The jury in the Rutgers case got it wrong: It may be the Internet, not a stupid 20-year-old, that is ultimately responsible for the tragedy
This, sadly, is the world in which Clementi and Ravi came of age. Examining Ravi’s online missives, one finds little of the particular anti-gay vitriol evident, say, in the words and the deeds of the brutes who murdered Matthew Shepard. They, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, drove Shepard to a remote location, tortured him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die. When tried, they argued the gay panic defense, namely that Shepard’s alleged sexual advances filled them with homicidal rage. Dharun Ravi, on the other end, tweeted: “Roomate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” In Ravi’s words and actions, one finds only the sophomoric, the titillating, and the thoughtless, which is to say one finds only what one usually finds on the Internet. Ravi’s, then, is no hate crime. Nor is it a mere youthful indiscretion, a case of boys being boys. It is, rather, a solid example of the sort of thing that, because of the advent of fast and ubiquitous platforms of communication, passes for human interaction these days.
The other count of which Ravi is accused, invasion of privacy, is equally complicated. In a much-publicized interview in 2010, just a few months before Ravi and Clementi met, Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that as far as he was concerned, the age of privacy was over. Had he started his company now, he announced, he would have insisted that all personal information be public by default.
Zuckerberg wasted little time in acting on his insight. Facebook, like most other web-based services, has since changed its opt-in default—assuming that users want all information kept private unless they specify otherwise—to an opt-out default, which assumes all information is public unless specific boxes are checked in the user’s profile settings. This is no small point. Considering how intricate the software has become, users now have to navigate through more than 50 settings and choose from more than 170 options just to control that seemingly most basic of things: their privacy. It’s a tough task for someone with a Ph.D., let alone a high-schooler. Doing nothing is far easier.
Add to that the omnipresence of cameras in everything from our computers to our phones, and the demand to post more and post quickly and constantly replenish our walls and our feeds, and you may begin to understand why so much deeply personal stuff makes its way online these days. Teenagers haven’t suddenly become any more exhibitionistic than their counterparts who grew up at the time the telephone was introduced suddenly became chatterboxes. Then as now, we begin by fashioning tools and end up with the tools fashioning us.
In its own way, Judaism discovered this truth millennia ago; by repeatedly turning down those wishing to convert, for example, the rabbis fashioned a system that separates excited impulsives from thoughtful and sincere believers, accepting the latter into the fold and rejecting the former. We should do the same for our children, by ensuring that the thicket of screens they must navigate makes it hard to share an embarrassing photograph, not hard to keep it to themselves. Finding Ravi guilty of violating privacy laws that have fallen far behind the way we live now does little to solve this problem or address its roots.
And then, as always, there’s education. The children who grow up talking to each other through posts and tweets and likes can imagine no other way of interacting, and we—teachers and parents and other interested adults—are too often too quick to jump on the bandwagon and bless technological progress as inevitable. It’s anything but. As the author Zadie Smith observed in a superb essay about Facebook, so much about that ubiquitous platform, from its color scheme to its architecture, had to do with its founder’s personal preferences. There are other ways, none of them Luddite, to imagine media that are truly social. Rather than strain to be cool by joining our children online, we should offer them useful criticism and, at the very least, help them understand just what it is that they’re doing when they go online, and, more important, just what it is that they’re giving up. A good way to start is by teaching them code: For all of our dependence on software, the overwhelming majority of us are still shockingly ignorant of even its most basic building blocks. Code is as important now as the alphabet; let’s make sure our kids know how to read it by the time they turn 10.
None of this will bring back Tyler Clementi. And none of this, most likely, would be of much help to Dharun Ravi. But if we don’t do something to change the environment that enabled this tragedy, the next time it plays itself out, it’s ourselves we should put on trial.
In 1862, Ulysses S. Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from his territory. Turns out, that was a good thing. Historian Jonathan Sarna explains.