Thursday, April 05, 2012

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Clementi Suicide Case

"Clementi has been outed as being gay on the Internet and he killed himself. Something must be done.”
-Ellen Degeneres

Tyler Clementi
A few months ago, a college student committed suicide. He was homosexual, and the story went that he was filmed having sex with a guy by his room mate, who then had viewing parties and by this outed the homosexual. This drove the student to despair and he killed himself. The student was hauled before court and convicted of "bias intimidation," hate crimes, invasion of privacy, and witness tampering. Sentencing is scheduled for later in May but could include deportation to India or ten years in prison.

People hailed this as a bold warning to "cyber intimidation" and hate criminals, and advocates cheered the decision as a protection of homosexuals everywhere. The news moved on to other cases such as Trayvon Martin, and forgot the event.

Now many are wondering how on earth the state could have even tried to convict someone on hate crimes, let alone get the conviction. Why?

Because nearly everything you know about this case is wrong and based on rumors and allegations.

First off, the homosexual room mate's sexual proclivities were no secret to anyone, least of all his roommate. Tyler Clementi would bring men to his room often, even older men from the New Brunswick community surrounding Rutgers. His roommate Dharun Ravi made it clear he had no problem with homosexuals.

The video he took was not to film Clementi and out him - that wasn't possible. According to Ravi, he was nervous about an older guy who seemed disreputable. Clementi had met this guy online and Ravi didn't care for the man. He was at a girl's room across the hall when he turned on the computer to check the webcam because he was nervous about what the guy was like in his dorm room. He and his friend saw the two making out, shut it off, and did not record anything.

This is an important piece of information. He tweeted this simple statement: “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” That was it. There wasn't any video made, he didn't film sex, he didn't record anything.

Lets roll the clock back a bit. When he first learned of his room mate, Dharun Ravi looked him up online, seeking various comments and things that he'd been to based on his email address. Ravi is a bit of a computer expert and had no problem finding this stuff out.

What he found was that this guy is a bit awkward and had miserable self esteem (posting things like "if opposites attract, why doesn't anyone like me?" and was poor. Dharun was unhappy with the turn of events, noting "I’m literally the opposite of" Clementi due to his technical illiteracy and personality, which dismayed Dharun Ravi. Like guys his age, he mocked Clementi's lack of computer skills and wasn't overjoyed to learn his room mate was gay. But he knew right away about his room mate, and Clementi made no secret of it.

Ravi made it clear to his friends: “I still don’t really care, except what my parents are going to say. My dad is going to throw him out the window.” Like most guys his age, he'd been raised by school to disagree with his parents and tradition and say he was fine with homosexuality. Yet when faced with the prospect of rooming with a homosexual he was uncomfortable and nervous - understandably.

You have to realize that a room mate in college is like a marriage: you cannot escape them and have to make the best of it no matter what they're like. Its tough in any case, without being thrown in with someone you have virtually nothing in common with (this happened to me in college, but I made out okay). Ravi wasn't acting any wierder than any of his other classmates, facing an uncomfortable and difficult situation the first time. If anything, Ravi was more unhappy at the relative poverty of Clementi than his sexual proclivities.

Clementi was awkward, shy, self-loathing, and unhappy. Even in the best of times, that makes for a very uncomfortable room mate. Ravi and he had nothing in common except attending college and it was a tough situation, but they tried to make the best of it. Ian Parker describes the events of the night in question on the New Yorker's website:
On September 19th, a Sunday, Clementi was expecting M.B. to visit again. As before, he asked Ravi for the room with a text message. That evening, Ravi played Ultimate Frisbee (a sport that, in one online discussion of the Clementi case, was predictably described as “gayer than having sex with a dude”). He returned to Davidson Hall at about nine. Ravi told the police he thought that Clementi “was just having a friend over to hang out.” Ravi started collecting things for a shower, down the hall, and Clementi asked, “Do you need anything else?” According to the statement made to the police by Wei, who spoke to Ravi a moment later, Ravi only then realized that he was being asked not to return; he recalled saying to Clementi, “Oh, you want me to leave?”

Ravi returned to Wei’s room. She recalled him saying, “It’s a really old-looking guy, like, What the heck, what’s going on?” Ravi thought that M.B. seemed “really shady.” She went on, “He actually was kind of angry. He’s, like, ‘If he steals my iPad I’m going to make Tyler pay for it.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, and my roommate’s gay, like what if something else is going on?’ ”

If Ravi was as disoriented as Wei claims, one can perhaps see why: Clementi was hesitant to talk about curtains, but in a busy dorm, after less than a month of cohabitation, he had kicked out his roommate so that he could have a sexual encounter with an older man who made no pretense of being his boyfriend.
Ravi had worked out a system by which he was able to access his webcam remotely (pretty simple to do) and did so. Wei, the girl across the hall, explains what happened next:
According to Wei, she and Ravi “saw Tyler and his friend, or whoever that was—their upper body.” She remembered that the two men were fully dressed, standing against the door. (Ravi later said that they had their shirts off.) “I couldn’t see any faces, and they were just what seemed to be kissing, and then, after literally two seconds, we just turned it off. And we were kind of both kind of in shock, because for me, anyway, I’ve never seen anything like that.” Ravi told police, “I just felt, like, really, like, really uncomfortable and, like, almost guilty that I saw it.” Wei recalled, “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.’”
He tweeted what I said above, and that's it. No invitations were sent out. Nothing was recorded. No movies were made. No "viewing parties" took place. Later, Wei turned on the camera again because one of her friends was really insistent. Ravi was not present. She turned it on a moment, saw the men with shirts off kissing, and shut it off again, as all the girls shrieked "ewww."

