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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

A 21st Century Crime - And Response: The Suicide Of Tyler Clementi

Lilian Min |
September 30, 2010 | 4:59 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Web Cam (Creative Commons)
Web Cam (Creative Commons)
I was absolutely appalled when I heard about the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who was only 18 years old when he took his life by jumping off the George Washington bridge. A college freshman myself, the thought of being pushed to end one’s life just when the world was truly opening up is horrifying.

Why would a young man like Tyler Clementi jump? What kind of evil had set its sights upon him during his final days? The answer: the kind of twisty, malleable online culture that can hide a perpetrator’s face and offer little sympathy for an unknowing victim.

The details of the case can be found on any major news site at the moment, but the general facts are these: Tyler’s roommate accessed his own laptop from another person’s room; the roommate saw Tyler engaged in some sort of sexual act with another man; the roommate commented on this act on his Twitter and tried to stream the act; the roommate attempted this again a day or so later; Tyler found out about this and was presumably deeply ashamed by this severe violation of privacy.

The likely consequence of this chain of events: Tyler’s suicide.

I’m a New Jersey native, who had actually crossed paths with Dharun Ravi, Tyler’s roommate, during high school. We had gone to the same summer camp one summer, and we had a small group of overlapping friends, but I don’t claim to know him well at all.

I was completely shocked when I saw his name associated with the case. What he and another student, Molly Wei, were being accused of was disgusting: the illegal public distribution of another person’s private life.

The response to this tragedy is becoming a story unto itself. Within hours of the story breaking, the Facebook page “Manslaughter charges for Dharun Ravi & Molly Wei,” was created. The comments on that page range from heartfelt sympathy for the actual case, to enraged ranting about the “justice system,” both for and against the defendants.

But there shouldn’t be anything to fear from the latter responses, right? In a case like this, in which sexuality and privacy and bullying are forefront issues, emotions will run high, and people will react with disgust or defensiveness - depending on whose “side” they are on. The undercurrent to all these emotions is anger, but isn’t that justified?

Here lies the thin gray line. Yes, there is no reason why any moral person should not be outraged and saddened over the events that transpired; a young man is dead. But before anyone throws words like “manslaughter” or “hate crime” around, we all must consider: what are the facts, and how do we know them?

Thankfully, since iChat does not distribute its user videos publicly, there is no footage or audio from the stream available on the Internet, where footage such as the alleged taping would probably go viral, furthering the extent of the original crime.

However, this presents a problem to those who wish to tell Clementi’s story. Ravi’s Twitter posts alone do not contain any substantial homophobic content, yet the charge that he’s a bigot is quickly being thrown around by Internet commenters.

Also unclear is the role of Wei, the girl whose room was used by Ravi to stream the footage. Was she actively involved, and how responsible is she for the other’s actions? Then, there lies the fact that this video and this information were shared with other people. Who were they, and should they also be held responsible for Tyler’s death?

In the world of Internet commenting, none of these factual ambiguities really stand for anything. One commenter even wrote, “I hope they go to jail and get filmed while they get gangraped by the Aryan Brotherhood or lesbians etc. That I will watch with glee.” Yes, it is okay to express anger towards those who set in motion the events that led a peer to kill himself. But still: “gangraped by the Aryan Brotherhood”? These comments aren’t just limited to Facebook either; commenters on sites like ABC News and the NY Times are equally as spiteful.

These commenters, with their malice and their unfiltered disgust, don’t make up the majority of the page, which is mostly populated by heartfelt wishes for Clementi’s family and calls for court justice against the defendants.

But these isolated words of unadulterated hatred are disturbing in their own right, for these commenters are using the same shield that Ravi and Wei once used: from the safety of a screen, they are recklessly exploiting subjects who can’t respond to them directly.

I want to clarify that I am in no way condoning the defendants’ actions, or saying that they should be treated with sympathy and understanding. However, what decides their eventual sentences is not hateful comments on the Internet, and there is no need to continually attack Ravi and Wei in a place where those kinds of words don’t make a difference on the outcome of the impending trial.

Clementi’s family is in an entirely different world of pain and therefore is more than entitled to respectful privacy, but that does not mean that we should publicly flog two young adults who, in all likelihood, probably did not mean for their actions to have such extreme and tragic consequences.

Yes, there is some irony in asking for some care for two people who obviously did not do the same to a peer, but it is because we are not Ravi and Wei, that we as the outsiders looking into this conflict don’t publicly and recklessly exploit other people, that we should treat them with at least decency.

The tragedy is Tyler Clementi’s, and his alone. There is no need to turn his death into a witch trial, for that only perpetuates the cruelty that began this entire turn of events.

Reach Staff Reporter Lilian Min here; follow her on Twitter here and on Google+ here.



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