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Free Ravi

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

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Dharun Ravi, center, leaves court in New Brunswick, N.J., on March 16, 2012. (Mel Evans/AP)

The five New Jersey men and seven women who decided Dharun Ravi’s fate last Friday had compelling reasons to find him guilty of a hate crime. Here was a young man training a webcam on his roommate, live-streaming the roommate’s intercourse with another man, and using social media tools such as Twitter to advertise the video and invite his friends to watch. These actions drove the roommate, Tyler Clementi, to leap to his death off the George Washington Bridge, and they led the jury to hold Ravi responsible. Talking to the press shortly after the verdict was read, Marcellus A. McRae, a former federal prosecutor who has been following the case, stated that the decision was “a watershed moment, because it says youth is not immunity.”

It isn’t. But the Internet just might be: If the Rutgers case is a watershed moment, it’s because it forces us to come to terms with the implications of technology having grown faster and wilder than the social norms and the legal edicts designed to keep it—and us—in check.

A few vital caveats: There can be little doubt that homophobia played a considerable role in the events leading to Clementi’s death, a painful reminder that much public education is still needed before one’s sexual orientation is no longer considered something to gawk at, mock, or assail. And there can be no doubt that Ravi, like the rest of us mortals, possesses a sense of agency, and therefore could have, and should have, treated Clementi with the dignity and respect he so dearly deserved. But these key points aside, let us examine the environment that allowed this tragedy to take shape.

As a professor of digital media, I spend much time both researching our nascent modes of communication and observing young men and women interacting with, and through, them. I’m still a geek at heart—technology tends to make me giddy—but the more I think about it, the more things seem grim. Put bluntly, I believe that for all its many and undeniable advantages, the suite of media, technologies, and practices collectively known as Web 2.0 is facilitating a radical reimagining of what it means to be human, dimming the critical faculties, sanctioning speed over contemplation, and spawning a host of what could only be called nonpersons.

That’s not my term. It’s Jaron Lanier’s. A celebrated computer scientist and a founding father of virtual reality, Lanier gradually came to see the vicissitudes of technology as a spiraling dive into barbarity. The problem, he argued in his controversial manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, is that Facebook, Twitter, and the other platforms that govern and regulate so many of our exchanges with our fellow human beings are information systems, and as such they demand, well, information: favorite bands, lists of friends, quick posts, snapshots.

But information, Lanier observed, under-represents reality. We are more than lovers of Phish or graduates of Yale, more than that person tagged in that photo from last night’s party. We contain multitudes too complex for 140 characters to capture. And yet, in our zeal to catch up with our friends and with the times, we reduce ourselves to data. We are so thrilled with the opportunity to keep in touch with so many people with such speed and facility that we agree to limit our thoughts and our feelings to dispatches that are easy to categorize and store in the growing database that is the contemporary Internet. This, Lanier laments, is based on a “philosophical mistake,” the belief “that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”

Lanier is not alone in his critique. Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, has come to similar conclusions. An enthusiastic technophile, Turkle too took a turn for the dark in her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Conducting a staggering amount of ethnographic interviews with young users of technology, she reported on a generation accustomed to thinking of communication as a ceaseless flow in which meaning is tangential and identities blurred.

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.

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Jed Sorokin-Altmann says:

Liel Leibovitz is wrong to criticize the jury of the Rutgers case. Those 12 people were forced by the State to perform a difficult and thankless task, giving up days of their lives to listen to the tragic story of what went down and then to deliberate and render a judgment as required by law. And they did so. They deserve our thanks and not our scorn.

Liebovitz’s claim that the jury was wrong seems to be merely that there is a lot of homophobic remarks on the internet, and therefore Dharun Ravi’s own homophobic remarks should be ignored. That homophobia is still rampant in our society, and is expressed more freely in anonymous forums, is no defense for one’s own homophobic speech and conduct. There’s a lot of antisemitic remarks on the internet too, and still, as a Jewish magazine, I expect Tablet Magazine to stand against antisemitism.

Moreover, Liebovitz’s second half of the article where he tries comparing a spycam in someone’s dorm to Facebook is nonsensical. There is no relationship between people posting information about themselves to someone else viewing and later attempting to broadcast a spycam of you with a sexual partner. I do not understand Liebovitz’s claim that Ravi was convicted of violating an outdated privacy law. It is not outdated to have a reasonable expectation of privacy when having sex or undressing or taking a shower or going to the bathroom. Facebook, twitter, and other technologies have not changed that. The Jennicam of the ’90s was the exception, not the norm, and THAT was voluntary.

In short, one, lay off the jury. They listened to testimony, followed the judge’s instructions, and followed the law. Your criticism is with the law itself and not the jury’s application of it. Two, the level of anti-gay bigotry on the internet is horrible. It is, however, not an excuse to be a bigot. And third, people have a right to be free from hidden camera spying. Facebook is entirely irrelevant.

Gerald says:

One must take account for one’s actions.