Clementi saw the tweet the next day and connected it to the webcam, but told a friend “But its not like he left the cam on or recorded or anything / he just like took a five sec peep lol.”

Parker records the conversations between Clementi and his friend - the friend being upset and Clementi being dismissive, although noting he didn't like his roommate. Clementi was urged by several others to report his room mate, but wasn't very inclined to do so, because he felt it would make the rest of the year very awkward (indeed it would) and he didn't seem terribly unhappy about it. The pressure kept up.

The next day, Clementi wanted the room alone again, for a liason with a guy. Now Dharun Ravi invited people to ichat because "its happening again." However, nothing took place because Clementi unplugged Ravi's computer (not really knowing how to work the webcam, apparently). Ravi joked about a "viewing party" but instead went to play frisbee. Clementi talked to the Resident Assistant Raahi Grover who confronted Ravi the next day. Clementi had a normal day acting in no way different than normal, according to witnesses and people he interacted with.

Clementi came back to his room, wrote a note, then left. He took a bus downtown and jumped off the George Washington Bridge after leaving a short tweet.

Those are the actual facts of what happened, according to trial records, police reports, and interviews with the people involved. When you see this and know what took place... the story changes considerably.

So why did it turn into such a circus? Why the national news, the hate crimes trial, the outcry by advocates and media types? Why did it go so far?

Well first off, this was a "gay guy gets hurt" story, which the media loves. It fits their "America is homophobic" narrative and is about a protected identity group the left delights in. They ran with the story, telling whatever they could get from people, not checking very carefully and presuming that the thin, geeky Indian Ravi was a horrible person while Clementi was a saint.

The "outed by a hateful room mate" story was too rich to avoid, even though it was a lie. The "viewing parties" story was too juicy to not report, even though it was rumor. So they went with the story no matter what the truth was. Add to that the "internet bullying" narrative which the media loves and was really wrapped up in at the time due to a few other somewhat similar stories, and everything built up to a craze.

And like always in this kind of situation, it became a crazed piranha-like feeding frenzy, with each media outlet trying to be the first with new details and fixating on the story. Getting customers, breaking something new, and being the reporter who was praised by their peers for their reports took front and center interest over getting the story right and reporting the facts.

Also, fed confused rumors and falsehoods by the press, homosexual advocates went crazy with the story. Every one that could get to a camera and a mic did so, and many were interviewed. They screamed injustice, they cried hate crime, they moaned about bullying. And when this started up, the media went even more crazy. The truth suddenly was irrelevant, the narrative was all that mattered.

As to how the trial took place, well it was pretty ugly, but sadly not unusual. The crusading DA wanted to nail cybercrime, likely whipped into a frenzy by media reports and the water cooler chat with his colleagues and friends. It was trendy and a way to get more attention. As often happens, the DA piled on every possibly related charge conceivable to get the worst possible case and most likely conviction. Then he talked to Ravi and offered him a deal: plea guilty to doing what you didn't do and we'll cut it down to five years.

Ravi was disinclined to play along, as he knew he wasn't guilty of hate crimes, intimidation, or anything the DA charged him with (except, perhaps, the privacy invasion, which would have been a warning in any other circumstance). He thought the charges were absurd and no jury would convict him once they knew the facts. He was wrong.

The DA wanted to punish this kid for not taking the deal - something that happens all too often, again. Its expensive and difficult to try someone, and if they get off it makes the DA look bad. Making someone in power look bad is one of the worst crimes you can commit, at least according to those in power. Crushing people who dare to turn down a deal makes it more likely a deal will be accepted next time, giving the DA another win and more stats to trumpet when campaigning later.

And the jury, hopped up on stories of cyber intimidation, told that he had frightened and driven his room mate to kill himself, and was guilty of Being Mean to a Protected Group, deliberated for more than a day, then found him guilty on several charges, although they dismissed the hate crimes.

The worst thing Ravi was guilty of was felony idiocy and immaturity. He was rude, stupid, prying, and annoying, but not criminal. Clementi's suicide is uncomfortably timed, but nothing about his actions or words at the time remotely suggested Ravi's actions influenced or pushed him to kill himself.

And guess what: the only person guilty in suicide is the person who kills his or her own self. You can be guilty of being a jerk, you can be guilty of breaking their heart or frightening them, but you cannot be guilty of making someone else kill themselves if that's what they do. Suicide is a personal, real choice. Either you kill them (as Kevorkian did with some patients) or they kill themselves. There's no "assist" involved here. Suicide is weak, selfish, and cowardly, but its always personal.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Clementi was tortured inside by the conflict between begin raised a Christian and being gay. I think he was bothered deeply by what he was doing by picking up guys from online sites and having sex with them. I think he felt deep guilt and humiliation at the idea of being seen doing this, but kept things wrapped up very tight inside him. I think he felt so awful about himself and his actions he just couldn't stand to go on with his life. But Ravi didn't kill him. Clementi killed himself.

Ravi was acting like a stupid kid who did dumb stuff, but he did not kill Clementi. And ten years or deportation for being a dumb kid is insane.

This is part of the Common Knowledge series.

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