Rushing To Judgment In The Media Age
A story from September 2010 reminds us that rushing to judgment is never a good idea.
Many of you will remember back in September of 2010 when Rutgers University Freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after what was described at the time, and believed by many to be, a case of anti-gay bullying. The story as it was understood at the time, and for the year and a half that has passed since then, was that Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi and his friend Molly Wei had surreptitiously caught Clementi on video having some kind of sexual encounter with a man which they broadcast over the Internet. It was the humiliation of being outed, we were told, that led Clementi to kill himself. Ravi and Wei both left Rutgers shortly after the incident, and after being charged with a series of crimes, including charges that carry a bias charge that would enhance the sentence if convicted. Wei has since made a deal with prosecutors and is likely to end up testifying against Ravi when he goes to trial later this year.
Much time has passed, and the story has long left the front pages, but Ian Parker has a new piece in The New Yorker that calls to question many of the popularly understood facts of the case:
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. But last spring, 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. Here the allegation, linked to snooping, is either that Ravi intended to harass Clementi because he was gay or that Clementi felt he’d been harassed for being gay. Ravi is not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but he faces a possible sentence of ten years in jail. As he sat in the courtroom, his chin propped awkwardly on his fist, his predicament could be seen either as a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.
As it turns out, though, Clementi was not closeted at all. Not to his family, who he had come out to weeks before leaving for Rutgers, not to his roommate, who knew Clementi was gay before they met, and not to his fellow students. That’s not to say that what Ravi did here wasn’t despicable and mean, because it was. He may still end up being convicted of a crime for what he did. I’m certainly not going to defend him because there’s very little sympathetic about him. However, as Rod Dreher notes, this case is similar to many others in the manner that it became a rallying cry for people with a cause even if the facts ultimately don’t fit the model:
A close look at the evidence indicates that many people have projected their own feelings about anti-gay sentiment and bullying onto this case, and this defendant. The truth is a lot more complicated. I too thought that Clementi had been outed after Ravi filmed him having sex. As Parker shows, Clementi was not closeted, and he wasn’t filmed having sex. And yes, Dharun Ravi is an ass. But he is not facing criminal trial for being an ass.
This is what moral panic does. I’m as susceptible to it as anybody. It is hard for me to hear of cases of priests accused of molestation and to think that they are innocent until proven guilty, because I already have a particular narrative in my head. It is hard for me to be fair in these particular cases, but it is necessary to fight against my own instincts in this case and in every case. You too.
That’s a an admonition we’d do well to keep in mind in all sensationalistic headline grabbing cases. It’s very tempting to take a tragic case like Clementi’s, combined with the absolutely boorish behavior by a college student who apparently decided to invade his roommate’s privacy to make himself look cool to his friends, and draw some grand conclusion of “what it all means” for society as a whole. The truth, though, is that sometimes it doesn’t necessarily mean everything. We’ll never know what was really going on in Tyler Clementi’s head those final days in September 2010. The article suggests that it may have been more the invasion of privacy and betrayal of someone who should have been a friend that pushed him over the edge than the fear of getting outed. Whatever the reason, though, it is, as I noted when this happened, a tragedy.
At the very least, this case should be another lesson for all of us not to rush to judgment every time a tragic story makes the evening news. And, yes, that is easier said than done.