What genius matched those two as freshman roommates in the dorm at Rutgers University? The community failed Tyler Clementi, a music major who played violin solos with the Ridgewood Symphony; three weeks into his journey into adulthood, the nation knows his private story, and he is dead. Dharun Ravi, the roommate, lurking in his girlfriend’s dorm room nearby, secretly recorded Tyler’s sexual encounter with another young man on a hidden webcam, tweeted gleefully to recruit an audience, and broadcast it live. Two days later, hesitant to report the betrayal, Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Both roommates were 18. The universe cringes.
Mean spirited adolescent pranks are nothing new, sad to say. This story, however, has captured the attention of the nation because it brings together an unholy mix of voyeurism, homophobia, attention seeking at the expense of another, and digital media that allow these impulses to be acted upon before better judgment has a chance to click in. Friends of the cyberbully say he’s a good guy. We would like to understand, so that we can protect others from a similar fate. Finally.
The pundits are struggling to sort it out. Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist blogging for FoxNews.com, blames the technology; he says the digital media drive young people to confuse real life with material for reality programming, and destroys their empathy, by dehumanizing the painful real consequences of their actions. But the decision to entertain his Twitter followers by humiliating his real roommate, without consent, came from Dharun, not from the webcam or the internet or the cosmos. The technology provided the means, but not the content of his humor, and the news that Tyler was gay apparently made the voyeuristic opportunity just fascinating. Needless to say,Tyler was hardly the first gay student, or nonconforming student, on a campus somewhere in America to be singled out for the sport of public shaming, often using very low-tech media.
The technology may be progressing faster than our judgment, or our empathy for people who are different, but there is no slowing down technology. Guess we had better work on the empathy, especially for those who are at risk because they are quiet, or artistic, or gay. Maybe FoxNews will cover it. Media types who stand silent when political allies speak with malice toward groups they disapprove of, empower cyberbullying.
Empathy is a complex trait. We like to think that familiarity with individual people overcomes our stereotypes and our unease, but apparently sharing a dorm room was not enough. Empathy is cultivated within an empathetic community, where everyone feels safe, cruel humor is not funny, and people get recognized for the kind things they do. The blogs, noticing that both Dharun and his girlfriend Molly Wei have ethnic names, are starting to offer angry suggestions that the first thing they should do is to go home. Fine. They come from New Jersey. We have a lot of work to do.