Clementi case a tragedy, but not a hate crime
Published: Monday, May 28, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
The tragic suicide of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi gave the world a much needed wake-up call about the real-life implications of homophobia and cyber bullying. It even prompted Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller to start the “It Gets Better” campaign, an online initiative aimed at providing support and encouragement for LGBT youth who face bullying. While a family suffered an unimaginable and unexpected loss, America, it seemed, had finally been jolted awake. And people began to pay real attention to promoting tolerance and addressing ignorance within schools, universities and the workplace.
Eight months later, Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, has been sentenced to 30 days in jail, three years of probation, 300 hours of community service, $10,000 in fines and counseling on cyberbullying for his involvement in Clementi’s death. Ravi, along with fellow Rutgers student Molly Wei, captured intimate interactions between Clementi and another man via Ravi’s webcam. The footage then went viral, causing many to believe Ravi was a key player in Clementi’s suicide.
Judge Glenn Berman has been criticized for sentencing Ravi to such a brief jail sentence, but he made a point to state that the Clementi-Ravi case was not a hate crime. There was no evidence that Ravi hated Clementi, and while that is hardly a consolation for the Clementi family, it does matter in a court of law.
Ravi is an immature, unaware, socially awkward young man, who made a terribly inappropriate and inconsiderate judgment call. And while he did engage in cyberbullying, neither Ravi nor his behavior fits the mold of a hate crime. In fact, the Clementi-Ravi case isn’t really even about cyberbullying or harassment. It’s about the unfortunate reality of our generation’s serious communication problem and the devastating implications it can sometimes have.
Both Clementi and Ravi demonstrated clear communication issues upon moving into their college dorm. Text messages found from both Clementi’s and Ravi’s phones illustrate stereotyping on both ends, from the very beginning.
Both Clementi and Ravi shared text messages to their friends describing their new roommates. “F*** my life, my roommate’s gay,” read Ravi’s. “I got an azn…defs own a dunkin (donuts)” was what Clementi texted. The texts never appeared in court, but rather in a New Yorker article about the case. What was discussed in court was the boys’ first time meeting one another. Mothers of the two young men described the lack of welcome both of their sons felt.
“We entered the room, we said hello and the only response was from his mother, then his father came over to say hello,” Jane Clementi read. “The roommate ignored Tyler, continuing to work on his computer. He didn’t even look up ... he never even paused to acknowledge Tyler was in the room ... no greeting, no smile, no recognition, no anything ... he just continued in silence to work on his computer.”
Ravi’s mother experienced the day rather differently, stating that “... Dharun’s roommate entered the room with his parents, and he sat at his desk and started doing something on his computer. ... After awhile his parents left and I stayed there for an hour more to help Dharun fix his things as his roommate was sitting at his computer the whole time. What I thought was, ‘Once I leave, he will start to talk to Dharun.’ ”
But neither Clementi nor Ravi ever did start talking. They kept to texting, tweeting and facebooking their feelings about one another. Clementi discovered tweets about himself from Ravi’s Twitter and confronted him about it. Ravi apologized, but then chose to set up a webcam in the dorm because he wanted to keep an eye on his things. This is what led to the eventual viral footage that most blame for Clementi’s suicide.
Perhaps the tormenting of Clementi over his sexuality did contribute to his suicide, perhaps not. But making the argument that Ravi’s actions were the sole cause of Clementi’s suicide is naive. Suicide is a spur of the moment choice someone makes after one devastating experience. By no means do I attempt to downplay the obviously painful and unwarranted experience Clementi went through, but it is vital to contemplate other emotional and psychological factors that had to have been present to lead the teen to suicide.
It is also vital to recognize that Clementi’s suicide is also on Ravi’s lists of charges, as the guilt and clearly exhibited emotional toll of knowing his behavior potentially led to the death of his roommate is going to haunt him forever.
Demanding harsh sentences for cyberbullying and harassment is a necessary and appropriate way to communicate to America’s bigots that their behavior will not be tolerated. It is also proof that the justice system is on our side and is working toward the type of acceptance that should have existed in the first place.
But Dharun Ravi is not a cyberbully. He is very clearly a socially unaware, awkward and perhaps paranoid young man, whose lack of confidence, awareness, communication skills and better judgment led to a terrible tragedy.
This tragedy has already thrown into light the importance of providing support for LGBT youth. What needs to be considered now is the importance of showing our generation how to talk, face to face.