Cyberviciousness and a student’s suicide: the fault is always in ourselves

If there is any doubt about the pervasiveness of moral confusion and illogic in our society, one need only sample … Continued

If there is any doubt about the pervasiveness of moral confusion and illogic in our society, one need only sample responses to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student and a promising violinist, who committed suicide after his roomate and a female acquaintance, also a Rutgers freshmen, used a hidden webcam to record him having sex with a man and streamed the images online. An interrogatory headline in USA Today says it all: “Has Social Networking Gone Too Far?” A subhead declares, “Student’s suicide after he was shown having sex on illicit webcast puts focus on civility and privacy.” This tragedy is not about “social networking.” It is about immoral and amoral cruelty, spiked with anti-gay bias, and about a culture that prefers to assign responsibility to tools rather than the young people who used them for evil.

Yes, evil. As the late Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky once wrote, evil doesn’t necessarily announce itself by walking in the door and saying, “Hi, I’m evil.” It can just as likely manifest itself in two privileged young people whose bright, white smiles–the best expensive dentistry can provide!–concealed the moral vacuum that led them to use a webcam to torment a vulnerable fellow creature.

Dharun Ravi, the roommate who set up the webcam, and his friend Molly Wei, whose dorm room was used as headquarters for the operation, undoubtedly had no idea that their target would jump off the George Washington Bridge as a result of their digital spying and exposure of Clementi’s intimate life. But they certainly set out to ridicule and humiliate their classmate.

The webcam is not responsible. Social networking–which in this instances and many others ought to be called anti-social networking–was not responsible. The individuals who did this are responsible. On Twitter, Ravi announced, “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.” Yay. What a world of callousnous is conveyed in that puerile syllable.

Ravi and Wei are charged, under New Jersey’s privacy laws, with transmitting images of nudity or sexual contact without the person’s consent–a crime that carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. That is the correct charge; those who say the students should be charged with manslaughter are wrong. Under our legal system, criminals can be punished only for their own acts, not for the response of the victim.

But some equally misguided apologists for crimes committed on the Web are already saying that five years is too much for what was at worst a “prank” that led to an unforseen tragedy. One of the most depressing reactions was voiced in the New York Times by another student, 21-year-old Kyle Bomeisl, who said, “There should be punishment, but five years of jail is extremely harsh. I’m sure that these children did not intend for this child to go out and commit suicide.” No, they only intended to out and mock a gay 18-year-old’s sexuality for their own entertainment.

I don’t know whether this qualifies as a hate crime (which would mean additional charges) under New Jersey law, but it was certainly a crime against human decency. On NBC’s show Morning Joe, the moralizing Mika Brzezinski, who normally plays the role of Mother Superior to Joe Scarborough’s unruly good old boy, replied, “They weren’t thinking” when someone asked, “What were they thinking?” Then the group engaged in the usual chit-chat about how the Internet has despersonalized social relations so much that many of us don’t know right from wrong if we’re operating in the digital universe. How about an Internet insanity defense as an updated version of the Twinkie defense?

I am no fan of the Web as anything but a tool for information-gathering. As I have said many times on this blog (and been rebuked for being a “Luddite,”) I think that anonymity encourages people to say all sorts of nasty things that they would never say in real life with real consequences. But anonymity was not in play in this case. Everyone knew who everyone was. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie commented, “I don’t know how those two folks are going to sleep at night, knowing that they contributed to driving that yong man to that alternative.”

The real question is how these people slept at night before Clementi killed himself. Ravi is accused of attempting to webcast a second Clementi video on the day before his suicide. What went wrong with these people’s–and they are not children–sense of ethics and their humanity that they would do this in the first place?

During the past decade, there have been a number of teen suicides as a result of webcasting heterosexual activity–as well as suicides following non-sexual ridicule on the internet. It is hard to imagine, though, that a roommate’s desire to out his roommate’s homosexuality did not play some role in this vicious act. In spite of the supposedly greater “tolerance” for gays among the young than among their elders, public revelation of sexual behavior still creates more trouble for young gays than for straights. Many young gay men and women come out gradually and cautiously to friends and relatives, and one can only imagine the emotional impact of being outed on a webcast.

