Trivializing Hate

Everyone will read a different moral lesson into the conviction of Dharun Ravi for invading the privacy of Tyler Clementi and intimidating him because Clementi was gay.  Some see the verdicts as the reason we shouldn’t have hate crimes laws, and others view this case as the vindication of those laws.

I have always been divided.  No hate crime can occur unless there is an underlying offense, and those offenses – whether murder, assault or anything else – are already crimes irrespective of who the victim is.  Penalty enhancements because of a motive beyond that to commit the crime itself do raise troubling questions about government intrusion into thoughts, and there are few areas where the government’s machinery is more destructive and menacing than in criminal prosecutions.

On the other hand, the kinds of cases we associate with hate crimes – lynchings and dragging, the grisly and horrifying death of Matthew Shepard – are especially repulsive because they are more than just the crime itself.  They are genuinely hateful.

And that is the problem for me.  Dharun Ravi’s case is void of anything like that.  It trivializes any meaningful notion of “hate.”

Ian Parker’s excellent article lays out the story in the New Yorker, and if it is unrecognizable as the story told by the daily press and television news, that is the point.  It’s been a long time since the mainstream media got the adrenaline rush of a real hate crime against a homosexual like they had with Matthew Shepard.  Clementi’s suicide seemed to have all the right elements, but Parker astutely sticks to the actual facts, rather than just the ones that support the desired spin.

Ravi certainly seems to have been a privileged, arrogant and heedless young man, and there’s little doubt he possessed just enough high school-level ambiguity about gay boys to be pretty uncomfortable when he learned his new college roommate was gay.  His initial reaction on finding out, texted to a friend, was “FUCK MY LIFE; he’s gay.”

Ravi didn’t have the makings of a Meghan McCain style gay rights supporter, but neither does he seem to have what it takes to be a homophobe.  When another friend fretted about how awkward it would be if Clementi made a sexual overture, Ravi replied, “He probs would. Why would it be awk. He’d want me I wouldn’t want him.”  If homophobia has any touchstone at all, it is an exaggerated overreaction to gay sex in general, and any thought of a homosexual advance in particular.  On that score, Ravi is wanting.

Like many boys his age, Ravi seemed more concerned about Clementi’s possible effeminacy than about homosexuality in general, and agreed with a friend who drew the distinction between the apparently feminine, weak and geeky Clementi and a less flamboyant homosexual they had met during orientation.  When Ravi finally actually heard directly from Clementi for the first time, he reported to a friend that Clementi was “gay, but regular gay.”  Not a ringing endorsement of equality, but not exactly the Red Flag of Homophobia.

Ravi’s use of words like “fag” and “fruity” are hardly hallmarks of tolerance, but they fall into a broader context, as does his silly reference to January being a “gay month,” and ultimately his appallingly dumb decision to turn his computer camera on Clementi.  How much of that decision was based on Clementi being gay, and how much on other things about Ravi’s new roommate which were at least as exotic to him?  It seems the only time Ravi actually used the word “hate” about Clementi was in reference to what he thought was Clementi’s poverty.  The privileged Ravi was pretty clear: “Dude, I hate poor people.”  Ravi knew how to use the word “hate,” but even here, there’s more rhetoric than emotion.

The jury did not have to be convinced Ravi hated gays, which is one more reason this case is such a poor exemplar of a hate crime.  It is enough under New Jersey law that the invasion of Clementi’s privacy was intended to intimidate the victim based on sexual orientation.  Ravi was straddling the line between intimidation and embarrassment, neither pleasant for the victim, but with consequences for the perpetrator that make all the difference under the criminal law.

The jury found that Ravi was intimidating Clementi because Clementi was gay, and that finding makes this a case of public interest rather than just another stupid college prank.

But it is being understood as a case about hate, and that is a shame.  If there is any hatred here, it is an anemic and indefinite kind of hate that comes from the decadent and feeble politics of victimization.  And that has left us with two victims, rather than none.

10 Comments for “Trivializing Hate”

  1. posted by Trivializing Hate | QClick Radar on

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  2. posted by Lonnie Lopez on

    Perhaps as odd as this sounds, I’m a socialist and I agree with your assessments and concerns, though perhaps for different reasons. I’m sick of this idea of “hate” crimes because it individualizes and personalizes homophobia, whereas sexual oppression is in reality systematic and institutional. In a society which, by law, defines rights for some and denies them to others according to sexuality or gender expression, “hate crimes” are almost a logical consequence. When the federal government says that LGBT people CAN be discriminated against solely because of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, then it doesn’t make any sense to stigmatize or criminalize individuals who act out what federal law codifies. This whole notion of hate crimes actually serves the interests of the “big government”, “tough on crime” crowd and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. Hate crimes prosecutions do not deter hate crimes. Obama’s much-praised “Hate Crimes Law” does NOTHING to end gay bashing. In fact, you have to have your ass bashed or killed BEFORE the law even goes into effect. So long as the law, the alleged basis for civil society, treats people differently, some people will treat people differently. That’s where the real hate lies: the normalization of discrimination and inhuman treatment of other human beings. That’s what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”

  3. posted by Doug on

    ” criminalize individuals who act out what federal law codifies”

    There is nothing in federal law that codifies what happened to Matthew Shepard.

    • posted by Scott Jacobs on

      Nor is there anything in federal law that codifies discrimination against gays.

  4. posted by “Trivializing hate” on

    [...] of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi over his mistreatment of eventual suicide victim Tyler Clementi [Independent Gay Forum; earlier here, here, here, [...]

  5. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    David, you are dead on.

  6. posted by nevins on

    We are free to choose our associations in most areas of life. A most intimate association, the dorm roommate, is not one where most youth get a choice.
    Find out that your roommate is interested in men the same way you are interested in women, and suddenly the atmosphere is charged for disaster. A university would never randomly assign males and females to the same room for exactly this reason, yet somehow we are supposed to overlook the fact that a very similar sexual dynamic had been created with the gay roommate.
    Could Ravi have received a rapid no fault room mate exchange from the university? Doubtful. Is it any surprize that a juvenile whose hundred closest associates are like minded teens would resort to juvenile behavior.

    Impulsive, reckless, and with little thought for future consequence; Clementi and Ravi are equally well described by this assessment.

    • posted by Doug on

      ” Clementi and Ravi are equally well described by this assessment.” But only one of them is now dead, Clementi.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      I don’t know how things worked at this particular school, but when I was in college we could pick our own roommates and could change rooms. There was some red-tape to go through to change rooms, but it could be done, and it was done.

  7. posted by Hunter on

    Lonnie Lopez:

    I think you misunderstand the whole thrust of hate crimes laws — the point is, they recognize that crimes committed against an individual because that individual is part of a group are akin to terrorism, and merit enhanced penalties because of that. Death inflicted because of the victim’s race or sexual orientation is not the same a death inflicted in the heat of an argument. Those crimes don’t individualize and personalize anything — quite the opposite.

    As for the usual specter of “thought police” that David Link brings up, however obliquely, can I remind him that motive is a factor in judging any number of crimes, especially those that result in death? It’s the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Why would we not permit it in judging whether something is a hate crime?

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