The Culture That Killed Tyler Clementi
by Sunsara Taylor
Revolution Online, October 7, 2010
That same day, discussing his reaction to this online, Tyler wrote: “And so I feel like it was ‘look at what a fag my roommate is... Other people have commented on his profile with things like ‘how did you manage to go back in there?’ and ‘are you ok?’ and the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas I mean come on... he was SPYING ON ME ... do they see something wrong with this?”
After that, Tyler Clementi posted on Facebook “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
For three days, Tyler had been wrestling with how to respond to the invasion of his privacy, the streaming of his sexual encounter, and the ridiculing of his sexual orientation by his college roommate and others online. But, for 18 years he had been wrestling with how to live in a society that makes almost no allowances for non-conformity and in a million ways – grotesque as well as subtle – conveyed hostility to the most intimate and vulnerable elements of his being.
The two students involved in filming and sharing Tyler’s private moments, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, have become the subject of great debate. Many, including the authorities and news media, have called for criminal charges. And many – from hypocritical moralizers to genuinely concerned students, gay rights groups and others – are discussing their reprehensible behavior. Certainly Ravi and Wei – who traded in society’s anti-gay stigmas for momentary popularity and turned the invasions of Tyler's privacy into sport – were brutally wrong.
But this horrific death cannot be explained by focusing narrowly on two college freshmen. The even more damning truth is that their behavior was completely in step with the dominant culture of homophobia, cruelty, and destruction of privacy.
A Culture of Bigotry and an Epidemic of Gay Teen Suicide
On the various online memorial pages for Tyler, on Facebook and YouTube, while there is, in the main, an outpouring of support and caring, there are also comments condemning Tyler and other gay people to hell, stating that homosexuality is a “sin” and even going so far as to celebrate Tyler taking his own life. This is typical.
While one of the most favorable shifts in the culture in recent decades has been the growing acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people, this has developed in stark and sharp contrast to the deeply entrenched, and increasingly vitriolic and politically mobilized, homophobic condemnation and attacks.
The polarization is extreme and intensifying. There are more openly gay people in the media, in politics, in entertainment than ever before, but gay people are still a staple joke of sitcoms, television, radio dj’s and stand-up comedians. Growing numbers support full equality and acceptance of gays, but it is still the case that by law the majority of states deny gays the fundamental right to marry the person they fall in love with, to visit their partner’s bedside as they are dying, or to share custody of their own children. And, it is still far from uncommon to hear prominent senators equate homosexuality with bestiality or high-watt preachers insist that homosexuality is a “sin” or an “illness” in need of a “cure.”
This polarization is not merely taking place between two sections of the people. At every level, the forces of tradition and of power – from the major molders of public opinion, to the keepers of traditional Christianity and faith, to the highest levels of courts, legislature and executive – have come down against accepting the full humanity of gays. Let us not forget that even the “great progressive” President Obama not only opposed gay marriage but also invited Rick Warren – the bigoted biblical literalist who played a big role in banning gay marriage in California and who has ties to international forces determined to execute all gays – to deliver his 2008 inaugural invocation.
All this gives force and backing to the most backwards impulses among the people and contributes to a situation where anti-gay jokes, anti-gay bullying, and anti-gay violence are so widespread that gay teen suicides are commonplace. More than 85 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being harassed because of their sexual or gender identity and more than 20 percent report being physically attacked.
The day after Tyler’s suicide, Asher Brown, a thirteen year old living in Houston, Texas shot himself in the head in his family’s home. Just a few days before that, Seth Walsh, also thirteen, hung himself in his backyard in California. And just over a week before that, Billy Lucas, age 15, hung himself in a barn in Indiana. All of them had been the victim of anti-gay bullying.
At a youth meeting held last week at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, 15 of the 16 teenagers present admitted that they had thought about killing themselves. As one put it, “I didn’t want to be there anymore. I’d rather just not wake up. I felt like I was some kind of mistake or a mess-up.
The Destruction of Intimacy and the End of Privacy
Friends of Dharun Ravi have told the media that he wasn’t particularly homophobic, that he was just playing a prank, and that he would have done the same thing had his roommate brought home a female. Whether or not that is true, this line of “defense” points to another extremely disturbing feature of today’s culture. It seems a whole generation has been given the idea that moments of intimacy are nothing more than things to be caught on film, ridiculed, and traded for social status.
This generation has been reared on self-commodification and increasingly violent and degrading pornography. They’ve come of age in a world where people’s careers are “made” if they are able to get “just the right shot” up a young celebrity’s skirt as she steps out of a limo. They’ve been shaped by a culture that demands female celebrities bare all – through a “leaked” sex tape or a racy video – in order to remain relevant past their pre-teens. They are assaulted every day by drug store magazines, gossip channels, websites, and mainstream “news stories” trading in the trivial, in mass shamings and in voyeuristic cruelty celebrating others' pains and problems.