In any case, the students who did this should receive the maximum sentence under the state’s privacy laws. Five years is not too long a sentence. In this instance, stiff sentences may well have exemplary value for those who consider cyberassault (a much more appropriate word than “bullying”) a “prank” rather than a crime.

The frequency of cyberassault–whether it leads to suicide or merely causes mental anguish in the victim–must surely say something about the failure of all of the social institutions that are supposed to instill a sense of respect for others in the young. That includes religion, the idolized nuclear family and “family values,” and education. How does it happen that privileged young men and women grow up without internalizing any version of the Golden Rule? I particularly like the version attributed to Hillel (50 B.C.E.-10 A.C.E.): “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.” This principle is the basis of every decent system of human values, whether rooted in secular humanism or religion. What these students did was no violation of the Ten Commandments that the Christian right is so eager to display on the walls of courtrooms. It was a breach of the human empathy essential to any civilization.

This was no spur-of-the-moment crime; it was premedidated. Sam Harris, in his just-published book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (The Free Press), offers an observation that fits this case pefectly. “But why is the conscious decision to do harm particularly blameworthy?” he asks. “Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us. What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds–our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.”

I don’t know what science has to tell us about the behavior of these young people who were on a “best and brightest” track. But if one concedes that religion, law, family life, formal education and science, all have something to do with explaining and shaping behavior, we must all look inward as well as outward for the causes of the utter lack of empathy at work in cyberviciousness. You just can’t pin the tail on the webcam.

About

Susan Jacoby Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism"­ and is completing a secular history of religious conversion.
  • ikidd3123

    What gets me is that none of these 3 kids would be any the worse off if being gay weren’t a capital crime in the eyes of family, religions, and society as a whole.

  • WmarkW

    “How does it happen that privileged young men and women grow up without internalizing any version of the Golden Rule?”Christians who want The Ten Commandments used as a public symbol and legal inspiration;Muslims who want to live under sharia;Date rapistsThe concept of cyber-assault, though, I think needs some work to avoid the differential application of free speech. We already have too much “truth is not a defense” to making statements contrary to the interests of liberal group like blacks, women, gays or Jews, but not to conservative ones like Christians or males.

  • blasmaic

    There is no counseling or support for heterosexuals who are forced to room with homosexuals and lesbians. Lacking awareness of the problems that can occur when rooming with a gay or lesbian, a heterosexual student may not have constructive ways to deal with conflict. The streaming video did accomplish one thing for sure — it eliminated any suspicion that the room-mates were in fact each other’s gay lover.Most people would agree that a dramatic suicide is the wrong response to room-mate conflict.

  • edbyronadams

    It seems that this case is being handled appropriately. I wonder how many times violation of this law have been prosecuted.Not homosexual but at college age, if my roommate had done such a thing, I would have pounded him and demanded a different roommate.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    It is appalling that some bloggers are so ignorant of the law that they do not understand the difference between free speech applied to public figures and invasion of the privacy of non-public figures. It is also appalling to see the smug comment that suicide is not an “appropriate response” to a “roommate conflict.” What is not appropriate, if you don’t like rooming with a homosexual, is to display his private sexual behavior on the Web. What you do if you don’t like your roommate, for whatever reason, is change rooms. The point is that there is a moral issue here independent of the victim’s tragic response and of his sexual orientation. These comments provide strong support for my main argument that we are a people who have lost our moral bearings for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with lazy thinking and with the idea that everything is fair game for our own entertainment.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    Again, all of us have a legitimate expectation of privacy in our homes–which, in college, means your dorm room. In college etiquette, you always ask your roommate if you can have the room to yourself for a certain period of time when you anticipate an intimate encounter. To compare one’s home to a massage parlor shows, again, a complete lack of understanding of the law. And by the way, male and female roommates frequently occupy the same living space, both in college and young adult life. They don’t generally walk around in the nude. It’s astonishing to me that anyone can rationalize such behavior.

