My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

On Friday, Dharun Ravi – the Rutgers student whose roommate Tyler Clementi killed himself – was found guilty of privacy invasion, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation (a hate crime). When John Palfrey and I wrote about this case three weeks ago, I was really hopeful that the court proceedings would give clarity and relieve my uncertainty. Instead, I am left more conflicted and deeply saddened. I believe that the jury did their job, but I am not convinced that justice was served. More disturbingly, I think that the symbolic component of this case is deeply troubling.

In New Jersey, someone can be convicted of bias intimidation for committing an act…

  1. with the express purpose of intimidating an individual or group…
  2. knowing that the offense would cause an individual or group to feel intimidated…
  3. with which the individual or group on the receiving end believes that they were targeted…

… because of their race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In Ravi’s trial, the jury concluded that Ravi neither intended to intimidate Clementi nor believed that his acts would make Clementi feel intimidated because of his sexuality. Yet, the jury did conclude that, based on computer evidence, Clementi probably felt intimidated because of his sexuality.

As someone who wants to rid the world of homophobia, this conviction leaves me devastated. I recognize the symbolic move that this is supposed to make. This is supposed to signal that homophobia will not be tolerated. But Ravi wasn’t convicted of being homophobic, but, rather, creating the “circumstances” in which Clementi would probably feel intimidated. In other words, Ravi is being punished for living in a culture of homophobia even though there’s little evidence to suggest that he perpetuated it intentionally. As Mary Gray has argued, we are all to blame for the culture of homophobia that has resulted in this tragedy.

I can’t help but think of Clementi’s parents in light of this. By all accounts, their reaction to their son’s confession that he was gay did more to intimidate Clementi based on his sexuality than Ravi’s stupid act. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine that the court would charge, let alone convict, Clementi’s distraught parents of a hate crime. ::shudder::

I can’t justify Ravi’s decision to invade his roommate’s privacy, especially not at a moment in which he would be extremely vulnerable. I also cannot justify Ravi’s decision to mess with evidence, even though I suspect he did so out of fear. But I also don’t think that either of these actions deserve 10 years of jail time or deportation (two of the options given to the judge). I don’t think that’s justice.

This case is being hailed for its symbolism, but what is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions.

I’m also sick and tired of people saying that this will teach kids an important lesson. Simply put, it won’t. No teen that I know identifies their punking and pranking of their friends and classmates as bullying, let alone bias intimidation. Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.

The jury did its job. The law was followed. I have little doubt that Ravi did the things that he was convicted of doing. But I am not celebrating because I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.

(Translated to Ukrainian)

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17 comments to Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

  • I completely agree.
    While Ravi broke several (rather low level) laws, he did not cause Clementi’s death. He’s not the only one responsible for the homophobic culture we live in. When republican and religious pundits are allowed to smear gays (and other minorities) on national media and go unpunished because their hateful speech is “in the name of God,” it’s hardly justifiable to throw an 18 year old in prison for 10+ years. It’s not teaching anyone anything. Ravi’s crimes should have be treated independently of Clementi’s death, and Clementi’s death should be serving as a symbol for the cause of changing how the media perpetuates a heteronormative culture that encourages young men to be wary of gay roommates enough to turn on their webcams and send derogatory texts.

  • tz

    It also shows that the “community” will sic a much larger bully called government on anyone and destroy them.

    Make sure you don’t have any “friends of diversity”, otherwise anything you do might make them feel intimidated and be grounds for a long prison term.

    The response to “the culture of homophobia” is not to sue for peace, for tolerance, or understanding, it is one where they will seek revenge with interest.

    The response to bullying and intimidation is to find a bigger bully and impose greater imitation.

    Or as Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

  • vasanth

    Really shocking and thanks for putting this issue in very right perspective. As you have pointed out it would just destroy the life of Ravi.

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece

  • ferridder

    I find it strange that you limit your discussion to only one of the counts. On another, he jury did conclude that Ravi intended to intimidate Clementi because of his sexuality, contrary to what you state above.

    The verdict (http://abovethelaw.com/2012/03/breaking-verdict-in-the-dharun-ravi-case/2/):

    2nd Degree Bias Intimidation
    (For 3rd Degree Attempted Invasion of Privacy charge on Sept. 21)
    • Invasion of Privacy, with the purpose to intimidate Tyler Clementi because of sexual orientation: GUILTY

    I do agree that it is sad that the lives of two young people have been destroyed over this, one at their own hands and the other to set an example. I hope that some good comes out of it.

  • “I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.” I will carry that with me for a long time Danah. Sad, horrible, tragic…and politically convenient, perhasp even politically necessary? Still…sad.

  • sd

    I completely agree with your analysis.

    It is very troubling to me as a parent, that Clemeti did very little by way of helping himself. I am unable to understand why a student being bullied/intimidated would not turn to someone for help (and in Clementi’s case actually follow through with the options/solutions available). Should the message around bullying also consist of empowering the victim and not just villifying the bully?

    For this exact reason, I think Ravi’s crimes should be decoupled with Clementi’s death. Ravi’s actions were wrong and hurtful but that cannot be THE reason why Clementi decided to end his life.

  • Arthur Lipkin

    This case seems far too nuanced to be dealt with purely as a legal matter of victims and perps. “What case isn’t?” the non-lawyer might ask.

