The Tyler Clementi tragedy showed how America has come a long way but still has a long way to go. The suicide of the Rutgers University freshman, after his intimate encounter with a male friend was streamed live on the Internet by his roommate and a classmate, resulted in a campus outpouring far beyond gay and straight boundaries.
To be sure, gay organizations and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres expressed outrage, but so did the Rutgers campus. A vigil was held and there was a moment of silence at the Rutgers football game. The fraternity Phi Delta Theta created a memorial for flowers and condolences. The glee club marched to the memorial singing the "Rutgers Prayer,'' generally sung to mourn the loss of members of the Rutgers community.
"Everyone is pretty devastated, and frankly, it's embarrassing that something like this would happen here at Rutgers,'' glee club member Jonathan Ramteke told the Associated Press.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie not only called it an "unspeakable tragedy,'' but he personalized the suicide by saying, "As the father of a 17-year-old, I can't imagine what those parents are feeling today.'' As for the suspects, he said, "I don't know how those two folks are going to sleep at night.''
When a tragedy involving sexual orientation hits everyone hard, that is progress. When Rutgers spokesman Steve Manas said, "How could one roommate do this to another?'' the question was not about gay roommates or straight roommates, just about roommates.
But as this suicide so profoundly demonstrated, the Internet is a vehicle for which we yet have no agreed value system, no clear rules of civility. It was disturbing to read in the New York Times coverage, "students debated whether the surreptitious broadcast was a thoughtless prank or crime.'' It was unsettling to see USA Today ask out loud, "Was what happened to Clementi a hate crime, bullying, a prank or all three?''
We need to speed to a place where the question need not be asked. The digital age is no place for thoughtless pranks, when humiliations streamed around the world can haunt victims forever.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health last year found that 14 percent of bullying is now electronic and of a "distinct nature from that of traditional bullying.'' In traditional bullying, the highest levels of depression are found among youth who both bully and are bullied, but in cyberbullying it is the victim who is at the most risk.
The researchers said, "Unlike traditional bullying which usually involves a face-to-face confrontation, cyber victims may not see or identify their harasser; as such, cyber victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized or helpless at the time of the attack.'' Ominously, the survey data of schoolchildren came from 2005-2006, which only begins to incorporate texting and social networking.
In a telephone interview, a co-researcher for the studies, Ronald Iannotti, said, "It is a whole different dimension when you can videotape someone, put it on the internet, and spread it to huge audiences around the world and the victim has no idea who's watching.''
Traditional bullying is bad enough, with gay and lesbian youth having a particularly terrible time in the last month. Three teenagers killed themselves in California, Texas, and Indiana after alleged anti-gay bullying. But as the Phoebe Prince suicide demonstrated in Massachusetts, occurring after brutal taunting over straight boy-girl dating issues, bullying is not an exclusive world.
It would be a distraction if all the debate over Clementi's suicide went into whether the alleged tormentors, roommate Dharun Ravi and classmate Molly Wei, should get up to 5 years for invasion of privacy or up to 10 years because the element of sexual orientation element elevates this to a hate crime.
Ravi and Wei may actually prove how desperately we need common standards of digital etiquette and fresh federal statutes for those who do not abide by them. By accounts thus far, they were not homophobes, but students who momentarily lost their minds with their gadgets. Tyler Clementi's suicide showed that as wonderful as our laptops, webcams and cellphones can be to connect us, they can also be the most terrible of weapons. Their use to hurt someone can never be considered a prank.