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.