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Ravi and Clementi: The Perils of Freshman Coexistence

Posted: 03/27/2012 5:15 pm

Hearing that he was ruled guilty of 15 counts of privacy invasion and investigation tampering, Dharun Ravi appeared unmoved as he sat in the New Jersey court on March 16, 2012. Yet when found guilty of bias intimidation, as well, Ravi's eyes bulged in disbelief. The former roommate of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers University freshman who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, appeared genuinely surprised when found guilty of a hate crime. His earlier refusal of a guilty plea bargain on that count, which would have included probation and 600 hours of community service, proved short-sighted. He now faces up to 10 years in prison and potential deportation to his native India.

Ravi had gambled that his jury would understand that he suffered more from "boorish immaturity" than from homophobic hate. No one reading his indelible trail of social media, which show Ravi glibly ridiculing his shy, gay roommate and inviting others to watch, or hearing his statements after his conviction, where he casually refers to Clementi's "troubles," would doubt his tastelessness.

Ravi bullied and humiliated his roommate of three weeks, bragged about it, and then returned for a second viewing. Clementi, meanwhile, had been proactive in telling his dorm RA about the events, and requesting a room change. But in the end, he left a long note, drove to the George Washington Bridge, and posted from his cell phone on Facebook: "jumping off the gw bridge sorry." Ravi is guilty of a hate crime, but not of killing Clementi, who might have been saved, had the university, his family, and his community been better-educated about integrating gay community members. (Read my comments on the tragic loss of Clementi last year here.)

Surely universities devote a great amount of effort to determining and encouraging roommate compatibility and offer a plethora of tolerance training programs. Long before Clementi's death, Rutgers had instituted an LGBT tolerance program, "Project Civility," also aimed at new dorm students. Obviously, this well-intentioned intervention proved inadequate. In the wake of Clementi's suicide, Rutgers is now offering a gender-neutral dorm, which was originally conceived for transgender students but has developed into a unique option of pairing LGBT students with a member of the opposite sex who is also LGBT or who has expressed an understanding of LGBT issues. Everywhere, roommate selection is undergoing changes.

All these efforts need to go one step further and consider possible inventions to help students who come from backgrounds where attitudes may lack the norms of tolerance expected at universities. Central to the Clementi tragedy is the encounter between a straight immigrant student and a gay American, abandoned to the perils of freshman coexistence without proper preparation for either of them. Clementi felt roundly rebuffed by his evangelical mother -- although though she denies having rejected him. Even the solidarity of his gay older brother, James Clementi, proved insufficient. Meanwhile, some observers in the Indian community asked whether Indian culture needs to confront its own homophobia. This question itself provoked charges of intolerance.

Yet questions about cultural difference are worth asking, for a significant part of the problem lies in the confrontation between private traditional beliefs and public life, where the dorm room proves to be a strangely private sphere in the resolutely public, liberal environment of the university. Students come from every walk of life and every corner of the planet and are suddenly expected to brush their teeth, bathe, sleep, socialize, and learn in an intimate setting alongside peers who may have very different expectations about how such activities should be practiced. Of the many different traditional cultures that might have clashed, in this case Clementi and Ravi both traded intolerance over social media, with Ravi texting a friend "FUCK MY LIFE / He's gay," and Clementi describing Ravi as "My roomates name is Dharun / I got an azn!" Clearly, there were many differences between the two roommates, including Ravi's erroneous fear that Clementi was "poor," and Clementi's presumption that Ravi, who had grown up in the U.S., was "fresh off the boat."

Such ignorance and intolerance continues to occur at universities, despite the seemingly constant tolerance intervention requiring students to attend workshop after workshop, walking the "identity walk" a thousand miles around campus meeting rooms, and a barrage of documentaries, theater productions, and art installations. Despite, and sometimes in reaction to, all this tolerance training, traditions that inform intolerance remain deeply entrenched. It is not enough here to say, with 18th-century Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, that college students may arrive intolerant creatures bearing the weight of tradition and can be transformed from such a "race of devils" into "good citizens." This transformation can only occur if the private sphere is included in these public university discussions.

Clementi's death has shaken universities out of their liberal complacency and shown them that more needs to happen before freshmen are thrown together into the mosh-pit of dorm life. In order for university tolerance training to succeed, traditional views and anxieties need to be heard, as well. Had either Clementi or Ravi had a chance to air his anxieties to a university official or in a group setting, the two 18-year-olds' concerns might have been addressed and supported at the beginning of the school year. Often students remain unaware of their capacities for tolerance as well as intolerance until it is too late. Three weeks into freshman year proved disastrously belated for Tyler Clementi.

 
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