  • persiflage

    We recently had a teen suicide (age 13) here in Columbia, SC when an alleged homosexual boy was outed in middle school and was driven to killing himself because of the incessant bullying he endured on a daily basis, by fellow students who we must assume fancied themselves to be good, upstanding heterosexuals – and all from good Christian families without doubt. The school has of course begged off all responsibility. How were they to know? A huge civil suit will hopefully follow. Schools turn a blind eye to bullying and harrassment between students on a regular basis. Being guilty of perceived ‘gay’ behavior as a juvenile must invite the most brutal isolation imaginable, not to mention the likely abuse at the hands of fellow students. This poor boy probably had nary a friend among a school staff pitifully lacking in courage, all the while being very aware of the problem. Avoiding trouble with offending students and their defensive, self-righteous parents was far more important. Good God, they probably all attended the same church! A bullet seemed to be the only answer. We might expect this sort of thing in the Deep South, but at an Ivy League college on the Eastern seaboard?! The Rutgers incidence that Susan recounts here is an abomination. The banality of ordinary evil. There is a moral void of huge proportions present, when such a thing can be enacted with such gleeful ease and anticipation. We can’t easily downplay the immensity of such heinous behavior without throwing suspicion on our own deep-seated prejudices.A terrible and complex tragedy that is not the first of it’s kind, and will not be the last.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    There are some problems, if I’m not mistaken, with this case. The issue will be whether one can assign responsibility to the defendants for Tyler’s suicide. Similar problems arose in a case of cyber bullying, and just old-fashioned bullying.Once the legal issues are resolved, I’m fine with throwing the book at the defendants. I also think we need to continue examining the laws on cyber-privacy and all forms of bullying.The notion of “banality” in evil (Arendt) is complicated and I haven’t the time to go there now. I think it important, however, to recognize that what Arendt was unaware of was Eichman’s psycopathy and quite possibly psychosis. Why she could not grasp the former is probably her philosophical orientation.The defendants in Tyler’s case are clearly psychopathic to an extent that goes beyond the norm. Their behavior is neither ordinary nor trite, merely repulsive. And since their pictures have been pasted all over the web, we shall be able to keep free of them when they get out of jail, should they find themselves there.

  • persiflage

    Hi Farnaz,And thanks for the excellent online resource. I have a feeling that a new generation of schoolyard bullying, not limited to boys by any means these days, will begin to receive the notoriety it deserves around these parts. Clearly the problem in it’s various guises are endemic without regard to regional boundaries. So much for the ‘better class of people’ myth.South Carolina school systems could use the services of Olweus, from what I hear indirectly through the teen grapevine. Depending on the school, certain minorities are maligned to a fairly well publicized degeee – enough so that Hispanics go out of their way to avoid certain school districts, for example. Regarding the commonplace nature of cyber-bullying, the amoral behavior of the two students at Rutgers is only an extreme example of an act that probably was done in anticipation of considerable tacit support, facilitated by the anonymity of the internet. That ‘normal’ well-adjusted humans are capable of surprisingly destructive and mean-spirited behavior when their collective identities are protected, has been discussed on these threads at various times. Individual internet privacy does need to be protected, but in my own view the global nature of pediphile behavior via the internet, and the need to contain and prosecute supporters of this vile industry, has helped skew the interpretation of civil laws that govern other unrelated privacy issues.Maybe SCOTUS can shed some light on this issue while reviewing the first ammendment rights of Fred Phelps and his disgusting band of pathological haters. A case could be made that Phelps’ behavior is simply another kind of bullying strategy – although designed to invoke a physical response that would potentially make his loathsome self enough money in civil court to continue financing a singularly perverse and sadistic lifestyle.Even slippery slopes bottom out at some point.

