Friday, October 08, 2010

The story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide after his roommate broadcast live video over the Internet of him engaged in gay sex acts in his dorm room, has certainly confused a lot of commentators. To begin with, it's clearly not, as some have claimed, about "cyberbullying". There is no indication that Clementi was harassed or threatened in any way, and the passive-aggressive tone of the perpetrator's Twitter messages (not to mention their act itself) strongly suggests that they were themselves most likely incapable of even attempting to intimidate Clementi.

Second, it's only peripherally about society's attitudes towards homosexuality. While Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, appears to have been unhappy about Clementi's use of their shared dorm room for gay sex (among other points of friction between them), he is not known either to have directly disparaged homosexuality, or to have been motivated by Clementi's orientation. Indeed, Ravi's action appears to have been completely opportunistic--he simply activated the Webcam on his own computer, sitting in his own dorm room, from a friend's dorm room. There's no reason to believe he would have behaved differently had his disliked roommate's companion been female. (It's likely, though, that had either participant in such a heterosexual tryst committed suicide on hearing of having starred in a live Internet video, the public reaction would have been far more muted and less passionately sympathetic.)

No, the real moral of this story is one I have touched on before: the failure of modern etiquette to evolve quickly enough to keep up with modern communications technology. Ravi and his friend appear to have thought little about the propriety, let alone the consequences, of their video streaming project before embarking on it. Perhaps they were simply not tuned in to current social conventions regarding such acts--but far more likely, such social conventions simply don't exist yet.

In Robert Altman's 1970 film M*A*S*H*, the story's "heroes" engage in an audio, heterosexual version of Ravi's stunt, publicly humiliating two "villains". (There was no Internet at the time, of course, but the army camp's public address system served as a substitute.) Now, I've long condemned this film's celebration of its heroes' shocking cruelty, but to the best of my knowledge, no other commentator has characterized the stunt of broadcasting audio of a sexual tryst between two unsympathetic characters as anything other than hilarious. On the other hand, the scenario enacted in the film was until recently sufficiently remote from common experience to be easy for audiences to distance themselves from. What makes the Clementi story so unsettling is precisely that what was once a wildly improbable gag, suitable for a ribald, off-the-wall comedy, can now be a casual, unthinking act by a disgruntled college student with no special equipment. And it will probably be quite some time before social conventions catch up to that technological shift.

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