You might think that, for scholars who study bias and bullying, the conviction of Dharun Ravi would be a victory of sorts. After all, the jury took seriously the suffering of Tyler Clementi, Ravi’s roommate at Rutgers University who killed himself soon after he discovered that Ravi had been using a Webcam to spy on his intimate encounters with another man. In interviews after the verdict was announced, jurors seemed disturbed by Ravi’s behavior, calling it “wrong.” As one prosecutor put it: “They felt the pain of Tyler.”
But the reaction from these scholars is much more ambivalent. danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a visiting researcher at Harvard Law School, said in an interview that she remains “troubled by the decision to prosecute Ravi.” It’s not that she doubts that Ravi is guilty of the crimes in question, but she worries about drawing a line between his deplorable behavior and Clementi’s decision to leap from a bridge. “Is this why he killed himself?” she said. “I don’t know that any of us will ever know. I can only imagine what went through his head.”
Also, it concerns her that the coverage of the case became more about easy symbolism than the messiness of this particular roommate relationship, casting Ravi as a homophobic bully and Clementi as his vulnerable victim. “These metanarratives are disturbing,” said boyd (who uses only lower-case letters in her name).
The verdict came on the heels of an event held at Harvard University to announce the Born This Way Foundation, a research organization started by Lady Gaga, to “foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.” boyd is a research fellow for the foundation and, along with John Palfrey, a professor of law at Harvard and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, she’s putting together a working-paper series to help guide the foundation.
In one of those papers, written by boyd and Palfrey, they argue that “‘Bullies’ aren’t the source of the problem; they’re often a symptom of the problem.”
They put the word “bullies” in quotation marks because it’s a word that researchers in this area usually avoid. It’s a word that C.J. Pascoe, an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College, doesn’t use at all in her book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, which was published in 2007 and reissued last October with a new preface.
Her initial reaction to the verdict was, as she put it: “Yea! We have a number of people who think we shouldn’t be harassing gay kids!” But the message it sends bothers her. “It seems like partially what we’re doing with Ravi is exonerating ourselves from structural and cultural homophobia and making it the property of this one 18-year-old man.” (Ravi was 18 at the time of Clementi’s suicide, in 2010.)
Pascoe also wonders what role race played in the prosecution. Ravi, who was born in India but whose parents moved to the United States when he was little, may be deported. In the research for her book, Pascoe came across a single case of someone being punished for anti-gay bias at the high school she studied, and that was an African-American student who had made disparaging statements about white students on the wrestling team.
In general, she believes that “locating the cause of Tyler’s suicide in this relationship with Ravi is deeply problematic.”
Mary Gray thinks so, too. Ms. Gray, an associate professor of communications and culture at Indiana University, said that while Ravi is “clearly culpable for a number of violations,” she didn’t see how his conviction was helpful. “We’re comforted that we found a bad apple and that’s not a forward-thinking approach,” she said.
She pointed out that the attitude in some of Ravi’s texts and Tweets wasn’t that different from what you stumble upon in the rest of society. “I could find 10 links to different YouTube videos of school-board members and Congressional leaders saying homophobic things,” she said. “We’re funneling our outrage into one case, but we’re all accountable for this atmosphere.”
Like boyd and Pascoe, Gray brought up the reported reactions of Clementi’s parents when he told them he was gay, an announcement he made not long before his suicide. “We know that Tyler Clementi came out to his mother, and she was grappling with how to support him,” said Gray. “But we would never put her on that stand.”
As for what can be done now, Gray said part of the answer is more research. “We need to talk to kids in their schools about what’s going on,” she said. “There are a lot of platitudes about how we want lives to be better for these kids, but we have nothing from the Department of Education that demonstrates that we know what their lives are like.”