No doubt Tyler Clementi’s college roommate thought it would be hilarious to video record then broadcast the 18-year-old promising violinist, whom he earlier outed, in an intimate gay encounter. No doubt he called it an innocent prank. Not funny. Maybe now, a hate crime.
Let us be clear. This bigotry is not about sexual orientation. This bullying is not about abstract ideas like homophobia. Any action from a closed heart impacts real human beings: my cousins, your sisters, our neighbors, you and me. We remember Tyler in vigils, silent and otherwise. These are important to open our eyes and to remind us that his leap into the Hudson River holds this message for all of us who would tease, taunt or bad-mouth: Reckless behavior is reckless behavior, whether it flows between college co-eds or you and me. Tyler’s death is bigger than Tyler.
We are at a crossroads of civility. What about each person’s sovereignty? Do we smile at the Muslim next door? Can we say hello to both that liberal and the tea partier down the street? Can we shake hands with the Somali refugee who runs the corner store or the Cambodian almost-citizen even when we differ? Can we do what my father called seeing the good each other, especially when we differ?
Yes, Tyler’s jump off the George Washington Bridge puts us all in turbulent water. In our collective hearts, what are we thinking? Or are we? What are we thinking when we betray anyone on camera? We could say Tyler’s roommate’s youthful unskillful actions come merely from ignorance. We could blame the crisis on the undeveloped decision-making inability of one unstable university freshman’s brain. But that would be scapegoating. Pointing that finger toward a single misguided man would get you and me off the hook. Yet, if we turn into our own lives and into our own habits of speech, we find this inconvenient truth: we all have prejudices. And they hurt others.
With recent “off the record” statements by a gubernatorial candidate about wanting to hit a reporter, we heard that echo, “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it.” If we look around, such emotional immaturity is everywhere. It’s in me, I hate to admit. So now I am trying to look at my own places of sneaking: at how I use and/or misuse social media, at where I “only kiddingly” harbor the underlying intention to harm, at those less than kind words I send virtually and therefore presumably impersonally, at the violence I do to another in the name of “fun.” When we reflect on what happened at Rutgers University, do we see all the encounters in which we are harsh, or talk behind someone’s back? All those times we assume the target of our scorn will never find out, because it’s only a joke anyway? This inner conscience-conversation may provide the only chance for real change.
If so, then how do we mend the menace in this nation, in this world? Perhaps it is in the recesses of each heart that we heal the whole. For me, I will look deeply into my crevices of narrow-mindedness. That man I call arrogant: I’d like to show him a thing or two. That woman who has the funky hair and clunky shoes: I could never be her friend. Ouch. Where is my generous heart? That is my question, where is our collective generous heart? In that query lies my hope that the wrenching suffering over Tyler can plant decency and grow compassion in me, in us, in the United States, in the world.
This is bigger than Tyler.
Susan Lebel Young is a retired psychotherapist who lives in Falmouth.