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Tyler Clementi And The Virtual Death Of Decency

Tyler Clementi i i

Tyler Clementi killed himself after his sexual encounter with a man was made very public. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Tyler Clementi

Tyler Clementi killed himself after his sexual encounter with a man was made very public.

AP

I wanted to have a word about the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who apparently killed himself after discovering that his roommate had broadcast over a webcam a sexual encounter Clementi had had with a man.

The roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another freshman, Molly Wei — also 18 — have both been charged with invading Clementi's privacy.

The death has sparked grief, as it should; and outrage, as it should. But it has also sparked many questions: Is technology a factor here? Is sexuality?

Let me say at the outset that my heart goes out to the Clementi family. As a person who has only recently received one of those phone calls you never want to get, I understand the desire, the fervent hope for an explanation that helps it all make sense.

But those of us not touched by the immediate tragedy must resist the easy answer, because there is too much at stake and too much to learn.

Right now, the dominant narrative reads that technology has nothing to do with this tragedy, but that sexuality of the deceased somehow does. In other words, would the roommate have been so quick to broadcast the sexual encounter had Clementi been intimate with a woman? The activists have weighed in to say no. But my guess (and it's only a guess) is that he would have.

I know that members of beleaguered minority groups are very eager to have the majority understand all the ways that they are at risk because they are members of those groups. And I also know that Clementi's death came in a short period of time when several other young men around the country also killed themselves, apparently because of taunting about their sexuality.

Still, I am skeptical that disdain for Clementi's sexuality was at the heart of this.

I suspect that what was at the heart of this was that Clementi was perceived as an innocent, and that was confusing, challenging and, perhaps, even infuriating to somebody who was probably himself an innocent. I say that because a cynical and knowing attitude about sex is all the rage.

The cool pose — the pose of single-minded pursuit of sex without feeling or attachment, is so assumed, so accepted that one who is without it might as well be standing naked in the street.

And so I strongly suspect Clementi's roommate put Clementi's business in the street, in part, out of jealousy and resentment that he was not the fellow naif he assumed him to be, and perhaps even hoped he was.

And this is where I suspect technology does play a role.

I used to joke that kids today think it's in the Constitution that everybody will be a television star at some point, and the new spate of reality shows shows every sign that that will come to pass. People with no talent, save the talent for making a spectacle of themselves, are deemed worthy of our weekly attention.

So much of technological innovation has outstripped the moral code to regulate it, and thus too many people have become convinced that relationships are a matter of performance art.

Why else do young people send underdressed pictures of themselves to each other, videotape their sexual exploits, and broadcast them on social media?

Now, adults, tsk, tsk! After all, technology is to many adults like a foreign country to a new traveler — they may visit often but their accents will always give them away. But adults have little to complain about, given that they are the ones who have lionized people like the stars of Sex and the City, made them rich and famous for removing their clothes and simulating sex acts for all of our viewing pleasure.

Meanwhile, there is no conversation on love and intimacy.

The public discussion lives in a narrow band — from the conservative no, stop, don't ... to the liberal whatever, whenever and with whomever.

So it strikes me that many people are implicated in this awful death — certainly those two who set the thing in motion, but also to all of us who have kept silent while sex has been turned into a commodity because we didn't want to be uncool.

We all died a little last week.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues