Have you followed the case out of Rutgers that led earlier this week to the sentencing of a former student accused of spying on his roommate, who later committed suicide? I hadn’t followed it closely, but I did follow this suggestion on Twitter:
The New Yorker (@NewYorker)
5/21/12 1:15 PM
Revisit Ian Paker’s in-depth piece on the Clementi case in the wake of Dharun Ravi’s sentencing: nyr.kr/y3umI3#ravi #clementi
It took awhile. I read it in short bits now and then over the last couple of days. Because it really, truly is “in-depth.” And fascinating. And depressing. (And these few reflections took me some time, too. I wrote most of this post late yesterday, and am only finishing it up now.)
It’s a little hard to briefly explain what I got out of the piece. But I quote the following just to make the point that what was found was probably not exactly what anyone would have expected the author to find:
Clementi’s death became an international news story, fusing parental anxieties about the hidden worlds of teen-age computing, teen-age sex, and teen-age unkindness. ABC News and others reported that a sex tape had been posted on the Internet. CNN claimed that Clementi’s room had “become a prison” to him in the days before his death. Next Media Animation, the Taiwanese company that turns tabloid stories into cartoons, depicted Ravi and Wei reeling from the sight of Clementi having sex under a blanket. Ellen DeGeneres declared that Clementi had been “outed as being gay on the Internet and he killed himself. Something must be done.”…
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….
What follows is a long, appallingly detailed account of several young people’s trek through a latter-day Heart of Darkness.
I say “appallingly detailed” because it makes clear the fact that we now live in a time in which the private thoughts of people who are not makers of history or even (until the tragedy of Tyler Clementi’s death) newsmakers can be strip-mined and laid out in a detail that rivals anything that has been compiled about the thoughts and communications and actions of kings and presidents and generals in the past.
Even when they’re kids. Even when they are lost, confused kids staggering through a world that no longer offers standards or guideposts, social or otherwise, or at least none that they consider to be relevant. Offhand, careless, only semi-articulate bull sessions between adolescents are recorded, rather than being mercifully forgotten, and set in virtual stone like the carefully considered edicts of monarchs and parliaments.
To the extent that the story has a chronological beginning, it starts when high school graduate Dharun Ravi, who I guess we could say is a not atypical teenager (excuse the double negative, but it seemed more accurate than the more direct “typical”), learns the partial name of his roommate-to-be, and decides to research him on the web, and discuss what he finds with friends online. We are exposed to the most trivial, casually cruel, contradictory, insecure, stream-of-consciousness examination over every thought and half-thought and emotion that he experiences as he tries to decide what he will make of this stranger. This goes on for hours and hours in the initial session — much of which is spent discussing the wrong person. About the only thing that is determined in this search is that the roommate is gay.
Ravi’s attitude about that particular piece of knowledge reflects the contradictions of his generation, a generation that contemptuously dismisses any reservations that some older people may have about, say, same-sex marriage, but does not hesitate to use “that’s so gay” as a pejorative. The typical kid of this generation is both more open and accepting toward homosexuality, and yet more willing to say dismissive things about it, than a kid in the 1950s (or at least as willing — certainly more open and candid about it). It is never clearly established what Ravi’s attitude is, at least not in the simplistic terms of “tolerant” or “supportive,” or “homophobic.” He’s all of the above.
The boy who killed himself left a similar record of his thoughts and actions, although not quite as exhaustive, as he wasn’t as technology-adept. But he leaves enough that it is positively stunning that there is no clear, cause-and-effect explanation of why he killed himself. Even with all this data, the sequence of events is circumstantial.
Does that make Ravi innocent? No way. No one is innocent in this appalling narrative, in any sense other than, perhaps, cluelessness. Real innocence has long ago been burned out of any of these kids.
I went to college during the alleged sexual revolution, but I find overwhelming the utter lack of a sense of boundaries that afflicts the existence of these kids. It’s one thing to act on one’s sexual urges, or even to have curiosity about those of others. It’s another to discuss such acts and urges in such exhaustive detail, in writing, for publication, for everyone you know and everyone you don’t know, to read in real time and forever after. There are seemingly no boundaries for these kids, either regarding what to do, or what to say about it or whom to say it to or how to say it. They are lost, drifting in a universe without any sort of social norms.
Because social norms have not caught up with the technology. The village had its rules about what should be said and when and to whom. This world does not. And the human animal is a long, long way from having evolved quickly enough to cope with it.
And these kids are lost in it — every one of them, not just the two main protagonists in this tragedy.
I mean, set aside the homosexuality angle — especially since everyone in the story is so ambivalent about it. Imagine that we’re talking about a situation in which Clementi brought a girl to his room. The shocking thing then becomes that no one treats this encounter between apparent strangers as anything deserving of any kind of discretion or privacy or respect, much less censure. It is an open topic, as everyone in the dorm, and everyone within reach of the various actors’ Twitter and Facebook feeds, is a participant in a convulsive, confused, on-and-off, half-hearted form of voyeurism.
What happens, briefly, in the saga’s critical episode, is that Clementi was going to have a guest in his room, and asked his roommate to make himself scarce. Ravi obliged, but left his computer set to automatically receive a videoconferencing request, and with the camera pointed toward Clementi’s bed. Then he went to the room of a girl he knew from high school, and activated the link. They watched for a few seconds, saw the two guys kissing (fully clothed), and then had a reaction on the level of “Ewwwww” and shut off the link.
The girl later said, ““At first, we were both, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we can’t tell anybody about this, we’re just going to pretend this never happened.’ ”
For Ravi, that resolution last three or four minutes, before he Tweeted, “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.”
Later, there was an abortive plan to spy on Clementi on another occasion, with a larger audience, but that didn’t happen — apparently because Clementi realized what was happening (how could he not? he had read the Tweet) and disconnected Ravi’s power strip.
Clementi wondered online to a friend what to do about what his roommate had done, although at no time did he seem freaked out about it. He wrote things like, “When I first read the tweet I defs felt violated but then when I remembered what actually happened . . .
idk… doesn’t seem soooo bad lol…”
He wonders whether to complain, or request another roommate. He never quite makes up his mind.
What does not happen, what never seems to happen, is any sort of real communication between the two roommates. The wasted opportunities for it are tragic. For instance, we read an online exchange, before any of these incidents, that Clementi has with a friend about how to initiate a conversation with new roommate Ravi… with Ravi sitting right there.
Again, the thing that strikes me is how crippled these kids seem to be when it comes to normal human interaction, and how utterly unfettered their online communications are — communications that do damage that they are not equipped to repair. (I say unfettered… but there is evasion, and obfuscation, and false bravado… for instance, “lol” is used repeatedly in a context that suggests it’s more of a nervous giggle of insecurity than a belly laugh.)
The dysfunction is profound. And there are no capabilities in these kids’ nervous systems (evolution can’t keep up) or in our social mores and etiquette for setting things right.
When I first started communicating with people electronically, in the early 80s, I was an adult, with all sorts of social skills to fall back on. I quickly learned the ways that electronic communications were different, and the pitfalls that they contained. Not that I don’t frequently misstep to this day, on this blog and elsewhere.
But these kids, they’re just in a dark void, clueless as to how to cope constructively with other humans, at a time when it is easier than ever (theoretically) to communicate.
And it’s a deep, dark tragedy.