By all accounts, Dharun Ravi was a swaggering, self-absorbed teenager yearning to be a big man on campus when he moved into residence at Rutgers University in September 2010.
Even before the then-18-year-old exploited his shy new roommate’s gay sex life to boost his own profile, Ravi’s Twitter feed boasted a constant stream of self-aggrandizing statements, from his fake ID to his high SAT scores to being proudly “stoned out of my mind.” Harmless chatter from a boastful man-boy longing to be noticed and admired. Harmless, that is, until he met Tyler Clementi.
A week before he met Clementi on campus, Ravi sought him out online and bemoaned his new roommate’s sexuality to his friends.
“FUCK MY LIFE/He’s gay,” Ravi messaged one buddy, according to Ian Parker’s definitive account, published in The New Yorker a month before Ravi was convicted of invading Clementi’s privacy, intimidating him with bias and tampering with the evidence.
Maybe Ravi initially cyber-stalked his new roommate because he was nervous about starting university and wanted a sense of the young man he’d be living with. Maybe he was hoping for a computer-savvy jock with whom he could talk about girls, host keg parties, hang out. Random residence assignments didn’t work out that way.
“What the fuck,” Ravi messaged his buddy seven times before posting a link to one of Clementi’s preferred porn chat boards and tweeting, “Found out my roommate is gay.”
Clementi would read that tweet before he even got to Rutgers.
Ravi’s trail of tweets and texts show a streak of ignorant anti-gay chatter mixed with an arrogant rejection of anyone uncool and the occasional glimmer of empathy.
Typical teenaged boy bluster? Probably. Until Ravi rigged his webcam to spy remotely on Clementi having sex with another man, then tweeted about it.
“I saw him making out with a dude. Yay,” Ravi tweeted after catching a glimpse of Clementi kissing his date.
Ravi and his accomplice Molly Wei, who lived down the hall, promptly messaged Wei’s boyfriend to share their shock and discomfort with the idea of two men making out. According to Parker, Wei’s boyfriend said the idea made him want to “throw up,” even though Clementi was “mad nice.” Wei replied, “He’s NICE but he’s kissing a guy right now/like THEY WERE GROPING EACH OTHER EWWW.”
News spread quickly in the dorm. Ravi set up the webcam to spy on Clementi again and publicly dared his friends to watch. “Yes, it’s happening again,” he tweeted.
“Be careful it could get nasty,” Ravi texted one friend, adding, “people are having a viewing party.”
We know from court records that Clementi checked Ravi’s Twitter feed at least 38 times that week. We know that he kept his date, then requested a room change. “I feel that my privacy has been violated,” he emailed his residence advisor, “and I am extremely uncomfortable sharing a room with someone who would act in this wildly inappropriate manner.”
We know that he threw himself off a bridge the next day.
And we know that Ravi was sentenced to just 30 days in jail on May 21 — “a punishment generally reserved for shoplifting, vandalism or jumping a turnstile,” as one reporter put it.
It’s tempting to blame Ravi for Clementi’s death. His public attempts to humiliate his gay roommate, or at least trade on the shock value of his sexual encounters, certainly speak to a willingness to hurt Clementi for his own personal gain.
We can easily deduce that Ravi’s actions contributed to Clementi’s despair. But we may never know how much they contributed. He didn’t push Clementi from the bridge or even throw a punch.
“I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity,” the judge ruled.
Should Ravi have gotten more than 30 days? I think so. His self-serving invasion of his roommate’s privacy deserves more than a slap on the wrist. But how much more? How do we accurately measure the connection between one stupid teenager’s colossal insensitivity and his shy roommate’s decision to kill himself? How do we gauge incitement?
And while we’re struggling to punish what wasn’t directly done, who’s teaching the next generation of freshmen to get over gay sex and treat their new roommates with the respect they deserve?