    Some want to portray Clementi’s death as a simple morality play with each character having a one-dimensional role. But his suicide should not be attributed to one factor, humiliation, even though peer acceptance seems to be key to LGBT youth resilience. So is parental acceptance, even at a low level, GSA membership, an adult one can talk to, et al. But none of these has yet proven determinative. Queer GSA members with supportive parents and teachers still kill themselves, sometimes for reasons unrelated to their sexuality. Clementi’s vulnerabilities may be better understood as his family and friends continue to speak about him.

    As for Ravi, let’s not cast him as bogie man ultra homophobe until there is more persuasive cause to think that he is. I actually think there’s more value for our community in stressing that the mindless cruelty of immature young men of privilege can have devastating consequences.

    As for what we can DO about LGBTQ youth depression:
    recognize that LGBTQ youth can be depressed about things not directly related to their sexuality. Appropriate care should include, but not be limited to that aspect of their identity. Getting service providers to support our kids around their sexuality is one of the main goals of my work and of others on this list. I have to remind myself that these young people are subject to all the stresses of adolescence, even if my instinct as an activist is to assume that they’ll be OK (“It gets better?”) once they’ve achieved a healthy adjustment to their sexuality and have found a safe space to be queer.

    I want to share a column on the discourse surrounding Clementi’s suicide and Ravi’s trial from The Nation

  • Gail

    “It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time,”

    How can you say this. Ravi definitely was trying to make fun of and embarrass Clementi because of his sexuality. Whether he deserves 10 yrs, I’m not sure. But he was offered a plea bargain for no jail time and he turn it down. He should sue his lawyer!

  • Bill McGeveran

    Thanks, danah. I share your ambivalence. Hard to understand how 10 years in jail and deportation (I believe deportability is automatic if this conviction stands, and not something within the New Jersey judge’s discretion) makes much of anything better in this sad situation. When a young gay man kills himself the reasons are usually complex and systematic. The oversimplification of blaming this one young man for the other young man’s death is troubling.

  • I agree with you Gail. Ravi is 18 years old, he was accepted into a good college. He is not a stupid, ignorant adolescent. He was well aware of his actions and the hurt they would cause. He was just not aware of their penal code. Ten years may be extreme but Ravi was well aware of what he was doing. He was not just teasing a kid at the play ground. Ravi taped, created a live video tape of his of his roommate’s sexual activities. I think regardless of Clementi’s sexual orientation having your private life video taped and the mere thought of it being posted all over the internet, on YOUTUBE for millions of viewers was too shameful and embarrassing for Clementi. Can you imagine the horror of seeing your own daughter having sex on YouTube because her boyfriend decided to secretly hide a video camera? I would think that the thought of wanting to die would cross several young minds over that kind of embarrassment. Is ten years a harsh conviction? Maybe, but Ravi’s actions would have haunted Clementi his whole life, why is anyone sympathizing with him because his life is now ruined? Ravi’s disgusting, thoughtless actions brought it upon himself.

  • There was a plea bargain on the table for no prison and 600 hours community service. He wouldn’t be in jail if he had taken it. He’s not a monster, but not taking such a generous deal shows a hell of a lot of hubris.

  • Tara

    What troubles me is that Ravi still has not apologized. In the most recent interviews I have read, he is still absolving himself of all wrong. I find it hard to feel sympathy for him when he is apparently incapable of remorse.

    Also, I think it is a mistake to connect bullying solely with homophobia. Personally, I have been bullied more often for my disability than for my sexuality. Overall, there is still a pervasive acceptance of bullying, a notion I have seen even in many comments about the Clementi case that he just wasn’t strong enough, that he failed some kind of social Darwinism test. I am tired of this idea that courtesy is somehow a gift that only a few people deserve. When everyone surrounding a bully and his/her victim passively accepts the situation as normal, when the victim is derided for not being able to stop the bully, when there are no negative consequences for cruelty, those with bullying tendencies will continue to do whatever they can get away with. I hope Ravi’s is the first of many convictions of people who live like sharks, looking for blood/vulnerability in order to attack.

  • Julie

    There is no excuse for what Ravi did. The punishment should be harsh enough to make him NEVER do anything like that again.

    If others hear about his case and choose not to secretly video tape another person’s private moments and put them on display for the world to see that is icing on the cake.

    The fact that Clementi happened to be gay and that he committed suicide afterwards are not relevant to if Ravi deserved to be punished. It just happens to be the reason his case has been so public.

  • Well said Danah, I did not follow the trial but read an interesting piece in the New Yorker. Don’t see how the victim’s perception factors into this since we don’t have his voice. In a civilized society justice needs to be a complex process which weighs the unique circumstances of each case with compassion and without popular bias.

  • Geoffrey Falk

    Thank you, Gail and Francis (and Tara), for injecting some intelligent commentary into this otherwise dismal blog posting.

    And Danah: Would you be defending Ravi if he wasn’t *brown*, by your own otherwise irrelevant observation? I doubt it.

  • Bruce Tutty

    ‘When republican and religious pundits are allowed to smear gays (and other minorities) on national media and go unpunished because their hateful speech is “in the name of God,”’

    The Devil also quotes scripture, but only the bits that are useful, and never the whole scripture….when people insist ‘its all in this bit of verse’, that’s how you tell.

  • Zeeshan

    The rationale of ‘creating the circumstances’ which caused Clementi to die, means even a road accidental death could be attributed to the government and the construction company…because they after-all allowed the circumstances by making the road the way they did. The intent has to be there.

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