Yesterday’s New York Times carried a report about the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson river on September 22nd. The student had asked his roommate to give him the room until midnight the night of September 19th; his roommate then went to a friend’s room and remotely-accessed his computer’s webcam. He found his roommate making out with another man, and promptly announced his discovery on Twitter. An expression of bad taste portended a complete lack of decency as the student’s roommate then streamed the encounter live. On September 21st, his roommate announced there would be a follow-up stream that night. The next day, with only a terse and apologetic announcement from his Facebook account, the student killed himself.
The student’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and his friend, Molly Wei, were both arrested. They have each been charged with 2 counts of invasion of privacy and may serve several years jail time for driving a classmate to suicide. None of the reports I have seen yet have indicated whether Rutgers’ “Project Civility,” a new decency and respect training program set to launch in coming weeks, will be revised in light of the apparent failure of Ravi and Wei’s freshman classmates to give them the proper response for their obscene behavior. Public cyber-bullying like this can spiral out of control is because we haven’t been trained to oppose incivility and disrespect; the proper response of a bystander to a willful indignity has little to do with civility or respect.
I think there are two issues to consider in a case of public humiliation like this. First there is Dharun Ravi, the young suicide’s roommate, willing to subject someone he’s living with to a great indignity. There are always going to be malicious people; it will take further investigation before we could judge whether Ravi is just one of those unaccountable bad apples or indicative of a general problem of character among the current generation of students.
Where I’m already confident in identifying a failure of character education isn’t in the main perpetrator but in his peers. Ravi filmed and broadcast his roommate’s intimacy more than once, which suggests either that none of his classmates felt a visceral disgust with what he was doing, or (more-likely) that any student who did accepted that it wasn’t his or her business to say so. Until the extent of her agency and involvement is clarified, Ravi’s friend Molly Wei seems to fit this enabler-by-consent mode. Ravi is certainly principally-responsible for pushing his roommate towards suicide, but while we might imagine a world with *fewer* Dharun Ravis we won’t have a world *without* them. This is the way the bystander isn’t a passive fixture in these episodes but actually quite powerful; many people had the chance to expose and embarrass Ravi, and it apparently never happened.
A malicious mind reveals itself through malicious sentiments about and treatment of others. When one student subjects another to a public indignity–as when one person manipulates another person’s emotional vulnerabilities–someone has to draw attention to that act as what it is. Ravi was doing this to make friends; if someone had found the right words he would have gotten the opposite result, and though the story would have broken, this story’s sad ending probably could have been averted. Publicity for causing the death of his roommate and several years in prison should both give Ravi a lot to think about, and a lot of time to think about it.