Bennett Muraskin says:

I am appalled that none of the students who were encouraged by Ravi to spy on Clement’s sexual encounter reported Ravi to the Rutgers authorities.

These students are morally complicit in the crime.

Mr Ravi set a trap with malace of forethought which ulitmately led to the death of another. It is if he put a shotgun wired to a door. Technology is merely a tool used by mankind, for good or for bad…

S. Latieri says:

Liel Leibovitz is simply wrong. There has been nothing made public that has proven that Ravi’s actions caused Clementi to commit suicide. Unless she has been privy to Clementi’s letters that the court did not make public, she has begun her article with a false premise.

Further: The jury simply followed the law; Ravi was indeed guilty of a hate crime. This case is especially interesting precisely because the technology meant that we knew what Ravi did and when he did it and because the law was followed so carefully.

While his ultimate sentence may seem harsh, we shouldn’t forget he had a chance to accept a deal. Fear of deportation may have kept him from accepting that deal, but I don’t have much sympathy; many, many people have been deported for much lesser offenses. Ravi did what he did because Clementi was gay; his actions cannot be condoned, excused, or dismissed. Tablet Magazine and Nextbook should raise their standards.

Adam says:

The jury did not hold Ravi responsible for Clementi’s death – Ravi was not charged with Clementi’s death. If the prosecutor thought they could convict Ravi of Clementi’s death, they would have charged him, but that would have been very difficult to prove. Does every reasonable humiliated person commit suicide? Ravi did many bad things over 3 days, but driving someone to suicide was not one of them.

Additionally, although the jury found for bias intimidation, I’m still not buying it. What would have happened if Ravi’s roommate had hooked up with an unattractive woman? Don’t you think that he would have turned on his camera and alerted his friends for a follow up?

Part of what Ravi had was poor defense counsel. Why didn’t he take a plea? Couldn’t they have found 1 gay friend or acquaintance of Ravi? How come they didn’t ask the students who were invited – did he say come watch my [fill in the gay epithet] roommate? to which they would answer ‘no’.

sydney says:

There is principle in Jewish law clearly enunciated in Baba Kama — “adam mu’ad l’olam.” A person is responsible for his/her actions, whether intentional or accidental. Too much of the time we try to transfer blame to society, background, etc.

Bondi says:

Coming from a different culture, Ravi probably did not understand the touchiness of his victim, and maybe overreacted to what in the non-Christian-Judae society is not regarded as serious as in for example Muslim faith. What a waste of life to put him in jail and without rehabilitation.

judy solomon says:

He should be held accountable!

russell says:

Kashad Leverett, one of 12 jurors to convict Ravi, told ABC News that the interrogation video of Ravi meeting with investigators helped them come to the conclusion that Ravi was guilty of invasion of privacy. On the video, Ravi is seen admitting to prosecutors that he purposefully spied on Clementi.

K. M. McDonald says:

Superb! Excellent insight on supporting the case of learning code as an essential language for our children to learn. The most original, radical, and thought provoking idea I have read in months….kudos, Liel

Harriet b says:

Sorry. You are responsible for everything you do. He should have known better. If he really hated his roommate, he should have asked to change roommates; not do what he did.

Suzy says:

“Free Ravi” I don’t think so ! I am getting so sick and tired of “I’m not responsible for my actions because….fill in the blank”
The Internet didn’t run itself, Ravi didn’t accidentally use it to psychologically torture his roommate
and 20 years old IS NOT A KID !I was working full time, living on my own and going to school at that age.At 20 years old you don’t get a “pass” for not having a moral compass or , at the minimum,a modicum of compassion. What this man did is appalling.
Maybe it will provide a cautionary tale for others that ,if they don’t have a moral compass or compassion ,maybe they should address that in their lives.
I also wonder what value system , or lack thereof, he was raised with ?

Nelly says:

Kol hakavod. Liel, you nailed it – the way we are letting our children and students take the internet as “human” interaction is dangerous. It is not the question whether Ravi is guilty – it is a look on what made it possible.

Shame on you , Liel, shame!
As everyone else in the comments pointed out, one must take responsibility for one’s actions.
And this Ravi is by no means a kid. At that age, I had already completed 2 years in the army.
I pity anyone who shares a home or connection with you. You just might post something intimate “… in our (your) zeal to catch up with our (your, and so forth with all pronouns) friends and with the times, we reduce ourselves to data. We are so thrilled with the opportunity to keep in touch with so many people with such speed and facility that …”
And as someone else has noted, this was a setup, conceived with forethought and malice. One must wonder how blasé you would be if this happened to your child.

guillermo says:

Mr. Leibovitz…obviously you and Mr. Ravi do not understand the basic difference between right and wrong. It is not a difficult concept to master,but it takes practice making the right choices.Keep trying…..

