Dharun Ravi, Tyler Clementi and the Hard Work of Truly Stopping Bullies
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Last Friday, Dharun Ravi, a 20-year-old Indian immigrant, was convicted on 15 counts of illegal spying, bias intimidation and lying to police and prosecutors.* This is a complex case from nearly every angle. The bias charges add prison time to the spying conviction, and the trial itself is among the first to address cyber bullying among young people. Because Ravi is a green-card holder, the conviction also carries the likelihood of deportation. The potential for drawing divisive lines between the gay liberation and immigrant rights movements is enormous, and that would be another terrible outcome in an already horrible story.
To review, Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi were roommates as they started their first year at Rutgers University. They spoke little in the first three weeks of the semester, communicating largely through texts. On September 19, Ravi set up his webcam to watch Clementi’s visit with a man. He watched from across the hall, in Molly Wei’s room. Wei and Ravi turned off the webcam when Clementi and his guest started kissing. Ravi then tweeted that he saw his roommate “making out with a dude,” ending with “Yay.”
Clementi discovered the green light on the webcam and understood that Ravi had been watching him. Two days later, Clementi asked for privacy again; Ravi set up his webcam and invited friends to watch the live stream with him. The viewing party never took place because Clementi unplugged the computer before his date. Just before the second incident, Clementi reported the violation to a resident advisor, who raised the matter with Ravi the next day, the same day that Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Ravi was not charged with causing the suicide, but there’s little doubt that it formed a heartbreaking and grim backdrop for the case.
First things first. Ravi violated Clementi’s privacy in a way that exploited the latter’s sexuality. The fact that Clementi was already out, or that he and his friend were observed doing no more than kissing, or that nothing was recorded are all things to be grateful for, but they don’t lessen the violation of Clementi’s humanity.
The defense that Ravi was not consciously homophobic (“had NO hatred toward gays,” in the words of one petition by Indian Americans) does not absolve him. Most bias is unconscious, but harmful nonetheless.
Bias isn’t just represented by intentional, overt physical violence. It is also manifested in the jokes, the sneers, and the use of sexuality as a point of humiliation, often perpetrated by people who would deny vehemently that they hate gay people. Sunil Adam, editor of the Indian American, goes too far when he writes that, “Ravi would have likely played a similar prank even if Clementi has a girl over in his room…” The word “prank” is wholly inappropriate here, and speculating on what might have happened if Clementi had been straight is irrelevant. Clementi’s sexuality added to the salacious appeal of the live streaming plan. Sure, there are degrees of harm—spying isn’t the same as violence. But that disregard for someone’s privacy exists on a continuum that ends with assault, and the distance between points on that spectrum is shorter than people with privilege generally think it is.
So, with Ravi’s bad behavior established, what are the appropriate remedies?
The verdict has ignited a debate among activists about the value of criminalizing bias crimes. The criminal justice system has so many embedded inequities that satisfaction can be hard to find, and those complexities emerge as soon as one looks through the lens of race as well as sexuality in this instance.