All this has had the effect of numbing huge numbers of this generation of the ability to empathize with others and robbing them the idea that vulnerability, closeness, and privacy have any role to play in sexual relations.
A Culture of Consumerism, Conformity and Cruelty
Much speculation has begun about how much blame to place on social media like Facebook and Twitter. On the one hand, the internet has contributed to breaking down the isolation of gay youth in rural areas. But at the same time, it has become the site for intensifying bigotry and cyber-bullying.
The reality is that while technology – in the abstract and in itself – is neutral, it does not exist in a vacuum. All innovations and technology get filtered through the dominant economic relations, the political power structure, and culture of a society. Even the kinds of technology that get produced, invested in, and catch on, reflect the larger society and its values.
This means that in a truly liberated society – one in which revolution has been made and a new state and system established – the internet could be part of stoking intellectual ferment, and people learning from each other more broadly. But in this society along with, and as a part of, being driven by the capitalist profit motive, the internet has become an exponentially expanding superhighway of everything cruel, vapid and debasing in this culture.
A driving force in the expansion of internet technology – including the pervasiveness of high-speed internet/cable in people’s homes, the capacity to stream live video, and the availability of secret webcams – has been pornography, notable for its escalating violence and degradation of women and girls. Another huge expanse has been dedicated to material consumption – online shopping, searching for “great deals,” comparing prices and bidding on products.
Even the technology that has been devoted to developing “social networks” is marked by – and reinforces – the superficiality, segregation and the atomization of our times. Really, what is the texture and depth of “friends” who are often no more than onscreen avatars? What deep value is there to “communication” that is reduced to 140 characters? What becomes of emotions when they are replaced with cartoon-face “emoticons?” What of people’s individuality when it is reduced a set of answers to standard profile questions?
While there are positive countervailing trends, such forms of “social media” almost guarantee that superficiality and alienation will dominate. Developing real relationships – at least ones that do not merely reinforce existing social cliques, stereotypes and divisions – requires engaging at a pace and a depth that allows exploration, boundary-stretching, and nuance. Instead, people get flattened out, generalized, and robbed of the room for uncertainty and exploration. Critical thinking, curiosity and emotional empathy snuffed out. All this magnifies the larger societal tendency to reduce a whole section of youth into a despised stereotype; where being gay – or denying being gay or repressing the desire to experiment – is the only characteristic allowed to define them.
Needed: A Culture of Revolt against This Revolting Culture
As politicians and pundits debate whether Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei should face charges of manslaughter, it seems doubtful they could have fully comprehended the weight and potential repercussions of their actions. However, there is absolutely NO QUESTION that this society and this culture will continue to generate the kind of deep pain, alienation, and sorrow that leads gay youth to take their lives at a rate 3 to 4 times that of others.
As you read this, there are gay youth in their bedrooms, on the internet, in their churches, at their schools. They are being bullied, humiliated and picked on. They are being denied the space to even figure out who they are, what they feel, and how they want to love. They are alone and overwhelmed. They are questioning whether the hurt and the shame will ever go away. They are wondering what it is that has made them the objects of such contempt. They are doubting whether there is – or ever will be – any place for them on this planet.
What they don’t yet understand is that it is not them, but this putrid culture, this alienating society and its brutal ignorance that is worthy of contempt. What they don’t yet understand is that it is not them, but this system that has long outlived its usefulness. What they do not yet understand is that there is a meaningful and urgent role to play now – for everyone who refuses to internalize the hatred aimed at them for failing to conform and instead turns their anger against its source, towards building resistance and, ultimately, making revolution to put an end to this system, to its culture and its crimes.
There is an urgent need right now for radical revulsion against everything that went into the suicide of Tyler Clementi.
Enough with being atomized, segregated, numbed out and dumbed down. Its time to get out from behind the computer screens and into the schools and the streets and into people’s faces. The world is too big, the problems in need of solving are too great, the ideas worth engaging are too stimulating, the potential of what can be wrenched out for humanity through revolution is too beautiful and invigorating to stay caught up in bigotry or gossip, small-mindedness or self-absorption. It is necessary NOW to forge a different and far better morality and culture – where people are related to as full human beings, not reduced down to their sexual orientation or gender, the part of the world they were born in or what language they speak, the color of their skin or the lies this system propagates about them. Where trading on bigotry is looked down upon, but having the courage to speak out against it is valued and supported. Where anti-gay laws and rulings are fiercely opposed through visible resistance, not met with compromise or demobilizing calls for “common ground.” Where privacy is defended and intruding upon it is opposed. Where friendships and bonds – including sexual relations and intimacy – are based not on “getting over” or “getting popular,” but on getting to know the other person as a full human being, based on mutual respect and equality, with room for exploration and genuine trust. Where people learn from each and transform themselves in the process of transforming the world. Where this whole revolting culture is challenged with an utterly unapologetic, totally defiant, and wildly creative culture of revolt!