danah boyd and John Palfrey would like us to stop bullying Dharun Ravi.
Dharun Ravi, you may remember, is the young man whose Rutgers University dorm-mate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide days after Ravi apparently used his computer to record, watch, and tweet about Clementi’s sexual encounters with another man. Here are the details as boyd and Palfrey explain them:
What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.
boyd and Palfrey make it clear that they are appalled by anti-LGBTQ bullying and by the suicides of so many queer youth. Yet they are concerned that the public response–near-universal and vehement condemnation of Ravi and his actions–itself verges on bullying.They write:
Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.
I can’t summon the language to describe how vehemently I disagree with boyd and Palfrey. It’s hard to believe they’re even seriously trying to convince readers that what Ravi did to Clementi is equal to how the American public is reacting to what Ravi did to Clementi.
Imagine this, somewhere, in some schoolyard:
A boy, call him Jake, gets accused of being too effeminate. Another boy, call him Sam, corners Jake behind the slides at recess and punches him in the eye. He says, “That’s for acting like a faggot.”
Another boy, call him Tom, sees the fight, walks over and punches Sam in the eye. He says, “That’s for acting like an asshole.”
boyd and Palfrey would have us believe that both punches must be seen as equal, that both should be viewed as bullying. Are these actions equivalent? Only if you have only the most surface understanding of what constitutes bullying.
When LGBTQ students are bullied, they are attacked for their non-normativity. They are attacked for being different, for being threatening to the status quo. Violence is one really good way–but certainly not the only way, about which more later–to subdue a threat. When Sam punches Jake, he is motivated by fear. Is it fear that motivates Tom to punch Sam? Probably not. It’s probably anger, frustration, and a desire to stand up against reprehensible behavior. It’s a desire to make a stand–to make a public stand–to say “this behavior will not be tolerated.”
Has the public reaction to Dharun Ravi’s actions ruined his life? Yeah, probably. And here’s where I differ from boyd and Palfrey: I believe that the public’s reaction is fully appropriate in response to anybody who acts as reprehensibly, as vilely as Ravi did toward his roommate. This is a man who invaded his roommate’s privacy, who was so goddamned proud of recording and watching Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounters that he tweeted about it. This is a man who was perfectly comfortable ridiculing, belittling, and dehumanizing another human being. The only appropriate response is to stand up against such vile behavior. The only appropriate response is to take a public stand that says “this behavior will not be tolerated.”
It gets worse, because boyd and Palfrey have the nerve to suggest that one reason we should be kinder to Ravi is that there’s a chance that his actions didn’t lead directly to Clementi’s suicide:
As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.
I think boyd and Palfrey hope that this information will help readers view Ravi in a kinder light–which is utterly ridiculous. Are we supposed to assume that Clementi didn’t feel bullied by Ravi’s behavior simply because school officials agreed to place Clementi in a new room? Are we to hold off judgment of Ravi’s behavior simply because there’s no evidence that Ravi’s behavior led directly to Clementi’s suicide?
It is hard to believe that two people as well read and intelligent as danah boyd and John Palfrey can seriously take such a simplistic view of bullying, of violence, of harassment and depression and suicide. It’s hard to believe that they seriously want us to be kinder to Dharun Ravi based on the possibility that his reprehensible behavior didn’t directly cause his roommate to kill himself. Assuming the reports of Ravi’s actions are accurate, he was only the last person to have the opportunity to bully Tyler Clementi. That may make him not guilty according to legal standards, but it certainly certainly certainly doesn’t make him innocent.
And let’s remember that Dharun Ravi is not on trial for the death of Tyler Clementi. He’s on trial for invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering, and bias intimidation–a hate crime that requires that prosecutors prove Ravi was motivated by an anti-gay bias. Let’s further remember that our legal system serves a different purpose than does the court of public opinion. Our legal system is for figuring out whether someone has broken the law. Public opinion is where a culture makes clear how it feels about that person’s behavior. When the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted, the nation was in outrage: The racism was too blatant, and too appalling, to ignore.
Just as Dharun Ravi’s behavior is, thank christ, too blatant and too appalling to ignore. It’s about goddamned time people got mad about homophobia and anti-gay hate. It’s about goddamned time people stood up en masse for the dignity of their LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
And another thing: Let’s not forget that young men and women like Tyler Clementi are convicted to death by the court of public opinion. Why do LGBTQ youth commit suicide at such higher rates compared to their straight peers? Because of social pressures to conform. Because of religious and conservative groups that tell queer kids that they’re abominations who are destined for hell. Because of families and friends who turn their backs. Because of bullies and assholes like Dhuran Ravi.
boyd and Palfrey end with this exhortation:
To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.
Here is where boyd and Palfrey and I, at last, agree: We should start by looking to ourselves. We should, all of us, consider what cultural biases, what personal beliefs and prejudices, guide us in extending our sympathies and emotional and intellectual energies. “Ravi’s life,” write boyd and Palfrey, “has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. (my emphasis.) The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.”
There is, in fact, no doubt that Ravi did record and view Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounters; there is no doubt that he showed at least a snippet of his recording to his friends. There is no doubt that he boasted about these escapades via Twitter. What’s left for doubt is to wonder what leads us to want to wait to decide how we feel about what he did until the court tells us how guilty he is of violating the letter, not the spirit, of our nation’s laws.