Who is to blame for Clementi’s suicide?

You almost certainly have heard about the case. Here’s a brief summary from the NY Times:

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — A former Rutgers University student was convicted on Friday on all 15 charges he had faced for using a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man, a verdict poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology.

“It’s a watershed moment, because it says youth is not immunity,” said Marcellus A. McRae, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.

The student, Dharun Ravi, had sent out Twitter and text messages encouraging others to watch. His roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge three days after the webcam viewing, three weeks into their freshman year in September 2010.

Ravi now faces up to 10 years in prison and/or deportation.

A lot of activists – in a addition to lbgt advocates – are praising the verdict. So I have been surprised at seeing a number of dissenting words, some of which seem cogent.

One, from the Chronicle of High Education, argues for a complex thesis: we do not know what the link, if any, there was between Ravi’s actions and Clementi’s suicide, while at the same time we are mistaken about the more significant cause. Bullies, one person argues, are symptoms, in this case of a society with lots of homophobia casually present in many different contexts. The verdict lets us wrap the guilt up and stick it on Ravi, not us.

The Guardian** makes a related point, but it points more directly to the political promulgation off homophobia:

Which of the following homophobic actions and statements do you find more despicable and more deserving of the most severe punishment possible: an 18-year-old in his first term at university spying with a webcam on his gay roommate and sending out tweets such as: “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Or: a 53-year-old man on a high-profile political stage saying that gay marriage will cause America to “fail”; that homosexuals do not perform activities “that are healthy for society” and therefore do not deserve certain “rights” such as raising children; that gay “sexual activity” is not “equal” to heterosexual “activity”; that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is “playing social experimentation with our military … And that’s tragic”; that gay marriage is analogous to polygamy and, most infamously, bestiality.

Both of these examples are utterly horrible and it is a decidedly depressing state of affairs that they happened at all. So to compare them is not to say that one is, relatively speaking, forgivable. Yet when one results in a now 20-year-old man facing up to 10 years’ imprisonment and possible deportation, and the other leads to this particular politician doing unexpectedly well in the Republican presidential primaries, one does have to question, shall we say, the consistency of national attitude, and what, really, is condemned and condoned.


Turning from this utterly tragic case involving what Ravi’s lawyer memorably and doubtless rightly described as “a jerky kid” in a dorm room whose actions resulted in a conviction, we turn to the national political stage, involving grown men whose statements result in balloons falling from the ceiling. Being against gay marriage, gay adoption and gay soldiers serving openly in the military is pretty much de rigueur for a Republican presidential candidate these days, as is inferring – obliquely or very openly – that being gay is a perversion and therefore not deserving of full rights. Rick Santorum has been the most vocal about this although, to be fair, sex in all of its forms appears to repulse him judging from his beliefs regarding contraception and pornography. Yet his statements about homosexuality have been especially disgusting, hardline and toxic.

Should we give air time to Santorum, while jailing and deporting Ravi? Or are these apples and oranges? What do you think?

**the article has lots of links that didn’t get copied. If you want the source for a particular homophobic expression, you should follow the link to the article

13 thoughts on “Who is to blame for Clementi’s suicide?

  1. Santorum has yucky views, but as far as I know he never has hidden webcams in people’s rooms to spy on them. So that’s a pretty important difference — the kid who spied did something illegal regardless of his motives for doing it.

    But I think 10 years would be an absurdly long sentence for what that *kid* did, even though it was motivated by prejudice and was a cause of the tragedy. I’m not sure what the right sentence is, and some jail time does seem appropriate to me. But a decade? That strikes me as a symptom of the hyper-vindictive response Americans have towards punishment.

  2. I disagreed very strongly with this decision, and for the reasons mm cites toward the end of her/his post. It’s sentences like these that push me closer toward the view that the criminal justice system has little or no positive role to play in social activism. What’s striking to me about this case is just that nothing this kid did was atypical. Gay young adults are teased in this sort of way all the time. Throwing down the banhammer on one of the bullies doesn’t solve anything, and it creates a scary sort of precedent for sentencing.

    One of these days some poor kid is going to get a decade in prison for filming the police beating someone, and it’s this sort of sentence that will be the precedent for it.

  3. As someone writing from outside the U.S., the possibility of a 10 year sentence seems very very harsh. However, the U.S. always seems like a harsh, puritanical society to me.