  • mrbradwii

    I agree with Ed for a change. The existing laws are being applied and look like they will be quite effective. It’s not a crime to hate, so there’s reason to pile on fake charges to satisfy the need for vengeance for moral turpitude.You can’t legislate morality or how perpetrators feel about what they’ve done. You can’t legislate how those kids should’ve been brought up differently. This is the USA, there is no parent license, no bad kid incinerator, no bad parent firing squad.SJ is right in sense that there are moral issues. This kind of thing is more like middle school behavior, where kids learn, for better or worse, to work out their issues with fists or pranks and suffer the consequences from parents, schools, or law enforcement. Kids left to govern themselves are inherently evil and you cannot shortcut the process. At some point they grow out of it. These adults-in-age-only never learned the lessons learned by everyone else in the schoolyard, making them either sociopaths or merely stunted. Because such behavior is more commonplace, I believe they are stunted, or perhaps impaired, rather than mentally defective. Whether or not this has to do with hours of video games, online “socializing”, or whatever the demon of the day is — that’s for behaviorists to determine. It’s a separate, but important issue, one that goes to the core of how kids are raised, and more importantly, how they think. It’s debatable whether or not critical thinking can be instilled by by more soccer practice.But it is clear, that more kids in their 20s lack the maturity and skills to make moral decisions, much less decisions on whether or not what they’re thinking of doing is criminal. And even if they could think of these things, they apparently are not capable of choosing in the heat of the moment.I’m all for raising the voting age back to 21. Perhaps bring back the draft… 2 years compulsory service before going to college or work. Now that’s a social program I can accept.

  • areyousaying

    Ever notice that “Christians” who cherry-pick Leviticus 18:22 to hate, exclude and bash gays conveniently ignore verse 19:33 when it comes to brown skinned, Spanish speaking immigrants?Leviticus 19:33-34 (New International Version) 33 ” ‘When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. 34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

  • emonty

    As a teacher (9-12) this horrifying act and the tragic consequences disturbs me, but it does not surprise me. I wholeheartedly agree that the technology is not reponsible: it is just a tool. How these people used the technology is the problem and they are completely responsible for its use (legally) and consequences (morally).

  • globalone

    We have lost our moral compass in search of personal liberties. Professor Larry Schweikart, in his book “A Patriot’s History of the United States”, writes “religion played a crucial role in not only the search for liberty, but also in the institutions designed to ensure its continuation.”I agree with Susan that we have become fat, lazy, and obsessed with making sure we receive everything we are entitled to. And, ultimately, that decision making continues to trump any sort of moral or responsible objection that we might generate.Abortion is a clear example. We choose to make the easy and self-serving decision instead of making the more difficult (don’t have intercourse) or responsible (I accept the pregnancy as a result of actions I knowingly participated in) decision.

  • PSolus

    globalone,”We have lost our moral compass in search of personal liberties.”We?We who?

  • cfxk

    How disappointing that the woman whose book “The Age of American Unreason” I admire so much because it exposes the rampant tendency to form conclusions and make judgments based on “junk thought” has succumbed to the very irrational behavior she exposes and condemns.Here’s what is known (working backwards): a young man committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge; he spent at least two hours in orchestra rehearsal that afternoon; he MAY have spent(by his own report) the evening before in his room with another person in a private encounter; he was concerned that his roommate had set the room up for video streaming, so he disconnected computer and camera; he reported his concerns and actions on a web community chat site; he asked his roommate to give him private time in the room that evening, which the roommate granted; he had a private liaison with someone in his room two nights before, which the roommate streamed on the internet — and he became aware of this; he asked the roommate for private time in the room that evening, which the roommate granted.THESE ARE THE FACTS. THIS IS WHAT IS KNOWN. EVERYTHING ELSE IS SPECULATION. Everything else is JUNK THOUGHT.All of the reasons stated for Tyler killing himself are simply this: speculation. Maybe the man he had an encounter with rejected him; maybe he felt remorse about the encounter; maybe he had a hellacious day at rehearsal and felt he had no future in the one thing in which he excelled. I don’t know; and neither does anyone else who has reported first hand knowledge. It’s entirely possible that the broadcast of this encounter was completely incidental to Tyler’s suicide. Or it could have been the sole reason. But I don’t know. And Susan Jacoby doesn’t know. And as far as I can tell, no one else knows.So, when Susan Jacoby comes to such conclusions BASED ON SPECULATION — based upon an utterly unproven and speculative narrative that, like belief in UFOs, seems to have taken on a self-referential and hysterical character — and writes with such certainty and authority about what the consequences should be, one has to wonder if she even read her own book.I did read her book. And I liked it. And I can tell you that this column of hers deserves its own chapter in the book as a prime example of junk thought.

