Can we grapple with the complexity of the truth instead of being seduced by the more palatable tale of good and evil?
Please note that you do have to have read the New Yorker piece in question before you continue reading this particular blog.
In the wake of Tyler Clementi's September 2010 suicide, the gay community set about demonizing Dharun Ravi as a cold-blooded killer who committed a "hate crime" against a gay student. Clementi's death spurred a series of public statements about suicides amongst LGBTQ youth.
Regrettably, it also became the occasion for the gay community to embark upon its typical bloodthirsty quest for vengeance. To compound matters, Clementi's death became the excuse for a great deal of racist bile, with various demands that Ravi and Molly Wie, the woman considered his co-conspirator, both with recognizably Asian names, be sent back to their countries."
Lost in the quest to declare this a classic case of "bullying" was a more complex and nuanced understanding of how such a thing had come to be, and lost also were the complicated intersections of class and ethnicity that surrounded the case. But, finally, Ian Parker, writing for The New Yorker has produced one of the most intelligent and incisive pieces on the case.
Like some of the best writing out there, and in defiance of the conventional gay media's rush to see every story only through its narrow lens of victims versus oppressors, this article takes its time in assembling the facts. Its conclusions are borne out by attention to detail rather than the need to rehash a media sensation—which is what the case devolved into almost from the beginning. Parker writes about a CNN special on the story, hosted by Anderson Cooper, and the "discussion" engaged in by the likes of Dr. Phil McGraw and Kelly Ripa: "...in what may have been quiet recognition that the source of Clementi’s despair was unknown, and may remain unknown, the show barely mentioned Clementi again. Its primary subject was the meanness of middle-school students. Clementi was a totem, but not part of the story."
The most sobering reminder to emerge from Parker's carefully researched piece is that much of what we think we know about the Clementi case is in fact a fabrication, a narrative we made up to comfort ourselves with what Parker describes as the "popular parable of teen-age good and evil": "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."
Despite such plain facts, Ravi faces charges that could increase his sentencing: "...shortly before Molly Wei made a deal with prosecutors, Ravi was indicted on charges of invasion of privacy (sex crimes), bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering. Bias intimidation is a sentence-booster that attaches itself to an underlying crime—usually, a violent one."
I've written about hate crimes legislation (HCL) several times, and it is now more frequently recognised by many on the left as contributing nothing to a decrease in crime. HCL can seem to be the only solution when racial and ethnic minorities and the transgender community confront cases of harassment and/or murder but, in reducing deaths to the result of "hatred," we tend to forget that vulnerable communities are not vulnerable solely on account of their perceived identity but because of a host of intersecting factors, including economic vulnerability. In Chicago, a sex worker on the street is has to worry more about harassment and violence from cops than from clients, and they are likely to be targeted precisely because they are seen as undeserving of protection. In other words, they are seen as people whose lives simply don't matter. No amount of sentence-enhancement is going to help with the multiple vulnerabilities faced by so many. All it does is funnel more people into the prison industrial complex.
HCL is not Parker's focus, but it's good to see at least a plain presentation of the fact that the call for sentence-enhancement in this case contravenes even the most basic definition of such or, at the very least, expands the definition to mean anything at all. Ironically, it's the gay community that frequently bullies—yes, bullies—the forces of law and order into sentence enhancement in a mean-spirited and hugely public drive that amounts to little more than, "Do this, or we'll demonise you as homophobic."
There's a lot more in Parker's piece, like the attention to class, a factor which often goes unnoticed in "hate crimes" coverage. Here, matters are complicated, with Ravi apparently having expressed some disdain for what he perceived as Clementi's status as a "poor" person. At the same time, Clementi made comments about Ravi's family possibly owning a Dunkin' Donuts and seeming "sooo Indian first gen americanish." What interests me even more than this social snobbery—which is quintessentially American, despite our long insistence that we are a "classless" society—is the "shocked" response from a relative of the Clementis when told that Ravi had described his nephew as poor. To be described as "poor" in the U.S is considered an insult. Clementi's family is perhaps more of what would be conventionally described as "middle-class" (a fictitious category which allows us the solace of believing that we are never poor but, instead, always on the ascent on the ladder of social mobility), and anything less than that, the mere implication that he might have been poor, is seen as deeply wounding. In the end, there's no indication that Ravi's apparent disdain for the poor was more than fleeting or even particularly insidious and, for that matter, there's little evidence that he was quite the raging homophobe the gay community wants to see him as.
As it turns out, Clementi was not a sad and pathetic martyr but perhaps someone who may have had just as delicate and hard a time being an adult on his own for the first time as he did with being gay (and even with regard to his gayness, there's evidence that he was hardly as deep in the closet as the stories about him being outed have claimed). Ravi does not emerge as the ogre the gay press has presented, but as someone who was alternately as clueless and insensitive as he was thoughtful and considerate. If you've ever been around humans, especially the relatively young ones, and especially the ones who are just barely out of high school, you have to know that none of this is uncharacteristic of our species. Yet, in the story that the gay community has drawn out, both are dehumanised and caricatured. In this version, Clementi is a sad and hopeless victim, forever fixed as a "youth," drawn inexorably towards his fate, and Ravi is the evil homophobe, planning and plotting nothing less than death.
But if we look at the facts we do know, Clementi's death only emerges as more of a mystery than ever, and a very sad one; the best lesson we might hope to take away from all this is that people can change course in a flash. I hope that those in the gay and lesbian community and press who continue to viciously cry for Ravi's blood or keep creating blatantly manipulative stories about sad and helpless victims will take Parker's piece as a cautionary tale about what happens when we decide to charge ahead in pursuit of the narratives we think will get us more love or respectability or what we think of as justice. Clementi is gone, but to fix him forever as someone who had no choice but to die implies that this is our collective fate: not to be resilient or even, perhaps, to be able to leave uncomfortable circumstances—but to simply die.
That's not, in any way, to blame Clementi for what he did, but to point out that our relentless caricature of him as a one-dimensional victim does him and many other people, not just youth, a huge disservice (and please, can we stop pretending that suicide only affects "youth"?) As for Ravi, I suspect he has enough to live with for the rest of his life. More importantly, can we just look at the facts and insist that what he did was exactly the same as an intentional act of murder? Do we crush him to nothingness, deport him, and then pretend that we have solved whatever we think the issue is? Can we grapple with the complexity of the truth instead of being seduced by the more palatable tale of good and evil?