The current news about the suicide of Rutgers University student, Tyler Clemente, and the possibility of hate crimes charges being filed against his two peers is disturbing, but I do hope that the New Jersy and Federal authorities and society as a whole can take a moment of pause before we lash out.
I have to ask whether what happened was not an example of the kind of behavior that many young adults, more young than adult, see as fun and having no consequences. I know nothing about the roommate who filmed Clemente’s actions and then posted the video on-line, but I do recall times when my peers and I acted first and thought later, if at all. Is that narcissistic? Clinically, no, since it’s typical of that age group. The filming and posting was a violation of Clemente’s right to privacy. Was it an attack on him for his sexual orientation? That’s not clear. The statements made by Dharum Ravi on Twitter sound more like the kind of thoughtless teasing that is common in a college dormitory.
What Ravi and Wei did appears to be a violation of privacy, nothing more. That does need a harsh punishment. As I wrote, people their age do thoughtless things, as do many people in general, and for someone who refuses to think or who is incapable of thinking, stern penalties are the only deterrent. I have heard discussion about this event claiming that it is the result of a generation growing up in social media who have no conception that some things don’t have to be posted. If so, this case could act as a warning and a command. No, children, you don’t have to know why, but the adults are telling you to get off line. You aren’t universally interesting; some thoughts can go unexpressed, and those around you have rights.
If Ravi and Wei are convicted, then they ought to be punished for the crime that they committed. What I don’t want to see is a “hate crimes” charge added. I understand the motivation for creating hate crimes legislation. Attacking someone for his race, sexual orientation, religion, or any of a number of other characteristics is a hateful act. In every case, society needs to punish the specific bad act. But we must not punish motivation. We are all driven by complex motivations, and those ought not be subject to the scrutiny of everyone around us. Motivation is itself a private matter, and each of us has a right to our motivations. If today we can add punishment to someone who is against homosexuality, tomorrow we can punish someone who is homosexual for being so.
The important point is what I wrote in the beginning. When outrageous crimes are committed, we must take a step back from the moment and sort out what actual wrong has been done before we rush to judgement.