Most of you have probably heard the story by now. Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, set up a video stream of their dorm room, outed Clementi as being gay on Twitter, and invited anyone so inclined to watch the live stream. Ravi accessed his webcam and his Twitter account from the dorm room of his friend Molly Wei. For some details about the sequence of events, see this excellent post by ethics professor and Huffington Post blogger Ruth Starkman. Starkman also raises some excellent questions about the relationship between Clementi and Ravi, and why Ravi made the choices he did.
I doubt that Dharun Ravi is an evil man. I doubt that Molly Wei is an evil woman. The two are misguided, ignorant, and not unlike a lot of of people in our society. It is not the homophobia I am referring to, it is the lack of foresight and the casual, thoughtless bullying. Social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook can be great, and I like and use both of them. I have also posted a few things on each that, upon second (or third) thought I wish I hadn’t put out there. Who here does not make mistakes? But there are little mistakes and there are colossal mistakes, and Ravi and Wei have made a colossal mistake. Sadly, they are not alone.
It was not morally, ethically or legally right (again, see Starkman’s post) for Ravi to film Clementi without Clementi’s knowledge. It was not morally or ethically right for Ravi to out his roommate, even if Clementi was openly or somewhat-openly gay. This situation has been repeating itself, in one form or another, from Clementi to 13-year-old Asher Brown, 13-year-old Seth Walsh and 15-year-old Billy Lucas, each of whom committed suicide after being harassed about their sexuality. Oh, and those kids all died THIS MONTH. Is that not enough to warrant some serious attention being paid to this situation?
I was bullied a lot in school. At times it was because I’m a skinny geek, at times it was because I was the new kid, at times it was because everyone thought I was gay, and at times it was because I was just weird. As Contrarian contributor and fantastically weird girl Undead Molly commented on my facebook page earlier today, it has to do with the idea most of us have that normal = good and weird = bad. Bullying is not a new problem, but the lasting consequences of cyber bullying are. Never before have the vindictive actions of a moment been so easily recorded forever. It happens with people posting nude pictures or videos of lovers, it happens when kids set up facebook pages to make fun of other kids, and it happens when adults mock each other on blogs and twitter. And it’s becoming more of a problem all the time.
I don’t have any great solutions, folks, unless of course you are able to take some simple advice: think through your actions. Think about consequences. Think about other people’s feelings. Don’t let anyone’s ideas be foreign to you. This is about all of us. When we lose our empathy, we lose our humanity. Because I am Tyler Clementi, and so are you.