Remember the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who was filmed surreptitiously in a gay embrace by his roommate, who, with a friend, publicized what they’d seen? A day or so later, Clementi committed suicide. This case became emblematic for gay rights advocates, and for anti-bullying activists. But a new report by Ian Parker in The New Yorker contends that the facts of the case argue against a simplistic, moralistic reading. Excerpts:
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 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. Bias intimidation is a sentence-booster that attaches itself to an underlying crime—usually, a violent one. Here the allegation, linked to snooping, is either that Ravi intended to harass Clementi because he was gay or that Clementi felt he’d been harassed for being gay. Ravi is not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but he faces a possible sentence of ten years in jail. As he sat in the courtroom, his chin propped awkwardly on his fist, his predicament could be seen either as a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.
I encourage you to read the entire article. Dharun Ravi, the roommate who is charged with a bias crime in connection with the death, is unquestionably a jerk who behaved badly. But a close look at the evidence indicates that many people have projected their own feelings about anti-gay sentiment and bullying onto this case, and this defendant. The truth is a lot more complicated. I too thought that Clementi had been outed after Ravi filmed him having sex. As Parker shows, Clementi was not closeted, and he wasn’t filmed having sex. And yes, Dharun Ravi is an ass. But he is not facing criminal trial for being an ass.
This is what moral panic does. I’m as susceptible to it as anybody. It is hard for me to hear of cases of priests accused of molestation and to think that they are innocent until proven guilty, because I already have a particular narrative in my head. It is hard for me to be fair in these particular cases, but it is necessary to fight against my own instincts in this case and in every case. You too.
Consider the Phoebe Prince bullying-suicide case in Massachusetts from a few years back. I well remember blogging with great righteous passion about what monsters those kids were, the ones who drove this high school girl to kill herself. Everybody thought that. Remember? And then Slate’s Emily Bazelon comes along, Dorothy Rabinowitz-like, spends a lot of time looking at the details of the case, and reaches a far more morally complex conclusion. Excerpt:
If you’ve read about the death of Phoebe Prince and its aftermath in People magazine or theBoston Globe or Boston Herald or the Irish Independent, or watched TV segments about the case, the image of Sean reading an anti-bullying message might seem like further evidence that bad kids were running the show at South Hadley High. But what if that’s wrong? What if Sean was in fact a strong kid who had looked out for weaker ones? What if there was no pack of untouchable mean girls ruling the halls of South Hadley High, as the Boston Globe column that kicked off national coverage of the case suggested?
I’ve been reporting in South Hadley since February, as part of a series on cyberbullying. There is no question that some of the teenagers facing criminal charges treated Phoebe cruelly. But not all of them did. And it’s hard to see how any of the kids going to trial this fall ever could have anticipated the consequences of their actions, for Phoebe or for themselves. Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another? Is it really fair to lay the burden of Phoebe’s suicide on these kids?
My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe’s death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her. Her death was tragic, and she shouldn’t have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants. And her own behavior made other students understandably upset.
I’ve wrestled with how much of this information to publish. Phoebe’s family has suffered terribly. But when the D.A. charged kids with causing Phoebe’s death and threatened them with prison, she invited an inquiry into other potential causes. The whole story is a lot more complicated than anyone has publicly allowed for. The events that led to Phoebe’s death show how hard it is for kids, parents, and schools to cope with bullying, especially when the victim is psychologically vulnerable. The charges against the students show how strong the impulse is to point fingers after a suicide, how hard it is to assess blame fairly, and how ill-suited police and prosecutors can be to punishing bullies.