    I would sentence Ravi to a few years of full-time community service in an organization which helps gay people.

  4. He subjected his victim to judgment (which he clearly considered negative by his own lights) on the vast scale of the internet that he also judged to be overall congruent with his own: he thought most would see this as laughably horrid in the same way that people might judge others who (e,g,) eat feces just to satisfy a need for fame (cf. John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes). That is clear evidence of intent to harm (as opposed to Waters’ hiring Divine to portray such wanton behavior on a supposed voluntary basis), or at least shows a complete negligence of the consequences of such an open-ended public display. The shades of grey of mean-spiritedness do not translate into sharp distinctions of responsibility for me. He knew what he was doing, and he meant to show he was the dominant dude in doing it. I have no sympathy for him, and he is at best a cautionary tale for males who think that demonstrating “tude” on the internet means anything positive for them.

  5. Matt, do you mind explaining how this case could possibly justify the jailing of a person filming police brutality? Surely the fact that the police officer is a public figure who is supposed to be promoting the common good is enough to differentiate these cases in a court of law.

  6. The NEW YORKER had a long piece on this case a few weeks ago. A fascinating read, both because of the complexity of the events surrounding Clementi’s death, and the attitudes and actions of the students involved, and because it shows the actual text messages sent around between students–an eye-opening look at college students’ lingo, and their evident concerns about CLASS above all–who is rich, who is poor. Although I think Ravi’s actions deplorable and an invasion of privacy, I think a ten-year prison sentence would not be the best way to serve justice.

  7. Tomatoes, I missed the article; thanks for letting us know about it. I have been appalled from the beginning about the actions, but, in contrast to the traynor case, they don’t seem as well referred to the society’s fault and responsibility.

    African Americans seem to understand political action much, much better than a lot of other groups of protestors. Similarly Jews. It is awful to think of the experiences that may have made some of the difference.

  8. My views on these matters were really turned around by the work done by an undergraduate I worked with who argued against the use of the prison system to deal with homophobia, transphobia, etc. Basically, she argued that that system–what Angela Davis and others have correctly, I think, called “the prison-industrial complex”–is so tied in especially to racial oppression (she was writing specifically about the U.S.) that it is the last place we should look to deal with problems of social justice. And, as other commentators have noted, this response picks out typically relatively vulnerable perpetrators and makes the problems look like the isolated actions of criminals….

  9. To Jarrod (#5): It has to do with the nature of the charges. As I understand it, he was basically charged with invasion of privacy and use of a webcam to intimidate someone. I don’t think it would take a big leap of imagination to write laws to apply these sorts of crimes to the completely legitimate use of webcam technology to uncover abuses by public officials or private executives. One recent case in Iowa, for example, involved the state legislature writing legislation to criminalize the filming of abuses at factory/corporate farms.

    Also thanks to Naomi (#8) for bringing out this sort of point more clearly than I was able to!

  10. I certainly understand how this precedent might be (is currently being?) used to criminalize the filming of private properties that are engaging in activities that need to be brought to public attention (such as in the agriculture case). But I still don’t see how this could possibly justify your first example; they are just too different in character. How could the filming of a private and harmless event that is being filmed for explicitly malicious purposes possibly compare to the filming of a public person who, while working in a public capacity, acts in an unquestionably evil manner? Frankly, as a queer person, I find this comparison somewhat offensive. But perhaps my imagination is just not inventive enough for the American Justice System (I am Canadian)?

  11. Jerrod, I think what you might be missing out on as a Canadian is the extend to which the American political and legal system contorts itself to protect just about anything the police do. There’s a lively debate in American courts over whether or not police have a right to privacy from being recorded on the job. It isn’t simply a given in the United States that it’s OK to film a cop beating someone.

    Now, I’ll certainly note that many court cases (in, for example, Oregon, Michigan, and a recent Supreme Court ruling about secret police GPS tracking) have come out positively, with the court ruling that police do not have these privacy rights. But you’re not correct to assume that the American legal system necessarily and automatically treats these cases differently. It’s still something of an open issue here.

  12. Well then, it seems to me that the problem lies with the treatment of police officers as private. Perhaps that is what should be condemned then, rather than this “criminal social justice” case which, for no fundamental reason, happened to involve the filming of a private event?

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