Rita Krohn says:

What an obviously distorted conclusion you have come to;blame the internet, yes, of course, don’t take responsibility for one’s actions. This, so called,bright young man,should have minded his own business, and gone on with his so-called life, and not interfere with that of his roommate.If he had a life, he would not find it necessary to intrude on anyone else’s.Who cares what someone else chooses to do with his or her free time.What business is it of yours, or anyone elses.As a result of his snooping, and passing the word for others to do so,he not only destroyed Tyler’s life, but his own as well.It absolutely has to stop somewhere. I commend the jury.If you say it is the internet that is at fault, write an article to disband all technology, so that there will be fewer temptations.Ultimately, we alone are responsble for our actions.Let’s not blame someone, or something else. Shame on you.

Susan says:

I don’t know why the Tablet continues to publish articles that excuse bullying. What this story really shows is something that the readers seem to know even though the writer doesn’t

Bullying destroys lives. It can even kill if it touches someone vulnerable enough.
I think I’m going to stop reading your articles and just keep reading your comments You have thoughtful, interesting readers.

Bianca says:

Whoa! Guys! I do not read this as an article trying to excuse Ravi’s actions. Nor is it endorsing bullying.

I see this as an article exploring the technology landscape that now exists and in which this tragic situation occurred.

Moreover, it is arguing that thoughtful human interaction remains an essential part of life, technological advances notwithstanding.

So chill!

Reflect.

Learn.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Should this kid really be sent to prison for 10 years? Or even 5 years? I don’t think so. He needs counseling and should be made to perform community service, or at the most a short sentence.

He never intended to drive poor Taylor to suicide.

Herbert Walter says:

Yesterday evening, I returned home to learn from a variety of confused and cryptic reports that the apartment below mine had been burglarized. The culprit, in flagrante delicto, had been taken into custody by the police. I was kept up until well after midnight by the sound of carpenters reinstalling my neighbor’s door–in replacement of the one that had been destroyed as the police and dogs entered the scene of the crime. The thief had simply scaled the recently-installed, utterly insecure scaffolding that surrounds the building to second-floor height (installed to aid the building crew at work refurbishing the exterior). To follow the writer’s claims in the above article, it seems that my fellow inhabitants and I have but one recourse. Sue the scaffolding. Many thanks for clarifying the haunting question that followed me as I left my building this morning.

Jed Sorokin-Altmann says:

Counseling and community service, Bennett? Surely you jest. Let’s review. Ravi remotely spied on his roommate and his roommate’s boyfriend in an attempt to catch them in flagrante delicto. This is a crime, and a serious one at that. Ravi also attempted to broadcast his roommate and his roommate’s boyfriend having sex to others. This is also a crime, and a serious crime at that.

I am puzzled how you, or anyone, can minimize the seriousness of these types of invasions of privacy. We have a right to be free from spy cameras in the privacy of our bedrooms. Or our bathrooms. Or locker rooms. Those that violate that expectation of privacy should be punished with more than just a slap on the wrist.

Lastly, Ravi engaged in witness tampering, again, a serious offense.

Regardless of whether or not Ravi intended to drive his roommate to suicide, Ravi committed serious offenses that merit more than mere community service and counseling.

Stephanie says:

Why that bit about code in the last paragraph. A well-reasoned, thoughtful article took a turn for the absurd with this seemingly unrelated and unsupported call to action.

What does knowing “code” have to do with understanding the intricacies, subtleties, and nuances of interaction with real humans versus databases with multiple users? (Asked as one who knows a little about both.)

Otherwise, I very much enjoyed the way points were raised about how the immediacy and facelessness of much online communication is both different and inferior to actually engaging with other living beings. Furthermore, I liked the mention of a creator’s preferences impacting a service (such as with facebook)–but I thought the point should have been carried then, that extensive interaction with that service does impact you, making you the recipient of another’s preferences. It’s as direct a challenge to identity as you can get, but it’s overlooked because it’s so pervasive and so seemingly small (until you spend three hours a day interacting with it… which, unlike other media with known downsides to fostering healthy socialization such as television, is all made by the same individual, rather than being the creative enterprise of several different teams of individuals…).

Thanks for a thought-provoking article, I’d like to see more in this vein, actually.

Stephanie says:

Oh! Also, I nearly forgot to mention that there is another case which falls under similar considerations in England, recently. A man was detained overnight by police for tweeting racial slurs about a footballer collapsing in severe cardiac distress. Thoughts?

(Here’s one article : http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/mar/19/fabrice-muamba-twitter-troll-prison )

And as many other’s seem to think this article is actually supposing Ravi be released (which I don’t agree with; though I’d be interested in making sure the sentencing details are in line with the “crime”–presently, he is probably rehabilitable but after even just a year in prison he likely won’t be), the details of the article really aren’t making that claim, clearly.

To the writer of the article “Free Ravi”.
You are such an understanding “individual”;
but you would have written a different
narrative if it had been your son (or
daughter) exposed in public with another
person of the same sex (or even a different
sex). It’s always easy to be “understanding” when it’s not your
loved one who was the victim. Ravi will
go to jail, where he belongs, and then
hopefully, we’ll send him back to India
(likewise, where he belongs). Gil

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Free Ravi

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

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