The New Yorker has published a major new article by Ian Parker on the September 2010 death of Rutgers first-year Tyler Clementi. Clementi, targeted by his roommate in a campaign of webcam spying and harassment, killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, will face trial next month on a long list of charges arising from the incident.
The article provides the fullest and clearest account to date of the circumstances that led to Clementi’s suicide, and it’s well worth reading. But it bungles some important elements of the story, and bungles them in ways that serve to obscure important questions.
Here’s a crucial passage debunking the received wisdom about the incident:
“It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”
Well, sort of.
I wrote about the Clementi suicide on the day it broke, and on a number of occasions afterward, and I don’t particularly recognize this “widely understood” narrative. In fact, each of the three supposed debunkings muddies the waters on complex issues.
First there is the question of whether Clementi was “closeted.” Clearly he was openly gay in some circles. But as Parker himself reports, he had come out to his parents less than a month before he died, just three days before he started school at Rutgers. He had not been out in high school, and Ravi only learned he was gay by uncovering anonymous message board posts associated with Clementi’s email address. “Out” is not a binary concept, and it’s not at all unreasonable to describe Davi’s actions — telling his friends Clementi was gay and posting the news on a public Twitter account — as “outing.”
Second, there’s the question of whether Ravi saw Clementi having sex while he was spying via webcam. Ravi says he didn’t, and there’s no evidence to refute his claim. At the time Ravi boasted on Twitter of having seen Clementi “making out,” and from Parker’s account that does seem like the most accurate description. But to say there was “no observed sex” remains problematic. Setting aside the possibility that Ravi saw more than he claims, the fact is he attempted to spy on Clementi having sex and tweeted that he had caught him in the act.
Immediately after the first incident, Ravi’s friend Molly Wei, who had spied on Clementi with him, IM’ed a friend “OH MY FKING GOD … he’s kissing a guy right now … like THEY WERE GROPING EACH OTHER EWW.” Given that context, the question of how much skin the two saw, and in what exact configuration, seems somewhat beside the point.
Finally, there is the issue of whether the video was “posted online.” Here Parker is on stronger ground, as initial reporting did suggest that the webcam footage was broadcast, when in fact it was not. On the one occasion in which Ravi was successful in spying on Clementi, the stream only went as far as Wei’s dorm room, and was neither distributed nor archived.
But — again, as Parker himself reports — when Clementi asked for the dorm room again days later, Ravi announced on Twitter that he would share the stream with “anyone with iChat” who was reading his feed. Ravi described the event as “a viewing party,” and solicited friends to watch both in person and online. It’s only because Clementi was surreptitiously monitoring Ravi’s Twitter account that he knew to turn off Ravi’s computer before anything could be broadcast that night.
So no, Ravi didn’t share the stream. But he did try to, and he tried to share it widely.
Parker isn’t wrong about any of these things, not exactly. But in each case his rush to correct the record winds up understating Ravi’s bad acts. Even if Clementi wasn’t “closeted,” Ravi still outed him inappropriately, multiple times. Even if Ravi didn’t spy on Clementi having sex, he still violated his privacy by snooping on intimate sexual acts. And if he didn’t broadcast those acts to a wide audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
And Parker’s habit of obscuring through nitpicking extends to the more basic issue of what the hell Ravi was up to in the first place. Parker returns again and again to the question of whether Ravi’s act rises to the level of the bias crime of anti-gay intimidation with which he has been charged, at one point suggesting that the charge represents an “attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.”
But this is a false dichotomy, and a bizarre one. There is no question as to whether Ravi was anti-gay — he expressed his revulsion at Clementi’s orientation repeatedly and gleefully. That this wasn’t the vicious bigotry of the “hate-monger” is hardly a defense of his actions.
What’s obvious from Parker’s reporting, but which seems to have escaped Parker himself, is the particular kind of asshole Ravi is. No, he’s not a hate-fueled homophobe. He’s not a basher or a zealot. He’s just a garden-variety douchebag. He’s the kind of guy who, on learning that his assigned college roommate is gay, posts about it on Twitter along with a link to that roommate’s postings on a gay message board. He’s the kind of guy who tries to trick his friends into installing monitoring software so he can turn their bedroom computers into spycams. He’s the kind of guy who texts his friends to say that he hates poor people and that January is “a gay month.”
Parker thinks his portrayal of Ravi raises hard questions about the government’s prosecution, but I have to admit that I fail to see what those questions are. The qualified defenses he offers for Ravi’s character are ones I addressed in a blogpost the day after this story first broke in 2010, and the lessons I gleaned then are the ones I glean now:
Dharun Ravi acted like a jackass in the first month of his first year of college. He behaved with casual cruelty and lack of concern for Clementi’s well-being. He gave no thought to the consequences of his actions for himself or others. And now Clementi is dead and Ravi’s life is ruined, and there’s no question at all that Ravi set those two calamities in motion.
Dharun Ravi acted like a jackass in the first month of his first year in college, and it ruined his life.