GUY RAZ, host:
This week, a freshman at Rutgers University committed suicide after his roommate and another student secretly put his sexual encounter online. Those students have been charged with invasion of privacy. The case raises questions about the prevalence and the power of public humiliation in our popular culture.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Public humiliation has been around for a very long time.
Professor C.J. PASCOE (Sociologist, Colorado College): All you have to do is think about, you know, burning someone at the stake or putting someone in the stocks, right, as a form of public punishment.
BLAIR: C.J. Pascoe teaches sociology at Colorado College.
Prof. PASCOE: New media simply changes the audience for this. Instead of having to actually be present for this type of public humiliation, we can spread it to larger and larger audiences.
BLAIR: And the audiences for public humiliation are huge. It's in large part why shows like "Survivor," "American Idol" and "Kitchen Nightmares" are so popular. It's entertaining to watch someone else get taken down.
(Soundbite of show, "Kitchen Nightmares")
Mr. GORDON RAMSAY (Host, "Kitchen Nightmares"): Why did you decide to go into business if you haven't got a clue how to run a business?
(Soundbite of show, "American Idol")
Mr. SIMON COWELL (Former Judge, "American Idol"): What the hell was that?
(Soundbite of show, "Survivor")
Ms. JILL BEHM: Her mental state is not good. And in "Survivor," you don't want to come across as mentally unstable.
BLAIR: Primetime TV is a vulture culture says longtime broadcast journalist Linda Ellerbee.
Ms. LINDA ELLERBEE (Broadcast Journalist; Host, "Sticks, Stones and CyberSlams"): Who's going to be voted off the island? Who is our weakest link? Which of you can we be nastiest to in order to win? And that is public humiliation for sport, and a lot of us love watching it.
BLAIR: Tomorrow night on Nickelodeon, Linda Ellerbee is hosting "Sticks, Stones and CyberSlams," a Nick news special on bullying.
Public humiliation is a part of life for young people these days and there's at least one primetime TV show that gets that says Tavia Nyong'o, a professor of performance studies at New York University. He points to the show "Glee."
Professor TAVIA NYONG'O (Performance Studies, New York University): I think "Glee" is so important on this context because it really is a show that's hysterically funny and yet also about how to manage and maybe even transform experiences of public humiliation from the very first episode when you have Kurt asking his bullies to let him take off his designer jacket...
(Soundbite of show, "Glee")
Mr. MARK SALLING (Actor): (as Noah 'Puck' Puckerman) It's hammer time.
Mr. CHRIS COLFER (Actor): (as Kurt Hummel) Please, this is from Marc Jacobs' new collection.
Mr. SALLING: (as Noah 'Puck' Puckerman) Wait.
Prof. NYONG'O: ...before being thrown into the dumpster.
BLAIR: Shortly after hearing the news that Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide, Nyong'o was teaching a graduate student class at NYU. He says the students wanted to talk about whether a gay person coming out of the closet is relevant and about what it takes to withstand public humiliation.
Prof. NYONG'O: We were talking about the misleading perception, because there's been so much advances in visibility, there's no cost to coming out anymore. There's a kind of equal opportunity for giving offense and for public hazing and for humiliating. We should all be able to deal with this now because we're all equally comfortable in our own skins. Tragically, what Rutgers reveals is that we're not all equally comfortable in our own skins.
BLAIR: How people react to being publicly humiliated varies. Tyler Clementi has been described as quiet and shy. He may not have had the mental toughness it would take to get through it.
Sociologist C.J. Pascoe says she was not surprised to learn that two students secretly put his sexual encounter online. But she cautions against blaming new technology for what they did.
Prof. PASCOE: I think the problem starts pre-technology, which is, what are the motivations we have in humiliating another person, and humiliating them sexually? That's the issue we need to deal with, and then follow up with concerns about new media. I don't think the media itself caused us to have those types of motivations.
BLAIR: Even still, technology makes it easier to publicly humiliate someone on a whole new level.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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