For the last three days I've been consumed with the story of Tyler Clementi, the young college freshman whose roomate, unbeknowst to him, streamed live video of Tyler's most intimate moments onto the internet for all the world to see. Though I don't suppose it is possible to know all of the factors that drove Tyler Clementi to jump off the George Washington Bridge, I think it is fair to say that the voyeuristic bullying of his roommate and all those who logged on to watch was the straw that broke the camel's back. It is tempting to see his roommate, Dharun Ravi and Ravi's friend Molly Wei as evil bullies with no redeeming qualities. It would be comforting to me, and probably many others, if they were one-dimensional villains. I could believe then that locking them away would be remove the danger they represent from my corner of the world. It is an easy, but I believe,erroneous assumption. It's not that I don't think these two should face criminal consequences, I absolutely do, but I see them as one malignant growth in a much larger cancer growing in our culture.
In America we love consumerism. I love consumerism. What do I do when I'm stressed? One of two things usually, I eat or I shop. There is something about the act of consumption that soothes me. I know I am not alone in this. Over the last several years we, as a culture, have had to start facing the consequences of all this conspicuous consumption. Our love affair with stuff; designer handbags, fancy cars, big houses, and our penchant for buy now, pay later have left us in one of the biggest financial messes in nearly a century. Our devotion to both fine dining and fast food, big portions, easy and tasty fatty foods has turned us into one of the most obese countries in the world. Undoubtedly our love of consumption has taken a turn for the worse.
So what does any of this have to do with the tragic case of an 18 year old boy's humiliation and subsequent suicide? Truth is, I'm not sure, but in the days since this case broke I've been asking myself and others how two apparently intelligent, reportedly good, young people could become so desensitized to the feelings of another that it never occurred to them that broadcasting his most private moments would cause him extreme emotional duress. As a teacher and a mother I have come to realize that good kids commit both stupid and bad deeds all the time. I have seen good students, honorable young men make colossally bad decisions that have sometimes ended their lives. I have seen 'bad' kids commit acts of kindness that have brought tears to my eyes. Life is not as simple as many people would have us believe. The kid who cursed out his teacher may have been beaten last night by his stepfather. The girl who never brings her homework in may be practically raising her siblings while her mother works two jobs. On the other hand the charming athlete with all the right grades may be addicted to pain pills or drinking himself into oblivion every Saturday night.
So, if it isn't that these two young people and all the others who watched this video feed are just 'bad' people, what could it be? There is no end to the factors that may have contributed. Community, parenting, a sense of entitlement, all these things seem like reasonable avenues to explore. But exploration shouldn't be simply a quest to assign blame. Blame is easy. Blame is tidy. It's the parent's fault, the teacher's fault, the fault of media, the list goes on and on. I just keep trying to understand what may have led these two teens and the others who sat watching to fail to realize they didn't have any right to do so?
I can't help but wonder if there is something about who we are as a culture that leads people to feel entitled to consume the lives of others as a part of seeking their own pleasure. I looked in the mirror first. I, too, have subscribed to this kind of consumption. Over the past few years I've developed a penchant for reality television. For me it started with the first season of Survivor. When Susan gave her famous rat and snake speech at the final tribal council of the first season, I, like many Americans, was hanging on every incendiary word. I remember clearly the phenomena it was at the time, newscasters interviewed people who had filled bars and friends living rooms to view the show together. The success of Survivor opened something of a Pandora's box back in 2000. Since then American viewers have been able to watch women and men compete for love, for money, to lose weight, you name it there's a reality show streaming right into our living rooms that not only allows, but encourages us to entertain ourselves with the experiences of others.
It seems the emotional and sexual ante is upped every year. In the past year we've seen ex-rock stars parade girl after girl into their bed and we've stood by the proverbial door with a subtitled ear to the door. It's not only dating shows, shows like 'Big Brother', I Love Money and Jersey Shore have used night vision cameras to give us a front row seat to the most intimate moments of strangers. Of course all of these people consented, each and every one of them signed some sort of release that opened the door for all our most voyeuristic tendencies. Tyler Clementi signed no such agreement. He did not ask for, nor did he want, for his most personal moments to be offered up for the entertainment of his peers.
So why do so many of us keep watching these 'reality' shows? I have often heard, and just as often said, that part of the appeal of watching these shows is that is makes me feel better about my life. At least I'm not that messed up. I may not be perfect but at least I'm not willing to throw myself at a man who is dating 20 other women at the same time he's dating me. I don't get drunk out of my mind and have fist fights with other women. I know, unlike Snooki, that the pilgrims predate the 1920's. It's almost pathetic how willing we are to build our self-esteem on the wreckage of other people's lives. Anytime I want to I can instantly access the lives of strangers. If I don't happen to be near a television, I can pull up youtube on my cellphone. I watch them fall off bikes, propose marriage, try to construct sheds. A whole new world has opened up for me over these past few years. This unprecedented access into stranger's lives is new to me.
It isn't however, new to everyone. Those of us who matured before the early 90's
have lived in a world where "It's none of your business" had some real, practical meaning. Those of us born after that probably never have. This generation of teens has never lived in a world without reality television. Even before Survivor, MTV's Real World put the lives of 'real' people on display. For someone born in 1992, reality television has always existed. It has always been socially acceptable, even envogue, to entertain yourself by watching the trials and tribulations of others. Privacy has been dying a long and painful death for years now. It seems to me that personal boundaries have been blurred beyond recognition for many people. Young people can post their every thought on social media sites, they can anonymously harass each other on sites like Formspring, they regularly send inappropriate photos of themselves via text messages. No wonder some of them can't quite figure out that the rest of the world does not exist solely for their entertainment.
Did Dharun Ravi target Tyler Clementi because he was gay? Perhaps we'll find out, perhaps not. Whether this was a full blown bias crime or just a couple of teenagers so wrapped up in their own desire for fun that it never occurred to them that they didn't have a right to turn his private life in their own reality show bespeaks a moral bankruptcy that can only come from years of splurging on their own desires. They laid bare the life of one young man for public consumption and in doing so left him feeling completely void of hope.
I don't know if years of cultural voyeurism had anything to do with what happened to this young man or not. I still have many questions about how young people could be so void of empathy that they failed to foresee the damage they were doing. This situation shows me just how little I know. There is one thing I can predict with a great deal of certainty though. As I write this, someone, somewhere is uncovering all Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei's secrets, interviewing anyone they know who is willing to talk, scouring webpages, yearbooks, anything they can get their hands on in order to prepare for our consumption a feast of information about their families, their friends, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. Both these young people are about to learn just what it feels like to have your life offered up for the consumption of the curious.