Generation Me on Trial

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

March 25, 2012

"I dare you to chat me between the hours of 9:30 and midnight. Yes, it's happening again," the Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi wrote on his Twitter account in September 2010. "It" was Tyler Clementi, Mr. Ravi's roommate, having a sexual encounter with another man—while Mr. Ravi and his friends watched on a Webcam. The next day, Mr. Clementi committed suicide. On March 16, Mr. Ravi was found guilty on charges related to the incident and faces up to 10 years in prison.

This was an explosive case, and the actions of one college freshman cannot be used to characterize an entire generation. Yet the incident echoes several distressing trends rippling through American culture—trends that often appear first among young adults who have never known a culture without reality TV and Facebook. Three seem the most relevant:

An empathy deficit. In a study of more than 14,000 college students, Sara H. Konrath and her colleagues found that millennials (usually thought of as born between 1982 and 1999) scored considerably lower on a measure of empathy than previous generations. I call this group Generation Me, and my colleagues and I recently found a similar, though smaller, decline in empathy among high-school students on survey items such as "Maybe some minority groups do get unfair treatment, but that's no business of mine."

Empathy was clearly lacking in the Rutgers incident. One of Mr. Ravi's tweets gleefully announced, "Roommate asked for the room until midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." Not "yay" as in, "I'm happy my roommate is getting some," but, "Yay, what a great opportunity to laugh at someone else's expense." Mr. Ravi is not alone; his voyeuristic joy is similar to the pleasure we get watching rich, attractive people fighting on a reality TV show. No matter how embarrassing, it's all on display for our amusement. In Ms. Konrath's study, the empathy decline was especially steep after 2000—right around the advent of reality TV.

A decline in taking responsibility. Since 1960, young Americans have become increasingly likely to say their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts. Narcissism, a personality trait linked to blaming others for problems, has also increased among college students. Mr. Ravi's attorneys argued he was not guilty because he was young and immature; the attorneys of George Huguely V, convicted of beating his girlfriend to death at the University of Virginia, said he was drunk.

These are extreme examples. Yet many university faculty and staff grapple almost daily with students who blame everyone but themselves when they do poorly or just don't bother to show up. The new twist, rarely seen until recently, is the parents who make excuses for the students. When we think we're fantastic, it must be someone else's fault when bad stuff happens—even when we did the bad stuff ourselves.

More belief in equality for all. A third trend seems to contradict the incident at Rutgers—the growing acceptance of homosexuality, especially among the young. A recent Gallup poll, for example, showed 70 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 now support gay marriage—nearly twice as many as among those over age 55.

However, a lack of prejudice is not the same as true empathy. Anyone who decides to broadcast someone else's sexual encounter, as Mr. Ravi did, is obviously not empathizing very well. Given the stigma and discomfort homosexuality still stirs among many people, telecasting a young gay man's sexual encounter is particularly callous. Mr. Ravi's actions reflect a common theme in many Generation Me mistakes: He seemed clueless that his actions would hurt someone more severely because that person belonged to a minority group. Mr. Ravi didn't seem to realize that Mr. Clementi's homosexuality made him more vulnerable. Treating people as equal, usually such a good thing, becomes harmful when individuals lose the ability to take someone else's perspective. "Tolerance" is not enough.

At the trial, students testified they had never heard Mr. Ravi say anything bad about gays. Mr. Ravi even wrote to Mr. Clementi, "I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it." Apparently Mr. Ravi didn't hate gays. He just thought watching them make out was funny.

A similar theme appeared in a February 2010 incident at the University of California at San Diego, when a fraternity sponsored a "Compton Cookout," where partygoers were asked to dress as pimps and "ghetto chicks." Many of the university's black students did not find that amusing, especially during Black History Month.

But to the fraternity brothers, it was just another theme party and just other costumes. Everybody's equal, right? It didn't seem to occur to them that making fun of a historically underprivileged group might cause offense, particularly on a campus where barely 2 percent of the students are black—and thus might feel isolated already. Like the case of Mr. Ravi and Mr. Clementi, it was cluelessness born of the combination of low empathy and the belief that we are all equal.

So should cluelessness and lack of empathy be prosecuted as a crime? Mr. Ravis' attorneys said he was simply an immature young man who played a prank. Although the decline in empathy is a worrying trend, and Mr. Clementi's death a true tragedy, it can still be debated whether cluelessness is a crime. The debate is likely to continue, but for now, the verdicts in New Jersey and Virginia are a reminder—to young people and to society as a whole—that cruelty has consequences.

Tolerance and equality are among Generation Me's greatest strengths, and should continue to be celebrated. But sometimes equality is not enough. For true peace and compassion, we need a healthy dose of empathy. It's not enough to realize that someone else is equal—we have to think about what it's really like to be him or her. That, perhaps more than anything else, is the lesson we must teach Generation Me—and ourselves.

Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2006) and co-author, with W. Keith Campbell, of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press, 2009).