Tools that delivered torment to Ridgewood grad were modern, but our capacity for cruelty and compassion are timeless.
By Louis C. Hochman
Originally published on Ridgewood Patch · September 30, 2010
Let’s be clear: The world knew hurtful foolishness long before it knew Facebook. It knew social stigma long before it knew social networking. Pain is nothing new, nothing modern.
Any description of Ridgewood High School graduate Tyler Clementi’s heartbreaking suicide and the events around it must inescapably involve itself with buzzwords and lingo, with 21st century trademarks and terminology. A generation ago, the story of the Rutgers University freshman’s death would have sounded like science fiction—like a cautionary tale about giving up too much privacy as technology makes it easier and easier for us to access one another.
Clementi suffered a horrible indignity when his roommate allegedly streamed video of Clementi performing a sex act over the Internet. The roommate also allegedly advertised a second attempted video stream with tweets on Twitter, where 148 followers could easily find it (and just about anyone else might happen upon it).
And a day later—perhaps when the embarrassment and shame became too much to bear—Clementi announced to the virtual world he’d be leaving the real one. He posted to his Facebook wall: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” It wasn’t a hollow threat. Police have recovered a body that may well be his.
Clementi’s personal tragedy couldn’t have unfolded without some of today’s most popular tools—the same ones pundits warn us are in their overuse devaluing privacy and filling our lives with chatter and noise. There’s a tremendous temptation to place at least some of the blame on modern technology, and on the ways our social habits have adapted to it.
But Facebook’s not at fault for Clementi’s death any more than Marilyn Manson was at fault for the Columbine High School massacre. None of us can know exactly what Clementi was thinking when he stepped out onto the George Washington Bridge, what pressures and influences brought him to a literal edge from which he couldn’t or wouldn’t find the will to turn back.
Still, it seems clear the aggravating factor was an incident that at best could be described as a shortsighted prank, and at worst a malicious act of bullying and violation. It was an avoidable and perhaps unforgivable choice made by individuals who should have appreciated the consequences of their actions. The tools they used may have been particular to our time, but the sentiment driving them wasn’t. There’s nothing new about meanness, nor irresponsibility.
In the hours after Clementi’s death was made public, those same technological resources became rallying points for those who wanted to honor his memory.
A Facebook page created in Clementi’s memory Wednesday collected more than 12,000 followers by midnight (there’s something uncomfortable that Facebook’s latest designs require a person to “like” a page dedicated to commemorating a painful event). Close friends and strangers moved by his story alike shared their sentiments—often at a rate of six or seven a minute. Another page created late Wednesday night encourages Rutgers students to wear black on Friday, in Clementi’s memory. That page found hundreds of followers in its first hour. On Twitter, similar discussions are taking place around the hashtag #tylerclementi and similar keywords.
Clementi’s supporters used and continue to use technology to share memories, to express grief, to protest cyberbullying, to discuss acceptance of homosexuals—to do honor to a life ended too soon. Among the thoughts shared:
- Esther Y. Kim (on Facebook): When i asked my dad if he remembered who you were, he said “yea, the one who kind of looked like Harry Potter?” I wish i could’ve had the chance to tell you that in person. would have been a good laugh to share. you’ll be remembered by every person you graced with your music.
- Nichole Scheibler (on Facebook): I did not know Tyler, but was bullied my entire life, and can sympathize with the horror he felt at the hands of his tormentors. There is NO reason to bully someone—whether it be physical or emotional. What was done to him was so cruel. He shouldn’t have felt shame for expressing himself, but we as a society are so prejudiced that what was on that video made him jump to his death rather than live with the repercussions of it. What disgusts me is if it had been a young woman in the room with him, this would be a non-event. No one should sacrifice their life just to be themselves. May Tyler rest in peace and receive the justice he deserves…
- clairehoworth (on Twitter): if there are silver linings, then may people learn compassion & humanity from the #tylerclementi story.
The world is changing quickly—and it’s no surprise that wisdom lags as our social mores adapt to meet our technical ability and opportunity. Tyler Clementi’s story will fade from public memory. It will move off the front pages of newspapers and homepages of websites. But there’s some small relief in knowing that at least for now, the same tools that delivered torment to Clementi are being used to deliver compassion and caring to those left behind. There’s some relief in knowing they’re being used for calls to action, to prevent tragedies like Clementi’s from being repeated.
There’s some relief in knowing that no matter how quickly society progresses, we retain the will to right wrongs, and to offer comfort to those in need.
And that’s nothing new, nothing modern.