05/21/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Why I Wanted Mercy for Dharun Ravi

Hearing the news that Dharun Ravi's sentence would be 30 days rather than the maximum 10 years (with deportation still possible but unlikely), I experienced a wave of relief that almost felt as if I knew the perpetrator of the anti-gay spying crime (I didn't). The question of what proper justice should look like for Ravi, whose roommate took his own life after learning that Ravi had filmed him being intimate with another man, has challenged LGBT voices in the wake of Ravi's trial, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.

On the one hand Ravi was convicted of 15 counts, including invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation, in a case whose facts were essentially undisputed. Ravi's inexcusable actions, including maliciously setting up a webcam to capture, broadcast, and mock his gay roommate's private, intimate actions with another man, were the beginning of the end for Tyler Clementi, a shy kid who reacted hopelessly to this vicious victimization.

On the other hand Ravi was rightly not charged with causing Clementi's death, and it is widely known (but often forgotten) that suicidal ideation is always caused by a complex range of factors, including psychological struggles, and is never the direct result of another person's actions. Despite the much-needed attention that LGBT and youth suicide has brought to bullying and anti-gay bias in recent years, bullying does not cause suicide. Bullying is a hurtful, cowardly and unacceptable act that, according to research, can exacerbate feelings of isolation, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, but the vast majority of bullying victims do not take their lives. Many factors raise the risk of suicide, including individual variables like depression and social phenomena like community and family rejection. Indeed, powerful research from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University found that young LGB adults who faced high levels of family rejection were over eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide.

None of this is to excuse Ravi's actions. He was part of the problem, a huge part, the epitome of community rejection. And it's certainly possible, even probable, that if he had not expressed this rejection in this way at this time, Clementi would be alive today. Yet few believe that Ravi would have been indicted, much less convicted and sentenced to years in prison, if this episode had not ended in Clementi's suicide. It certainly appears that Ravi's trial, from the get-go, was about holding one person accountable for another's tragedy.

Why did I find myself wanting mercy for Ravi? After all, his actions surely contributed to Clementi's death. They were malicious, irresponsible, dehumanizing, and criminal. One reason is this: While Ravi must take responsibility for his actions, we are all accountable, not just him. Anti-gay sentiment lies deep within many, perhaps most, of us, as does an atavistic urge to denigrate and exclude out-group members. The fact that this may be our hardwiring -- evolved from a time when we lived in tribes of 50 to 100 closely related individuals -- in no way justifies indulging those impulses, but it does remind us that we have to fight against them rather than pretending they don't exist and acting like those who exhibit our darker side are outliers. And punishing one dumb kid for failing to rein in his dark side primarily serves to make us feel better when it shouldn't, to shift the burden of responsibility to anyone but ourselves. How did the 20-year-old Ravi grow up in a world where he thought any of this was OK and might even win him praise?

The question of proper punishment in this case required gay people (especially) to balance two competing conceptions of justice, conceptions that research is increasingly showing derive from intuition more than reason. One is fairness as proportionality. Irresponsible, hurtful actions deserve punishment -- forced responsibility, if you will. People are entitled to see their sense of justice enacted so long as it's proportional. And after society spent far too long refusing to take seriously homophobia or the gay people that are its victims, there is an understandable wish to see an anti-gay bully punished if only to send a message that gay people deserve equal justice. (There is little reason to believe that the punishment in this case would serve as a deterrent, and so pointing to the deterrence factor as reason for a harsh sentence is more likely a rationalization for vengeance than a strong foundation for justice.)

Yet another conception of justice is rooted in the social justice movement that has helped vastly improve the lives of LGBT people. It values freedom and compassion over vengeance and moralizing, and prizes love and responsibility not simply at the individual level but as a social phenomenon. It acknowledges that people must take responsibility and must sometimes be punished, but opts, where possible, to let people rebuild themselves instead of digging themselves deeper into a life of recklessness, a real possibility if Ravi were incarcerated for a decade.

I would have been pleased with several months' jail time instead of only one. Ravi has refused to apologize, declined a plea for community service that would have kept him out of jail entirely, and has not shown any real remorse, all of which naturally increase pleas for harsh punishment. But this urge for vengeance, too, must be fought. Years of jail time (much less deportation, which would simply rend our social wounds open further) would not bring Tyler Clementi back; would do little or nothing to decrease suicide, homophobia, or bullying; would fail to honor the LGBT movement's gains and aspirations; would let too many other responsible people off the hook; and could have short-circuited the broader conversation that needs to continue and deepen: How can we better understand our darker side -- those of us plagued with thoughts of hopelessness and those with a crushing need to exploit the vulnerable -- and how can we help each other cast more light?