago.
Other LGBT leaders expressed agreement with the verdict, some claiming that it demonstrates the necessity of hate crimes laws or the need for university administrators to step up. School officials, too, seem to have made this case mostly about whether its “bullying” and whether bullying is a hate crime. There are fewer questions about whether “bullying” narratives and hate-crime laws actually help make LGBTQ young people’s lives any better. Clementi’s story, and his reduction to a point of leverage in abstract legal and cultural conversations, seems to provide a startling counterpoint.
Another important aspect that Parker’s piece fleshes out is the role the Internet and social media played in Clementi’s interactions with Ravi. In the media-narrative, this was reduced to handwringing about “kids these days” and words like “cyber-bullying” and “spy-cam.”
But Parker’s piece shows readers two young men who are almost pathologically incapable of communicating with one another in-person and learning nearly all of their knowledge about each other through web searches, social media, and text messages. He writes:
Ravi and Clementi lived together for three weeks, but seem to have barely had a conversation. In an I.M. exchange with Sam Cruz, Clementi said, ‘I don’t think I’ve actually ever talked to him heheh . . . we kinda just ignore ea[ch] other.’
The standard interactions that two people have when they’re getting to know each other—not to mention living together—seem to have never happened. No shared meals, no discussion of hobbies, no bonding over the hatred of high school, not even utilitarian conversations about ground rules for shared space. While revealing personal and biographical information, Ravi and Clementi’s electronic interactions seem to have concealed the basic stuff of friendship, shared humanity, and in-person interaction. They seemed totally baffled about their alienation from one another and what to do about it.
In all of the pieces I read about what happened in their relationship, about Clementi’s suicide, and about the trial, the New Yorker article is one of very few that takes this alienation seriously.
In the aftermath of it all, one of the things I find most troubling is that I see no point where anyone else should have intervened. There could have been hall programing, a “get to know your roommate” day sponsored by residence life, even personal intervention by the resident assistant—but none of it could have been reasonably expected to occur or should be prescribed to avoid a similar situation.
This was about social and psychological patterns, behaviors and feelings that are extremely hard to get at and impossible to legislate. The personal damage that contributed to Clementi and Ravi interacting the way they did and to Clementi taking his own life is the stuff of a lifetime, not the sorts of things that can be sorted out through simple policy changes or safeguards.
And now, an Indian citizen who’s lived in the U.S. since he was a little boy faces possible deportation and up to 10 years in prison because of this collision that was only partly in his control. That a young man of color is subjected to harsh punishment in our justice system is no surprise, even if it brings up all sorts of other difficult questions. (If Clementi were Indian-American and/or Ravi were white, would this have turned out the same way?) Not only that, but all of the things that may have led Clementi to take his own life have now been laid at the feet of one, extremely immature young man for a brief series of interactions, none particularly egregious in the pantheon of masculine adolescent transgression.
Nicholas Dirks’ words from The Scandal of Empire on the political functions of scandal seem appropriate here:
Scandals point to the underlying tensions and anxieties of an age, even as they work ironically to resolve crises by finding new ways to repress these tensions and anxieties. … Despite either that authority will be subverted or the rules and conventions of public (or private) life radically changed, scandals in fact usually lead to far more benign outcomes. For the most part, public scandals become ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again.
Scandals often do lead to reforms, but the reforms usually work to protect the potential agents of scandal rather than its actual victims. Indeed, it is the scandal itself that must be erased, not the underlying systemic reasons for scandal. The scandal is only the tip of the iceberg, the moment of excess that in the end works to conceal the far more endemic excesses that, at least for modern times, have become normalized. (emphasis added)
I’ve read many post-game analyses of the trial and the case in the past few days, but shockingly few of them seem to call into question the political dimension of the case, whether it ought to have systemic repercussions, or if those that it has are in any way helpful. As a young queer man, I’m appalled at Ravi’s callousness and would have loved to see him expelled from Rutgers and been the catalyst of an effort to support LGBT youth. As it stands, it seems other people think I ought to be happy with the outcome and I’m more despaired than before.
I hope Ravi’s sentence is light, Clementi’s memory is long-lasting, and that our consciences are disturbed.
Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.