The relatively brief jail sentence imposed on a Rutgers University student who tormented his gay roommate has caused debate, even within the gay community: Was 30 days too few for Dharun Ravi, who secretly filmed his roommate, Tyler Clementi, in a sexual encounter with another man, then encouraged others to watch the video? Or was Ravi just a basic, immature college kid whose stupid prank should not be blamed for the distress of Clementi, who committed suicide after the episode?
Both questions can arguably be answered in the affirmative. Suicides do not occur when otherwise perfectly mentally healthy people pushed to tragic self-destruction over the idiotic and highly offensive behavior of one other person. Depression is more complicated than that, and the horrifying decision to take one's own life cannot be traced to one incident, as much as that might make suicide easier for us to comprehend. And yet when one thinks of the behavior and later demeanor of Ravi—whom the sentencing judge noted did not apologize once, even while jury members uttered the word "guilty" 288 times—it's hard not to be so enraged, so eager to make an example, that you want the twit locked up for a decade. Both reactions are driven by understandable emotion, and neither is rational.
But the Ravi-Clementi case raises deeper issues, and ones that coincidentally are part of the current national debate: equal rights for gays, and the right to privacy.
President Obama's declaration in support of gay marriage, while controversial, has had startlingly little impact on his re-election prospects. Sure, some people believe he has sanctioned a moral abomination, but those people weren't voting for Obama anyway. Even former Gov. Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage, said he's OK with gays adopting children. It's been a slow move towards tolerance, but the country has been moving toward accepting the reality that some people are simply born gay. The attitude is even more prevalent among young people, making it even more jarring that a college student—even one from another culture—would behave in such a hateful manner.
And yet, judge Glenn Berman was careful to state, this wasn't a hate crime. It was a bias crime. There was no evidence that Ravi hated Clementi, though that's hardly consolation for the dead young man's family.
College students are often foolishly less focused on their right to privacy, which may or may not explain why Ravi thought it was OK to film anyone—gay or straight—in an intimate or romantic encounter. Many young people vastly overshare in college newspaper sex columns, or on their Facebook pages. Perhaps they believe this is the new information era, and that personal details and images are impossible to keep quiet. They may very much regret, later on, having not only accepted but accommodated that standard. Was it Sex and the City that made college journalists think it was a good idea to detail their sexual escapades in school newspapers? Maybe, but one wonders if the authors are thinking about how that will look when they go applying for jobs in the real world. But some digital disclosures are not voluntary, which is why Congress is discussing Internet privacy standards.
Bullying, too, has taken on a whole new level of cruelty and cowardice with the advent of the Internet age, with high school students taunting classmates online. That behavior starts long before college, and needs to be thwarted long before then.
None of this fully explains why Ravi would do something so utterly cruel and insensitive. The invasion of privacy is equally offensive, whether it's a heterosexual couple or a gay couple being filmed having some alone time. But the fact that Ravi seemed to want to embarrass his roommate not for having sex, but for being intimate with another man. That adds a component of bias—and even, perhaps, hate, despite what the judge said. But if it's unfair for Ravi to judge Clementi more harshly for gay sex, is it fair to judge Ravi more harshly for filming a gay encounter, as opposed to a male-female one?
Ravi should be punished with some time behind bars, if for no other reason than to force him to think about how badly he behaved and what drove him to it. Meanwhile, parents and school administrators need to take a no-tolerance view of bullying. They could also impress upon young people the importance of privacy—their own, along with everyone else's.