Thursday, October 7, 2010

On the Death of Tyler Clementi

Like many of you, I’m sure, I find myself horrified yet also drawn to pondering the sad story of Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death last week after his roommate used a surreptitiously placed camera to stream an intimate encounter he, Tyler, was having with another man in his dorm room on the internet for anyone at all to see. The whole story would be horrible enough, but making it even more peculiar is the oddly 21st century touch of the whole incident playing itself out on Twitter and Facebook. The sordid story begins with the roommate, now charged with invasion of privacy (along with another student who was apparently party to the scheme), posting a message on Twitter that says “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into M’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” And it ends just three days later with Tyler himself laconically announcing his imminent death on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” In between, the world—or at least Tyler’s roommate’s world—had been invited to gawk at what ought to have been some of a young man’s most private moments.

It’s hard to know what to say. It’s a serious crime, one which under most circumstances carries a maximum prison term of five years but which will carry a maximum penalty of ten years in prison if the court agrees that the crime was prompted not merely by prurient tastelessness or by intense personal dislike but by bias against a recognizable group. The lawyer defending the young man accused of the crime will undoubtedly argue in court that no one, and least of all college students of his client’s generation, thinks of being gay as something so inherently shameful that someone whose homosexuality was suddenly revealed could reasonably be expected to respond by killing himself. Therefore, he will insist, the defendant could not possibly have foreseen the consequences of his act or understood that he was sentencing his roommate to death by revealing him to the world as a gay person. If he should be punished at all, his lawyer will continue, he should receive the same minimal punishment usually meted out to college students who take their undergraduate high jinks just a bit too far, who allow a prank to cross the barely visible line that adults with far more savvy than college freshmen step over all the time with impunity. He will point to celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Nathan Lane and Neil Patrick Harris and to a million other famous people who are openly gay and argue that no rational person could have expected that anyone would respond so violently or so permanently to being put publicly in their company. The whole thing, he will surely argue, was just a tasteless practical joke of the excessive kind that college students undertake all the time. How, the lawyer will ask rhetorically as he turns to face the jury, could anyone who has ever watched Jackass on television think otherwise?

By all accounts, Tyler was a shy young man. When the fifty people who lived in his dorm with him were asked after his death to raise their hands to indicate that they knew him personally only three hands went up. But shy or not, he was apparently a very talented musician, a violinist with real promise. A few hours before his death, in fact, he was practicing the violin parts to the Beethoven and Berlioz pieces he was scheduled to perform later this month with the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra. There’s no point now in guessing what the outcome will eventually be. Either the roommate and his friend will be convicted or not. The crime itself either will or will not be qualified as a hate crime. If convicted, Tyler’s roommate and his friend will either go to jail or they won’t. But no matter how the matter plays itself out in court, Tyler Clementi will still be dead and that has to be the detail that matters. Eventually, the story will vanish from the newspapers. Someone will move up to his chair in the violin section. Someone else will live in Tyler’s dorm room (although surely not with Tyler’s roommate). And other than for Tyler’s parents and family, people for whom the world will never again be the same, the world will keep on spinning.

Partially, the incident is just another example of the kind of cyber-bullying that has lately begun to plague our nation. (I was only vaguely aware of the phenomenon until just recently, but now I’ve learned—as I suppose we all have—just how serious a threat, and especially to young people, this kind of computer-based intimidation can be.) And partially the story is about a world in which it is still possible for a gay young man to be so uncertain about his right to live in peace in his own skin that suicide seems like a rational response to being outed. (A survey of over seven thousand middle school and high school students published last year yielded the remarkable information that two-thirds of gay teenagers feel unsafe in their own schools and that nine out of ten had personally been harassed because of their sexual orientation.) But the story is also about the right to privacy and the degree to which modern society has slowly downgraded the concept from a basic human right to a kind of character flaw.

We live in a world in which people consider it totally normal to broadcast even the most intimate details of their daily routines to any who agree to sign on to their Twitter accounts. (A friend in California mentioned to me the other day that one of the people whose tweets he receives daily reported on an especially satisfying bowel movement he had had earlier that morning.) People who want their “friends” to continue to visit their Facebook pages feel obliged to keep those pages alive with details about daily life that once would have been considered , to say the very least, tasteless to discuss in public. Supermarket tabloids seem to be in decline (the National Enquirer, which once had a subscription base of over six million readers now hovers at around one million), but that is not really because Americans have lost their interest in other people’s business. Indeed, it seems to me that the more interesting shift is from that interest being focused primarily on celebrities to it being satisfied by the ability to peer easily into the live of almost anyone one has ever met once admitted to the ranks of their “friends” or being signed onto their Twitter accounts.

In a way, we are dealing with the second-generation consequences of the double standard that allowed people to feel fiercely protective of their own right to privacy but also willing to read even the most lurid details about movie stars, politicians, and sports heroes without feeling that they have invaded that individual’s parallel right to confidentiality. Indeed, for all the Privacy Act of 1974 governs the use of information about individuals by government agencies, the right to privacy is not guaranteed per se to individuals by the Constitution. And that, combined with the constitutional guarantee of free speech, including free speech unfettered by considerations of good taste or gentility, created a world in which people really did find it reasonable salaciously to pry into the lives of famous people but unreasonable for the details of their own personal lives not to be considered sacrosanct. The whole world of gossip and gossip-based journalism has never drawn me particularly. But our culture always maintained, at least on the level of the individual, a certain basic sense that there are areas of personal life that should be off-limits to all by the most intimately interested parties. And it is that specific feeling, once shared by almost everybody, that has been replaced by the bogus notion that there is something morally wrong, even hypocritical, about wishing to keep some parts of one’s life private merely because that is how one wishes for things to be.

Tyler Clementi’s roommate, assuming he is guilty of the charges levied against him, behaved reprehensibly. But he is also a child of an age that considers the rare individuals who wish to keep their private lives private—and not because they feel ashamed of their behavior or because of some dire consequence that might possibly ensue if some detail of their private lives were to become known, but merely because they wish it to be so—to be, to say the very least, dinosaurs left over from the pre-digital age who somehow failed to become extinct with the rest of their species. For people such as himself, the notion that one might wish to keep one’s private life private seemed like a joke, like just the kind of peculiarity that practical jokes were practically invented to unmask. But it is just that assumption—that it is reasonable to humiliate individuals who wish their private lives to remain private because they themselves have opened the door to that kind of abuse by not being fully open to everybody they have ever met about every conceivable aspect of their inner and outer lives—that is the attitude that somehow underlies the horrific story of Tyler Clementi’s suicide.

When Balaam stood on a mountain peak with King Balak of Moab and together they looked down on the tents of the Israelites camped below, the former was moved to comment on the goodliness of the Israelites’ camp not by the design of their tents, but by the simple fact that they were set up in such a way that precluded any Israelite from glancing even unintentionally into the living quarters of any other. This attitude, that there is great good that inheres in the voluntarily willingness of the members of a society to grant privacy to others even in the absence of any formal legal obligation to do so, is what is lacking in Western society today in general and in American society in particular. The justice system will deal with Tyler Clementi’s roommate. Nonetheless it would be behoove us all to respond to the story of his untimely and unwarranted death by asking ourselves if we have succumbed to the sense that the wish for privacy is a quirk of some (stodgy) people’s (demoded) personalities rather than a basic human right to which every individual is naturally entitled….and which society should fiercely labor to protect.

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