Eric Henney believes the fact that Ravi’s bigotry was common and juvenile doesn’t make it any less damaging or dangerous.
On Friday, Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student who twice used a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, while he had sex with another man, was found guilty on 15 charges. They include invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering and hindering arrest.
While the facts of the case are pretty clear (there is no uncertainty, for example, over whether Ravi set up a webcam and showed his friends, or whether Clementi requested a room change after the incidents), deliberation on the core charges of bias intimidation required jurors to make a decision on the parts of each student’s inner-thoughts and motivations, which is manifestly unclear. For this reason, many articles, like this one by Jay Michaelson, have spread across the Internet.
Michaelson argues that, “Whatever was going through Ravi’s head is no different from what millions of other 18-year-olds think, and feel, all the time—including, every jock I went to high school with.” The implication here is that Ravi should not be so heavily penalized for the mere fact that does the things that asshole kids do all the time.
And an editorial in the Newark Star-Ledger echoed Michaleson’s emotion before trivializing Ravi as a poor victim of the pressures straight people face living in a heteronormative society.
I happen to think that all this talk about the banality of Ravi’s actions is beside the point. And if broadcasting to your friends the private details of someone’s sex life is not immediately biased by homophobia, it seems reasonable to think that the record of Ravi’s bigoted words make it so.
But this case is so fat with commentary, some of it quite good, that I don’t think I can muster anything new to those points. At the same time, that does not mean the conversation has been completely dutiful.
As with any commercialized legal issue, the debates over Ravi’s case have their tropes, which are employed with such energy and alacrity that we sort of just grant them. We hear that Ravi was simply doing what freshman do, or that his homophobia is locker-room variety, or that kids do this sort of thing all the time without such disastrous repercussions. We’re meant to take these sorts of observations as truisms, and we often do.
We probably shouldn’t, though, because what they seem to presume is that we shouldn’t hold a legal adult accountable for his juvenile actions for the sheer fact that he was quite recently a juvenile.
Why? Of all the ambiguities blotting this case, Ravi’s age is not one of them. It is quite clear that he was an adult when he set up that camera, so it should follow that his actions were legally his own, and he should be held accountable for them.
And Ravi should know that. The age of majority is by no stretch of the imagination uncommon knowledge. (By the way, the age of majority in India is also 18.) He had to know, and we should assume that he knew, that once he turned 18 he could no longer hide his foolishness behind mere immaturity.
In any case, it is not as if one requires an exceptionally discerning ethical sense to understand that it is wrong and illegal to covertly broadcasting another person’s sex life. Nor is it especially arcane to think that referring to that person with words like “fag,” and saying that you want to “keep the gays away” make those actions seem homophobically charged.
This is not to say that squeamishness about the seemingly arbitrary swiftness with which children become adults is totally unmerited. 18-year olds are obviously less mature on the whole than, say, 40-year olds. And sometimes they need help figuring out what is and is not right action. But this is not one of those times. Dharun Ravi is an adult who knowingly committed an obviously wrong act, and who should have known that his carelessly bigoted words carry weight. And if he were ten years older, everyone would already have accepted that.
Ravi is due to be sentenced May 21st. He could face up to 10 years in prison and deportation to his native India. I am not sure if these upper limits are realistic here, or even merited. What I am sure of, though, is that Dharun Ravi is now a man. Please treat him like one.