Tyler Clementi’s suicide, days after his roommate secretly shot and shared video of him in a sexual encounter with a man, hit the media a little over twenty-four hours ago. And now the inevitable creepy backlash has begun, on the blogs and the comment threads and some of the dustier corners of the mainstream media.
Folks are suggesting that Dharun Ravi’s prank wasn’t such a big deal. They’re saying that things got out of hand through no fault of his own. They’re saying he doesn’t deserve the blame for Clementi’s decision to kill himself.
To these people I offer the following five gentle suggestions:
It’s not all fun and games.
There’s a simple test for whether something is a harmless joke: is everyone participating voluntarily? If you’re messing around with friends, by all means, go ahead and be a bozo. But if you’re pranking someone who didn’t sign up for your crap you’re probably being a jackass, and you should probably keep reading.
You don’t have to intend harm to do harm.
Some of Ravi’s friends at Rutgers have said he’s not anti-gay, and that he likely would have pulled the same prank if Clementi had been straight. But teasing isn’t conducted on a level playing field. Bragging on Twitter that you caught your roommate “making out with a dude,” as Ravi did, isn’t the same as bragging that you caught him with a woman. It’s not the same, and everyone knows it’s not the same, so acting like it’s the same just makes you a jackass.
There’s a lot you don’t know.
There are indications that Clementi may have been openly gay in the dorm. If so, Ravi may not have seen his Twitter post as outing Clementi at all. But “out” isn’t binary. A person may be out to some people, but not to everyone. And a person may seem to be taking your teasing in stride but actually deeply upset by it. You can’t ever know for sure how much harm you’re doing, so it’s best to err on the side of trying to do no harm at all.
The internet is forever.
We most often hear this lesson directed at potential victims of privacy violations. “Don’t send your boyfriend a naked photo, or post on Facebook about how drunk you got, because you never know where that stuff might wind up,” that sort of thing. But it turns out it’s an important lesson for perpetrators to learn, too. Ravi may have thought that he could stream the video of Clementi without doing any long-term damage, but he couldn’t know what someone else might do with the images he broadcast. And he probably thought his bragging tweets wouldn’t be seen by anyone but his friends, but he was wrong about that too. Really wrong.
Acting like a jackass can ruin your life.
Even if we adopt the most charitable interpretation of each of Ravi’s actions — even if we give him the benefit of the doubt on every question, even if we put no blame on him at all for what happened to Tyler Clementi — we’re left with one unavoidable fact: Acting like a jackass completely messed up his life.
He’is facing serious criminal charges, and the threat of more than a decade in jail. He may well be sued for damages by Clementi’s family. He’s got pretty much zero chance of ever returning to Rutgers as a student. And for the rest of his life, this story will follow him around wherever he goes, whatever he does. All because he acted like a jackass for three days in the first month of his first year at college.
Seriously. Don’t be a jackass. Just don’t.