Wednesday, April 04, 2012

It will certainly get better

A few weeks ago, I watched an exclusive interview with Dharun Ravi on ABC. As many of you might be aware, Dharun has been convicted on multiple counts, the more serious being that of bias intimidation -- a conviction that could land him in jail for up to ten years. This is a  tragic tale of two college freshmen at Rutgers, with diametrically opposite personalities. What is perhaps worth pondering over from this story is the extent to which social media has tightened its grip around young people today. The trial was built entirely on the digital footprints these kids left behind during their first few weeks as roommates. What makes me sad, is knowing that neither tried to talk to the other face to face. If this had happened twenty years ago, it would have been hard to believe that someone could get bullied or intimidated without having any direct contact with his bully.

As Ian Parker explains in this meticulously written New Yorker article (The story of a suicide), this conviction can be interpreted as 'a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.'

Dharun was offered a plea deal twice before he faced the jury. If he had taken this deal, he would have been excused from serving a jail term and a possible deportation to India, only under the condition that he accepted that his actions were motivated by a hatred towards homosexuals. This twenty year old declined the plea deal twice 'on principle'. In his interview, he candidly accepts that he was stupid and self-absorbed. Some of his peers describe him as somewhat of a jerk. But he did this two years ago, when he was barely out of high school and certainly not out of his teenage years.

This is not the first time that twitter has got someone into trouble. One of the most remarkable things about being alive right now is that movements and revolutions can follow you into your own legitimate social Universe. You don't have to go to a march to express solidarity with a cause that is close to your heart. You can do it on Twitter or Facebook. There are pages dedicated to Tyler Clementi that put the entire responsibility of Tyler's suicide on Dharun's twenty year old shoulders. And there are pages, albeit less popular, that urge people to reflect on Dharun's situation. The pro-Clementi group wants to use this trial as an example and a message to the young generation that they must be aware of what they say, especially when they say it online.  
This case also challenges the traditional image of bullies we have. It brings forth an entirely new trap that people are falling victims to -- the social media. It is an extension of the good old fashioned "what others say about you" syndrome that has driven so many human achievements and failures. It has taken a new dimension on the Internet where people constantly judge you by your pictures, the websites you visit, the email accounts you use, the friends you have and the music you listen to. There is a new layer of coolness attached to teenagers today. They have a real world personality and an online personality.

What made me reflect after watching this interview was that a twenty year old kid faces the camera with a stoic expression and says that he would never regret not taking the plea deal. That taking it would mean accepting that he hates homosexuals. And he'd rather go to jail than live with that all his life. I would not have been able to take this stand if I were in his shoes. I would probably have chickened out and taken the plea deal. Of course, I am not saying that what he did was right.But if I retropolate (am I inventing words?) the amount of world exposure and experience I have now to when I was twenty, I would have definitely been shattered by this. In the face of such an exaggerated media hatred where some people went on record accusing Dharun of 'outing' Tyler by posting a video of him having sex online, I would have crumbled. Irrespective of what punishment he is given, I think this young man deserves credit for facing the consequences of his actions with remarkable calm (at least in public). Especially considering this was his first tryst with the real world.
Whatever the outcome, for going through this honestly, Dharun, I am sure it will get better. 


Preeti Mudliar said...

Stumbled upon your blog. Enjoyed browsing through your posts. Have you read danah boyd's article on this case. You might find it interesting

Saee said...

Thank you Preeti!
The article is really well written. Thanks for the link.