The story that has captured the news for the past few days has been the untimely and tragic death of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, a young bright, talented student who committed suicide after learning that his new college roommate and the roommate’s friend had allegedly surreptitiously webcast him in an intimate act with another male in their dorm room. Saying this never should have happened does not begin to cover the magnitude of this tragedy.
The news reports have rightly highlighted the anger most people are feeling at the loss of a young promising life. We all should be disgusted when learning of a dumb, senseless, immature, unreasonable act results in the death of a human being. We should also be troubled when college freshmen seemingly cannot distinguish between right and wrong, between what is private and what is public, and when the desire or ability to find out something about someone that really is none of their concern trumps the law, decency, ethical behavior, and all that is right.
Some have described this incident as part of a continual problem of gay bashing, or of “outing” someone to let all know a person’s sexual orientation. While we continue to say that we promote and encourage diversity in this country, especially in higher education environments where intellectual discussions on sensitive topics, free thinking, and open mindedness use to be among numerous positive hallmarks of the academy, there continues to be insensitivity, disrespect, myopia and homophobia. The result is that we speculate on the actions and sexuality of Bishop Eddie Long, all the while, not fully knowing what burdens, struggles, fears or anxiety students in our university family may be feeling as a result of their sexual orientation.
Even with the many resources available to him as a student at Rutgers, Clementi walked to his demise feeling he had nowhere else to turn. This should not happen on any campus, to any student. Diversity acceptance, appreciation, understanding and action must take on more than a spot on our websites and stationary. Diversity is more than just having persons from a mix of races, ethnicities, and nationalities on campus. There are unique communities within each of our institutions, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Students, faculty, and administrators need to be sensitive to the needs of and problems facing GLBT students, including the stress, exploitation, discrimination, and privacy violations they face. Attention to these issues may necessitate improving this area of diversity training. This is especially true at universities that promote a family atmosphere where we care about the total person.
This tragic incident also speaks to how low we have devolved as a civilized society. What has happened to what some of us still know as common decency, defined as “behavior that follows generally accepted standards of morality or respectability?” This definition includes respect for the privacy of others, but Clementi’s roommate allegedly did not afford him this basic right. As a professor, the absence of critical thinking in Clementi’s tormentors is astonishing. The two students who stand charged with invading Tyler’s privacy and possibly other charges probably spent more time thinking of how to enact their nefarious plan than what the possible outcomes would be. This is an important reminder of how critical our jobs are as educators charged with helping students learn how to think at a higher level, critically about matters of importance; to consider what are the possible costs and ramifications to a decision.
The sad event at Rutgers’ speaks to many issues, not all of which I have been able to cover in these few paragraphs. The scary thing is it will happen again. We just do not know where, when, or who will be impacted. This does not relieve each of us in academia the obligation to teach diversity, tolerance, and the acceptance of others who are different than us in seen and unseen ways.
At the very least we need to remind our students the easiest ways to determine whether to do something or not is ask themselves a few simple questions:
- Is this right or wrong?
- How would I feel if it were done to me?
- What are all the possible implications of my actions on me as well as my family and other individuals?
- Is this act illegal?
- Will another human being be hurt in any way? Physically, spiritually, emotionally?
- And the final and perhaps most pointed question is the one asked of Kanye West by Jay Leno shortly after Kanye’s disrespectful scene at the 2009 music video awards ceremony… “What would your mother think about this?”
In the end, the question Tyler’s roommate should have asked himself wasn’t if Tyler was gay or not or who he was going to be with during the short period for which he made a simple request for privacy…the question should have been: will what I am planning to do violate the rules of common decency? But for that, Tyler Clementi would still be here.
Dr. Wayne A. Jones is the Director of Individualized Studies at Virginia State University.