  • persiflage

    ‘it was a major factor driving 20 year-old Tyler Clementi to take his own life’My mistake – Tyler was an 18 year-old freshman …

  • WmarkW

    Although CFXK’s position may be a little over-stated, teen suicide is not rare, nor is the posting of embarrassing material on-line. Since Tyler Clementi apparently didn’t leave a suicide note (at least according to the pages Google pulled up for me), it’s possible, and worth investigating, whether these cases are just coincidences of timing, like “vaccines cause autism.”

  • persiflage

    ‘TYLER CLEMENTI’S last message on Facebook was as simple as it was poignant: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” According to news reports, Mr. Clementi discussed the videotaping incident in a gay online chat room and then reported it to a dorm official. He appeared to be coping well. Then he jumped.’The above was taken from the short WP article link that I posted….Maybe it’s just me, but the connection seems clear enough. All in all, the casual maliciousness of the webcast for the apparent purpose of cheap amusement appears to have contributed significantly to unforeseen and irreversible consequences of tragic proportions. Garbage in resulted in something more than gargabe out, on this particular occasion.

  • globalone

    Areyousaying,Did you actually read the book? Or are you simply Exhibit A for the theory that too many Americans have become fat and lazy? That you are either so naive or so lazy as to draw a conclusion based on a headline or book title.RIF.

  • globalone

    Psolus,We the people.

  • PSolus

    globalone,”We the people.”We, what people?

  • armandduncan83

    Why did you feel the need to take shots at the fact that the people who did this were rich? What difference does that possibly make? Does the fact that their families had the means to buy them braces add something to your argument? That strikes me as pure spite, and, at least for me, it distracts the reader from your point. This is not to say that I don’t agree with most of what you said, I just think that your argument would be more sympathetic if you hadn’t seemed to take pleasure in deriding the perpetrators’ social backgrounds. Their act would be just as mean-spirited if they had been poor kids from uptown Manhattan.

  • WmarkW

    armandduncan83:Susan writes about stupidity, lack of intellectual curiosity and nutty social views a lot, but she employs affirmative action in selecting her examples. She’s posted I think four columns lambasting Christine O’Donnell, but none mentioning Alvin Greene.

  • mrbradwii

    I don’t see the relationship between Greene and O’Donnell, other than their lack of preparation for the job they’re seeking.What is more telling is that a guy can get arrested for hitting on someone, which must be a shangri-la for puritan republicans.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    pardon the interruption.carry on.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    given the a priori irrationality of believing there’s a god with a plan who’s watching us and interested in us and meddling in our affairs, it makes perfect sense that s/he/it is manipulating elections.it’s all part of the plan…like childhood cancer, flesh-eating bacteria and starvation.

  • Franklindefelice

    Fuse columnist Christopher Weingarten dissects the wave of homophobic bullying and tragic suicides that have darkened the nation and finds an unlikely LGBT ally in Eminem:

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    globalone, you said,did you look in the silverware drawer? or under the bed?

  • WmarkW

    It’s taken me a while to digest this column. I get worried when people ask whether an exception to First Amendment principles have to be made for a connotive judgement-laden words like whether “pornography” is an exception to a free press or “witchcraft” to freedom of religion or “hate”, “harassment” or “bullying” is an exception to free speech. There’s a column on the Main Page about Fred Phelps’ right to “exploit,” which is a question I don’t even want to get into without understanding the speaker’s thesaurus.”Give me your wallet or I’ll stab you” is not speech protected by the First Amendment. It’s understandable that cyberpeeping should be illegal, although SOME exceptions have to be made if the living space involved is ALSO the living space of the person doing the recording. In this case, I agree that disseminating publicly the homosexual conduct represents “first degree cyberpeeping” in its most severe form. However, if the non-gay roommate used the evidence of homosexual activity in a more responsible manner to demand a new roommate, I would accept that creating documentary evidence that one’s roommate is a practicing homosexual is a legitimate part of making a case for a new rooming assignment; as long as the gay roommate is given every opportunity to cooperate with the request to keep the evidence private.

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