A year and a half ago, Dharun Ravi pulled a stupid, clumsy, and cruel prank. He used his webcam to spy on his male roommate kissing another man, and tweeted about it. Three days later, his roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped off a bridge to his death—and Dharun Ravi's stupid prank became the focus of national outrage about bullying.
As I wrote here in March, my fear was that Dharun Ravi would become the scapegoat for a nation that is just awakening to how deadly anti-gay cruelty can be. You know what a scapegoat is, yes? Millennia ago, before the rural Hebrews transformed into the urban Jews—before the Babylonian Exile, in other words, where the Talmud was written, the Jewish equivalent of Christianity's New Testament—those Hebrews annually atoned for their sins by repenting and symbolically putting them all on a goat. The rabbi said prayers making the transfer. The community either killed the goat or sent it off into the wilderness to die. Poof, the community's sins were gone.
But with bullying or anti-gay attitudes, scapegoating doesn't change anything. No one can ever know why someone kills himself. Reasons are always complex, involving personal vulnerabilities and problematic thinking. We can't interrogate the killer about his motives, because he died when he committed the crime. Even if the webcam incident was a last straw that pushed Clementi over a bridge, even if anti-gay attitudes did Clementi in, a lot of sinning had to come before the teen ever met Dharun Ravi—or Clementi wouldn't have been vulnerable to that final, cruel prank. Punishing Ravi as if he had killed Tyler Clementi would have solved nothing.
The New York Times reported that the sentence included 30 days in jail, 300 hours of community service, fines that total almost $11,000, mandatory counseling, and three years of probation.
I have nothing good to say about Ravi's webcam spying. It was malicious, heartless, and rude—the kind of thing that far too many college kids do, day in and day out, across the country. As the judge said, "I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi … but I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity." I might have given him 90 days instead—not because of the hate crime, but because I think we all have to take a stand against the invasion of privacy in our omnitechnological era—but given all the other burdens imposed, I'm satisfied, especially with national humiliation thrown in.
During the trial, I kept wondering: Had Ravi spied on a girl meeting a boy and tweeted about it, would that have been discussed with outrage nationwide? I hope the case sends a message about everyone's privacy, gay and otherwise.
Nathaniel Frank wrote a moving essay yesterday about the case in the Huffington Post, including this:
Anti-gay sentiment lies deep within many, perhaps most, of us, as does an atavistic urge to denigrate and exclude out-group members. The fact that this may be our hardwiring -- evolved from a time when we lived in tribes of 50 to 100 closely related individuals -- in no way justifies indulging those impulses, but it does remind us that we have to fight against them rather than pretending they don't exist and acting like those who exhibit our darker side are outliers. ... Years of jail time ... would not bring Tyler Clementi back; would do little or nothing to decrease suicide, homophobia, or bullying; would fail to honor the LGBT movement's gains and aspirations; would let too many other responsible people off the hook; and could have short-circuited the broader conversation that needs to continue and deepen.
I'm glad Clementi's suicide was so widely decried and that Ravi was prosecuted so publicly. I'm glad we've launched a national debate about cruelty, insensitivity, inclusiveness, and expectations of privacy. But President Obama did more to change the culture two weeks ago when he announced his support for same-sex marriage than sending Ravi off into the wilderness would have. So did Robert Spitzer when, prompted by our own Gabriel Arana, he recanted his problematic study that endorsed reparative therapy. The NAACP did more when it endorsed marriage equality this week.
Dharun Ravi has been held responsible for what he's done. Now let's get back to keeping the rest of the culture accountable, like the North Carolina pastor who wants to round up lesbians and gay men so we can die in concentration camps. Let's not just send that goat off into the wilderness and forget all about it.