Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bully for You

Punishment, Cyber Crime, and Bullying:

LAST week, a New Jersey jury convicted Dharun Ravi of invasion of privacy, and for good reason. Mr. Ravi activated the webcam in his room at Rutgers so he could watch his roommate, Tyler Clementi, meet up with a male date. Worse, he broadcast his plans to do it again over Twitter, inviting his friends to watch. That kind of spying should be out of bounds on a college campus.

What’s out of whack about Mr. Ravi’s case is the harsh punishment he now faces: as much as 10 years in prison, for a 20-year-old who’d never been in legal trouble before.

Mr. Ravi could go away for years because, on top of spying, he was convicted of a hate crime: bias intimidation, a conviction probably influenced by Mr. Clementi’s subsequent suicide. According to New Jersey’s civil rights law, you are subject to a much higher penalty if the jury finds that you committed one of a broad range of underlying offenses for the purpose of targeting someone because of his race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

I've resisted commenting on this case, only because despite the "groundbreaking" nature of Ravi's conviction and possible sentence, I really didn't find the outcome surprising or particularly controversial. It's clear the defendant's actions bordered on criminal, irrespective of whether they contributed directly or indirectly to Clementi's eventual suicide.

[Some scholars] put the word “bullies” in quotation marks because it’s a word that researchers in this area usually avoid. It’s a word that C.J. Pascoe, an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College, doesn’t use at all in her book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, which was published in 2007 and reissued last October with a new preface.

Her initial reaction to the verdict was, as she put it: “Yea! We have a number of people who think we shouldn’t be harassing gay kids!” But the message it sends bothers her. “It seems like partially what we’re doing with Ravi is exonerating ourselves from structural and cultural homophobia and making it the property of this one 18-year-old man.” (Ravi was 18 at the time of Clementi’s suicide, in 2010.)

Pascoe also wonders what role race played in the prosecution. Ravi, who was born in India but whose parents moved to the United States when he was little, may be deported.
I would agree with Pascoe on the homophobic culture we seem to be exonerating by focusing on Ravi's stupidity and making it seem like it's an individual problem. As has been documented for years, in adolescent subcultures, particularly among boys, being called a fag or queer is not only tolerated but accepted as de rigueur behavior. If we're going to start locking people for being stupid, we'd have to construct a prison the size of Texas.

I would disagree, however, that Ravi's ethnicity had anything to do with his prosecution (no race or ethnicity seems to be free of stupid when it comes to sexual orientation). While Pascoe notes than in her research, only minorities seem to be prosecuted in cases of bullying, it's also true that most cases of bullying are settled with pleas and rarely result in a trial. Ravi apparently was offered the usual community-service deal, and rejected it.
The state then made Mr. Ravi a fair offer: community service in exchange for admitting to invading Mr. Clementi’s privacy. It was Mr. Ravi’s mistake not to take it.
I would say it was more than a "mistake," it was legal malpractice to reject the offer. Now dude is facing up to 10 years in the slammer for a case that should never have gone to trial in the first place. If nothing, it shows both bad lawyering and continued arrogance on behalf of the defendant.

Regardless, while cyber-bullying can often be a part of a tragic outcome, as in this case, we must remember that suicide is rarely, if ever, caused by one incident in a person's life. As this case also illustrates, Clementi's parents were wrestling with his sexual orientation (he had just come out prior to his death), as were many of his friends. We don't know how much other humiliation or degradation he was going through because of our culture's schizophrenic reaction to sexual orientation, and Ravi makes a convenient (if not unsympathetic) scapegoat.

The fact is, teenagers, young adults and older folks who wrestle with sexual identity in an unforgiving culture can be pushed to the brink of marginalization and suicide simply for being who they are. Clementi's suicide is more representative of cultural homophobia than it is the actions of an immature roommate. We continue to push people to the edge of the proverbial bridge by failing to deal with homophobia, particularly in adolescence.

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