Friday, October 1, 2010

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming--

I need to take some time to process what has happened at our university.

A first-year student, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide last week. Two first-year students, Dharun Ravi (Clementi's roommate) and Molly Wei (Ravi's friend from high school), are charged with invasion of privacy after allegedy broadcasting over the internet a sexual encounter that Clementi had with another man. The details can be found anywhere online. Here is one article. Here is another. This article offers an interesting angle from Clementi's point of view.

This is a terrible terrible tragedy and the actions of the suspects are appalling & outrageous. Though I did not know Clementi, nor do I know Ravi or Wei, I feel really affected by this because it has taken place in my own backyard. I have a heavy heart.

But what's unsettling to me now is some of the responses by the general public.

Some have commented on online articles with a lack of empathy for Clementi. Things like, "I felt like he did but I didn't kill myself, I found a way... --why would you do that?"

Some are quick to pass harsh judgment, calling for involuntary manslaughter charges for Ravi and Wei. There is name-calling and villification.

But let's take a step back. Breathe. Pause. Take a closer look.

These are three first-year students who have been in the process of making that significant adjustment to college life --after all, it's only been a month since the semester started. I brought this discussion to my class this morning. Two of my own students commented that Ravi & Wei's behavior is "very high school". This touched on what had been bothering me these past few days: these three students are kids, really --and they are from a generation that has grown up in a vastly unwieldly world. What do I mean by "unwieldy"?

Think about this: the average first-year student was born in 1992. They do not know a world without the internet. Their main mode of communication has nothing to do with pen or paper or ink of any kind. The speed at which technology moves is incredible, to the point where we (the grown-ups) are chasing it just to keep up. How many times have you read or heard a story about a pre-teen girl taking a naked photo of herself and sending it to a boy she likes, just so he'll like her back? And then that boy sends it to his friends, and soon that photo is circulating out in the unmanageable world of the internet. It is so easy for young people to communicate with each other, physical boundaries be dammned. You want to share a song with your friend in the Philippines? No problem. You want to rant about something to the world? Piece of cake. You want to broadcast your roommate's sexual encounter without his knowledge? Go right ahead.

So here's the thing: we lived in a world that gives young people --kids who are still trying to figure out who they are in the world-- the easy tools to invent themselves & create personas; this requires some serious guidance. They know they can get away with certain things --saying outrageous or cathartic things online through a screen name, for example-- and not be held accountable. Not immediately anyway. And sometimes, they're never held accountable, depending on what was said.

Many young people don't think twice about what they share on the internet. Many young people can't tell the difference between what is real and what isn't. There are so many boundaries that have been blurred by the internet, including how to handle something like cyber-voyuerism in a court of law, but particularly moral and ethnical boundaries. So where is the guidance?

We as a society need to step up and provide the values that have fallen to the wayside (and in its place is sex & violence). We need to set examples for this young generation before they self-destruct.

I think about Tyler Clementi and wish he had taken a moment to breathe, to pause, to take a step back. Maybe he could have found some help, some support. I think about Dharun Ravi & Molly Wei and wonder where we as a society have failed them and the others who have resorted to this kind of behavior. I think about all three students' parents and pray for them as they struggle with what has happened. I cannot even begin to imagine what that would be like, if that was one of my kids.

So please, pause & take a breath. This is more complex than it seems.

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