October 13, 2010
The Tyler Clementi case has been illuminating in several respects. Clementi was a Rutgers University freshman, sharing a dorm room with another 18-year-old, Dharun Ravi. Clementi asked for sole use of the room until midnight on September 19. Ravi obliged and went to his female friend Molly Wei’s room, but not before activating his webcam. With Ravi gone, Clementi brought a man to his room and had some kind of sexual encounter with him. Ravi filmed it via the webcam and shared the film with friends on iChat. Three days later, Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
It’s a sad enough story, though key details are extraordinarily hard to find. For example: Who knew Clementi was homosexual? His parents say they had no idea. Ravi says he did know. Since the parents had been closely acquainted with their son for 18 years, while Ravi had known him only for the four or five weeks they had been rooming together, this seems odd. Did the college know? Is it usual, when assigning rooms to students, to pair a homosexual with a heterosexual? To just ask?
Again, we are not told”not in any of the Internet news stories I have just spent a half-hour trawling through”whether Clementi’s sex partner was a longtime boyfriend or some random pickup, an older man or a coeval, rough trade or the Professor of Assyriology. Nor are we told who was doing what to whom”not an irrelevant matter, given the very different attitudes Western society (and, I believe, every society known to anthropology) has customarily taken toward the dominant and submissive roles in homosexual congress.
I can’t even recall any precise linking of Clementi’s suicide to the broadcasting of his tryst. Are we quite sure this isn’t just an instance of the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc? Clementi seems to have been chronically unhappy for some time. The New York Post reported:
Robert Righthand, who had been friends with Clementi since grade school, said his pal had been holding that in. “I can tell you that whatever state he was in, he had it in reserve for a very long time,” Righthand said while choking back tears. “You never thought he was depressed. You just thought he was quiet. He wasn’t the person to open up to a lot of people.”
Reading the news stories, I get the impression that Clementi was a sad and nervous person living near the edge who was driven to desperation by a fairly trivial incident. The result was a tragedy for Clementi, his family, and his friends, but it was not an extraordinary tragedy. Most people who kill themselves have been on the edge for a while; most are pushed over that edge by some tiny failure, loss, or humiliation.
If I am right about this having been a wretchedly commonplace event, you would never know it from the follow-up commentary. By the time poor Tyler Clementi’s corpse had been fished from the Hudson, whole swaths of the commentariat were lost in shrieking hysteria. “Homophobia: The Plague That Is Killing Our Youth,” keened The Huffington Post at the head of an overwrought article lamenting Clementi and four other teens nationwide who had committed suicide in September “after enduring severe harassment and bullying for being gay or perceived to be gay.”