Petty crueltiesPosted: October 6, 2010
This strikes me as a rather typical college prank gone horribly wrong. Unlike Laura Ingraham, it doesn’t sound like the roommate planned out the event in a calculated way. It’s easy to imagine a college kid spontaneously thinking, “Hey, I can see my roommate’s hookup through my webcam, I could stream this live for kicks.” It’s not a nice thing to do, but by the standards of 18-year old kids it’s not exactly Hitleresque. He could very well have done the exact same thing if it was an opposite-sex hookup.
I don’t want it to sound like I’m empathizing with the wrong guy in this story because it obviously is just terrible. The guy should bear the consequences of his actions, but I don’t imagine it occurred to him, or would occur to most people, that the roommate could be ashamed to the point of suicide. Maybe this will be a teachable moment and people will realize that embarrassing someone like this isn’t just fun and games.
Uhhh. I don’t know what to make of the claim that this was a “typical college prank.” Kind of alarming. Maybe I didn’t know typical college students at when I was an undergrad (ok, this is definitely the case, but still!). And I don’t think this would have been as likely to happen if Clementi had been hooking up with a girl – and if it had, the effect would have been much more likely to shame the girl, not to shame or make fun of Clementi. In any event, I loved this response to that comment:
That’s much of the problem. Bigotry (and this *was* motivated by bigotry, I have little doubt) is seldom of the variety where you beat someone to death, burn a cross on their lawn, or similar violent acts. It’s the accumulation of petty cruelties that everyone seems to have no problem with. They don’t feel malicious, so they don’t seem to care that what they’re doing is hurtful, and when they get called on it, they claim it’s all in good fun.
What Tyler Clementi’s roommate did to him was cruel and dehumanizing. It was inexcusable. And in all likelihood, Clementi had probably endured years of smaller humiliations and “petty cruelties” leading up to the violation that ultimately drove him to suicide.
In public discourse we tend to focus our attention on the most blatant and obvious incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – with the notable exception of transphobia, which, sadly, remains a perfectly acceptable bigotry except sometimes in its most violent forms. And it’s right and necessary that we denounce and fight to end obvious demonstrations of bigotry. This is especially true with raising awareness about transphobia, which has led to the deaths of countless trans men and women through suicide, denial of necessary medical services, and hate-motivated murders.
Fighting oppression, though, also means educating ourselves about the more subtle, and insidious ways hatred and bias manifest on an individual and systemic level. It means learning to empathize with the lived experience of marginalized people – the regular, often daily humiliations, jokes, suspicions, ignorant or mean comments, insulting assumptions; the systematic lack of representation or negative representations of people like us in media and entertainment. Things that in isolation might be no big deal, but together add up to a steady stream of little indignities, a lifetime of constant messages that we’re worth less, or nothing at all, compared to the people who really matter.
Being a good and effective ally to marginalized groups requires listening and taking seriously the perspectives of marginalized people when we say, “that was racist,” “that was sexist,” or “that was transphobic.” Those of us who are marginalized in one or another are the experts on our own experiences of oppression. So when a marginalized person says a comment or action was offensive or hurtful, as allies our response shouldn’t be “Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way”/”I didn’t mean it that way” or “It wasn’t that big a deal, you’re just being sensitive.” We should understand that it’s probably far from their first encounter with the behavior they are calling out, and that things might appear to us as minor or isolated incidents because we don’t have to deal with them every damn day.
Good ally work also means learning to check ourselves – to acknolwedge our own bigotries and privilege. When (not if) we’re called out for doing or saying something offensive, are we more concerned with the fact that we’ve caused hurt or offense, or with defending the illusion that we’re incapable of ever doing or saying something offensive? Good ally work requires us to evaluate ourselves not by our intentions, but by the effects of our speech and actions – not so we feel guilty (which helps no one), but so we can do better. We also need to own whatever privilege we might have at the expense of others – whether that’s based on skin color, sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, body shape, mental and physical health or abilities, religion, etc. We need to acknowledge how our privilege has given us access to opportunities and resources that others don’t have, and use our privilege to make those benefits freely and equally accessible to all. We also need to recognize that both privilege and discrimination are intersectional, not one-dimensional. As a woman of color I deal with misogyny and racism, but I have privilege with respect to my class, my gender identity and expression, my body shape, being in a straight partnership, and so on.
My experience, and I think this is the experience of many people who are marginalized in one way or another (or many ways), is that these lifelong petty cruelties add up. They kill with a thousand cuts. If we really want to make our society more just and equal for all people, we need to stop treating these expressions of bigotry as banal or acceptable.