Monday, March 19, 2012

Suicide shouldn't change everything

It's been strange to see the pendulum swing so far in my lifetime in regards to bullying.

I was targeted by bullies as a kid and every time it caught the attention of the school, I received equal punishment for being "involved" with a fight. The circumstances didn't matter, even if I tried to walk away. This was injustice and the school officials clearly didn't care.

Now there's a trend of rushing vague anti-bullying bills into legislation and the rhetoric has gone off the deep end. I think it's great the bullying issue is getting attention, but they are going about it all wrong.

Rutger's University student Dharun Ravi faces 10 years in prison and deportation for taking several seconds of hidden video camera footage of his roommate kissing another man and sharing it on iChat. He turned it off, but then unsuccessfully tried to set it up again another night.

What Ravi did is a major invasion of privacy and certainly deserves punishment. But 10 years? This inflated punishment is because his roommate, Tyler Clementi, found out about the video, started the process of changing rooms, then unexpectedly killed himself. Gay advocates are treating this as if Ravi murdered Clementi. The lynch mob wants his blood.

The same mob mentality happened a few years ago when a woman posed as a teen boy online and mockingly flirt with her daughter's classmate Megan Meier. She killed herself after the fake teen boy broke things off, and the woman, Lori Drew, was tried for the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for violating the terms of service of the social media website she talked to Meier on. This is a computer hacking law, something completely unrelated, and she was later acquitted.

I understand peoples contempt for Ravi and Drew. They are jerks. However, being a jerk isn't against the law, and these prosecutions are abusing the rule of law. They can not try the bullies for murder, so they are trumping up inappropriate charges like the CFAA to try to stick them with something.

This is an abuse of the court system, and we wouldn't care one bit about Ravi or Drew if no suicides had followed. The choice to commit suicide Clementi and Meier made was not rational or sane. These were clearly people with major mental issues that were not created by Ravi or Drew and these consequences could not reasonably be predicted from their actions.

The reaction to these cases may end up encouraging more suicides. Treating people who commit suicide with care and affection they would otherwise not receive gives people a marginal incentive to kill themselves. If a bullying victim knows that their suicide will get the tormentors a harsh term in prison, that may be enough to push someone over the edge.

Bullying is a real problem, but witch hunts are not the solution.


  1. I couldn't agree more. You are missing one thing though.

    This was a "hate crime", something that seems to be a process for valuing one victim over another.

  2. You do not recognize the fact that there is a line between normal childhood behavior and persistent bullying. Creating legislation helps define that line and give educators some real teeth in dealing with this serious issue.

    You also failed to acknowledge how different our childhoods were compared to present day adolescents. There is a new component to bullying - social media and the Internet. Technology completely changes the bullying landscape. What used to be isolated one on one situation turned into embarrassing pictures, videos, and information being spread virally in a matter of hours. This can be devastating to some young people.

    Now I think we can all relate to the "being picked on is a part of growing up" sentiment because everybody gets made fun of at some point and we all have survived through it. But there are instances that are especially egregious that need the proper legal tools to deal with. It is just the right thing to do In this new era of indelible social media.

  3. The specifics of what Ravi did rise above any normal bullying. He made a concerted effort to expose his roommate to everyone. He didn't merely yell "fag" at him from across the quad.

    These were clearly people with major mental issues...

    Unless you have some information I haven't seen, you're going way beyond the evidence.

  4. I'm surprised that you haven't gotten more crucified for this post, Michael. Upon finishing reading it, I expected a complete firestorm of comments...
    I was pleasantly surprised and agree with you, here.
    Simply enforce the harassment laws that we already have and life should be good.

  5. A few months ago a former classmate of mine - and his family - were attacked while leaving a restaurant, because my former classmate is gay and had flirted with a man in the restaurant. My former classmate suffered a concussion.

    This attack was objectively worse than what Ravi did to Clementi. Yet, since this is Canada, the attackers might get 2-5 years.

    What Ravi did was mean, and illegal. But he didn't attack Clementi and he certainly didn't commit murder. As you say, if Clementi had not committed suicide, no one would have heard about Ravi.

  6. Attackers here are likely to get 9mm's.