Tyler Clementi’s Choice: Sex, Death and Video-Rape at Rutgers

Vigil on October 3, 2010 at Rutgers University after suicide of student Tyler Clementi

If you try to draw a line between hate crimes and natural human behavior, you’d better have a good eraser.

On Sept. 22, violinist and Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after video of a (gay) sexual encounter was secretly filmed and posted on the Internet, allegedly by fellow students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei. So far, Ravi and Wei have been charged with invasion of privacy, but some people are calling for hate-crime prosecution.

My Woman Up colleague Mia Navarro quotes a New York Times commenter who says his students live in a technology bubble where they rarely encounter people outside their parents and peer groups. Navarro asks, “So if parents infantilize while technology shelters, where does that leave the kids? If Ravi and Wei were really children, how would we rationalize what they are accused of doing?”

Another colleague, Joann M. Weiner, disagrees, saying she treats her own teenager as an adult. “At a time when our country sentences minors to decades in prison, condemns the mentally ill to death, expels kids who sneak a puff in the school bathroom, and routinely punishes kids for the idiotic things they do with their cellphones . . . there is nothing that indicates these two suspects should be treated as anything less than adults.”

Yet another colleague, Bonnie Erbé, acknowledges that the situation is “rotten,” but she cautions against overreaction. “My difficulty with prosecuting the 18-year-old lies not in that it is too harsh, but that perhaps a prosecution for invasion of privacy is not harsh enough. A prosecution for manslaughter seems in some ways too severe.”

All valid points and good questions. But allow me to muddy the waters a bit by taking the macro view. Immaturity is natural. Outrage is natural. A thirst for vengeance is natural. But so is Thanatos, or death wish. Just as we all have an instinct for self-preservation, we also have an instinct for destruction.

The desire for an end to “bullying,” injustice and intolerance is understandable. But what is the best way to approach the problem? Witness children who prefer abusive attention to being ignored. People don’t have to bully you to make you wish you were dead.

A marriage is better off negotiated from the negative. Ask not: How can we be a more perfect couple? Instead ask: Given that humans are selfish, venal, petty and even violent creatures, how can I strive to rise above those faults and be a better partner? And how do I forgive and forget my partner’s failures without violating my own rights?

To my mind, negotiating a civil society is similar.

Other choices Clementi could have made: Embracing his loss of privacy and working for or founding an organization for gay teens, or on ethics and privacy in the Internet age. He could have sued Ravi and Wei, and made their names as famous as his own, and a symbol of consequences for vicious behavior. I suspect there would have been no shortage of pro-bono lawyers eager to take the case.

We don’t think clearly when we’re in great pain. That too is natural. But if Clementi had resisted the urge to end it all, today we’d be having a conversation about ethics and privacy, not about death.

I have real problems with human nature. Hell, I have problems with nature, period. I find it exceedingly difficult to watch nature videos. I want to see the magnificent big cats. I don’t want to watch them bring down a zebra.

Likewise, I don’t want to watch water buffaloes deliberately stomp lion cubs to death. As one anguished filmmaker put it: You can’t take sides. You’ve got to consider the times lions have killed baby buffaloes. You’ve got to factor in issues of territory. Animals are programmed for this.

I beg to differ. I do take sides. As a believer in rational thought and science, I am a walking contradiction. I can not erase the animal deaths — on film and in person — I wish I’d never seen and heard.

And if you ratchet it up from animals to humans, there’s no end to the cruelty. If not much is happening today, just go back a few days. Or read a history book. Pick any century. Pick any decade. It’s difficult to come away from that experiment with much respect for human nature.

I admit to being a glass-half-empty kind of gal, but — contrarian that I am — I’m also optimistic.

Religion provides adherents with the constructs of original sin and salvation, but I think you can find echoes in the secular world. Even in the natural world, there exist inexplicable acts of kindness. One of the more popular videos on the Internet is that of a wild crow that adopted a stray kitten.

I volunteer for a no-kill animal shelter. I realize I barely make a dent in the mass slaughter happening at any given time on planet Earth. But my small effort helps me live with tragic images that I will no doubt carry to my grave.

Make no mistake: Children can be cruel, but so can adults. Maybe it’s not so much immaturity as human nature that’s to blame. Unless suspects Ravi and Wei are sociopathic monsters — which I doubt — they will spend the rest of their lives regretting what they allegedly did.

Parents would do well to ensure their kids suffer real consequences for anti-social behavior early in life. If parents don’t do it, society will. Someday.

As for intolerance, that too is human nature. Evolution trained us to look askance at those who are different from ourselves. The stranger approaching might be an enemy, so you’d better scrutinize carefully. And maybe destroy.

Religion says to love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek. Which is, of course, against nature. But I’m making my stand, National Geographic: Nature is overrated.

For atheists and agnostics, there’s always the Golden Rule, which can, due to the law of reciprocity, reap benefits even in a cold “Atlas Shrugged” kind of world.

Utopia is for dreamers. So be one.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2011]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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