If there is any doubt about the pervasiveness of moral confusion and illogic in our society, one need only sample responses to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student and a promising violinist, who committed suicide after his roomate and a female acquaintance, also a Rutgers freshmen, used a hidden webcam to record him having sex with a man and streamed the images online. An interrogatory headline in USA Today says it all: “Has Social Networking Gone Too Far?” A subhead declares, “Student’s suicide after he was shown having sex on illicit webcast puts focus on civility and privacy.” This tragedy is not about “social networking.” It is about immoral and amoral cruelty, spiked with anti-gay bias, and about a culture that prefers to assign responsibility to tools rather than the young people who used them for evil.
Yes, evil. As the late Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky once wrote, evil doesn’t necessarily announce itself by walking in the door and saying, “Hi, I’m evil.” It can just as likely manifest itself in two privileged young people whose bright, white smiles–the best expensive dentistry can provide!–concealed the moral vacuum that led them to use a webcam to torment a vulnerable fellow creature.
Dharun Ravi, the roommate who set up the webcam, and his friend Molly Wei, whose dorm room was used as headquarters for the operation, undoubtedly had no idea that their target would jump off the George Washington Bridge as a result of their digital spying and exposure of Clementi’s intimate life. But they certainly set out to ridicule and humiliate their classmate.
The webcam is not responsible. Social networking–which in this instances and many others ought to be called anti-social networking–was not responsible. The individuals who did this are responsible. On Twitter, Ravi announced, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Yay. What a world of callousnous is conveyed in that puerile syllable.
Ravi and Wei are charged, under New Jersey’s privacy laws, with transmitting images of nudity or sexual contact without the person’s consent–a crime that carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. That is the correct charge; those who say the students should be charged with manslaughter are wrong. Under our legal system, criminals can be punished only for their own acts, not for the response of the victim.
But some equally misguided apologists for crimes committed on the Web are already saying that five years is too much for what was at worst a “prank” that led to an unforseen tragedy. One of the most depressing reactions was voiced in the New York Times by another student, 21-year-old Kyle Bomeisl, who said, “There should be punishment, but five years of jail is extremely harsh. I’m sure that these children did not intend for this child to go out and commit suicide.” No, they only intended to out and mock a gay 18-year-old’s sexuality for their own entertainment.
I don’t know whether this qualifies as a hate crime (which would mean additional charges) under New Jersey law, but it was certainly a crime against human decency. On NBC’s show Morning Joe, the moralizing Mika Brzezinski, who normally plays the role of Mother Superior to Joe Scarborough’s unruly good old boy, replied, “They weren’t thinking” when someone asked, “What were they thinking?” Then the group engaged in the usual chit-chat about how the Internet has despersonalized social relations so much that many of us don’t know right from wrong if we’re operating in the digital universe. How about an Internet insanity defense as an updated version of the Twinkie defense?
I am no fan of the Web as anything but a tool for information-gathering. As I have said many times on this blog (and been rebuked for being a “Luddite,”) I think that anonymity encourages people to say all sorts of nasty things that they would never say in real life with real consequences. But anonymity was not in play in this case. Everyone knew who everyone was. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie commented, “I don’t know how those two folks are going to sleep at night, knowing that they contributed to driving that yong man to that alternative.”
The real question is how these people slept at night before Clementi killed himself. Ravi is accused of attempting to webcast a second Clementi video on the day before his suicide. What went wrong with these people’s–and they are not children–sense of ethics and their humanity that they would do this in the first place?
During the past decade, there have been a number of teen suicides as a result of webcasting heterosexual activity–as well as suicides following non-sexual ridicule on the internet. It is hard to imagine, though, that a roommate’s desire to out his roommate’s homosexuality did not play some role in this vicious act. In spite of the supposedly greater “tolerance” for gays among the young than among their elders, public revelation of sexual behavior still creates more trouble for young gays than for straights. Many young gay men and women come out gradually and cautiously to friends and relatives, and one can only imagine the emotional impact of being outed on a webcast.
In any case, the students who did this should receive the maximum sentence under the state’s privacy laws. Five years is not too long a sentence. In this instance, stiff sentences may well have exemplary value for those who consider cyberassault (a much more appropriate word than “bullying”) a “prank” rather than a crime.
The frequency of cyberassault–whether it leads to suicide or merely causes mental anguish in the victim–must surely say something about the failure of all of the social institutions that are supposed to instill a sense of respect for others in the young. That includes religion, the idolized nuclear family and “family values,” and education. How does it happen that privileged young men and women grow up without internalizing any version of the Golden Rule? I particularly like the version attributed to Hillel (50 B.C.E.-10 A.C.E.): “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.” This principle is the basis of every decent system of human values, whether rooted in secular humanism or religion. What these students did was no violation of the Ten Commandments that the Christian right is so eager to display on the walls of courtrooms. It was a breach of the human empathy essential to any civilization.
This was no spur-of-the-moment crime; it was premedidated. Sam Harris, in his just-published book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (The Free Press), offers an observation that fits this case pefectly. “But why is the conscious decision to do harm particularly blameworthy?” he asks. “Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us. What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds–our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.”
I don’t know what science has to tell us about the behavior of these young people who were on a “best and brightest” track. But if one concedes that religion, law, family life, formal education and science, all have something to do with explaining and shaping behavior, we must all look inward as well as outward for the causes of the utter lack of empathy at work in cyberviciousness. You just can’t pin the tail on the webcam.