“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
—Tyler Clementi’s Facebook status, 22 September 2010 at 8:42 p.m. (qtd. in Parker 22)
A wallet and smartphone lay on the George Washington Bridge, far from home. That evening they travelled, taking the train from New Jersey and then the subway to Washington Heights, but now they sat, waiting for their owner, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. Tyler installed the Facebook app on his phone, posted his first and final status, and, moments later, leaped (Parker 22).
In an article for The New Yorker, “The Story of a Suicide,” Ian Parker paints a comprehensive portrait of this young, gay man who took his own life after being secretly filmed and publicly mocked online by his straight college roommate. Parker notes the tremendous public response that followed Tyler’s death, reported on September 29th, citing reactions by public figures ranging from celebrity comedian Ellen DeGeneres to President Barack Obama to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Parker 2). In her essay “Compassion and Terror,” about another September day nine years earlier, Martha Nussbaum describes how “the world came to a stop—in a way that it rarely has for Americans when disaster has befallen human beings in other places” (13). The tragedy of that day, September 11, 2001, monopolized American concerns in a way that Tyler’s death echoed in miniature.
In her essay, Nussbaum recalls the immense response to 9/11, but she is quick to point out its limitations: “frequently,” she observes, “we get a compassion that is not only narrow . . . but also polarizing, dividing the world into an ‘us’ and a ‘them’” (13). In its broadest (and perhaps noblest) sense, we think of compassion as drawing together otherwise unrelated people, but here Nussbaum depicts it as precisely the opposite. This tension expands her definition of the word to include not just a specific feeling of compassion but also the feelings and actions that spawn indirectly from it. Nussbaum cautions that “compassion for our fellow Americans can all too easily slip over into a desire to make America come out on top and to subordinate other nations” (13). Here compassion slips when it becomes divisive. The compassion Tyler’s suicide provoked seems to have “slipped,” shifted from unifying to polarizing. Thus, Nussbaum might argue, the compassionate response failed. What caused it to fail, and what would successful compassion for Tyler require?
In Parker’s account, we see polarizing compassion everywhere. He begins at the start of Tyler Clementi’s freshman year at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where Tyler—quiet, aloof, musically talented and newly out to his parents—met his roommate Dharun Ravi—popular, loud, sporty, and good with computers (7–9, 13). Parker tells of a tolerant, awkward silence between the two, a silence that lasted until the day Tyler first shocked Dharun. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” reads one of Dharun’s tweets. Nerdy Tyler had brought back a man—not a student either—to the dorm (16, 12). Dharun had created a program that allowed him to access his computer’s webcam remotely, so, the tweet continues, “I went into molly’s [sic] room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay” (qtd. in Parker 16, 15). The tweet expresses Dharun’s shock—surely, his first time in such a situation—but, reading it later, Tyler also was shocked, since he had expected privacy in his own dorm room.
Dharun’s friends responded via Twitter with compassion—but for Dharun, not Tyler. On an anonymous online forum that he frequented, Tyler summarized the activity on Dharun’s Twitter page: “Other people have commented on his profile with things like, ‘how did you manage to go back in there?’ [and] ‘are you ok” (qtd. in Parker 19). To Tyler, the compassion Dharun’s friends felt read as disgust; their concern for Dharun increased the hurt he felt. Tyler wrote that Dharun’s friends saw “my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas i mean come on . . . he was spying on me . . . do they see nothing wrong with this?” (qtd. in Parker 19). The most innocuous expressions of compassion, “are you okay,” became polarizing when Tyler read them, because they showed compassion only for Dharun.
Dharun’s friends’ compassion, though it meant well, had slipped from supporting Dharun into vilifying Tyler—their compassion failed. Nussbaum describes successful compassion as an attempt at “decoding the suffering of others” (24). Only through a continual attempt to truly understand the situation at hand, coupled with a continual questioning of that understanding, can compassion avoid slipping. Dharun’s friends made no such attempt; their sympathy for Dharun slipped over into disgust because that sympathy was never extended to Tyler. Significantly, had Dharun been shocked by some object he’d seen with the webcam which had nothing to do with Tyler, his friends’ responses would have been appropriate. Compassion’s slip, it seems, is to ignore the other. Compassion’s slip is Tyler’s humanity.
Compassion, though, plays a larger role in Tyler’s story. In the weeks following that fateful September evening when Tyler killed himself, his presence was felt everywhere; his story made headlines worldwide. Parker emphasizes the distortions that permeated the media coverage of Tyler’s suicide: Tyler had been the victim of a “sex tape,” some claimed; his room was “a prison” in the days before his suicide, said others (2). None of these claims were true, and the outpouring of compassion for Tyler and his family that these stories provoked slipped quickly into the problematic: “Enraged online commentary,” Parker reports, “called for life imprisonment [for Dharun, and his] home address and phone number were published on Twitter. Ravi was called a tormentor and a murderer” (2). Dharun did little better in the traditional media: “CNN claimed,” Parker offers as an example, “that [Tyler’s] room had ‘become a prison’ to him in the days before his death” (1). The passive voice attempts to disguise who made Tyler’s room a prison—Dharun. No attempt, it seems, was necessary to decode Dharun’s situation. Rather, just the opposite happened: Dharun was ignored or demonized in the media, while Tyler was sainted. Parker notes how Tyler’s story became linked with the It Gets Better Project, created by advice columnist and gay marriage advocate Dan Savage to express compassion for teens harassed for being or seeming gay (2). Tyler’s story, though, doesn’t fit It Gets Better’s “bullied teen” blueprint. Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, describe their bullying as targeted and repetitive harassment while growing up gay (“It Gets Better Project”), whereas Dharun’s actions seem neither targeted, since his tweets suggest motivations closer to curiosity than homophobia, nor repetitive: Dharun only successfully spied on Tyler once (Tyler thwarted a second attempt) and that only for a few seconds—a far cry from the kind of ceaseless bullying described by Savage and Miller and so many others on the It Gets Better website.
The more the story of Tyler and Dharun was discussed, the less it became about two real people. In their media representations, Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi became archetypes: a closeted, despairing, powerless media-Tyler trapped psychologically by heartless, homophobic, media-Dharun’s bullying, which emanated not so much from a person as a force. Media-Dharun is every bully: older, bigger, smarter, and meaner—and then some. When the media mentioned names, they did not mean the two freshman roommates at Rutgers. Media-Dharun became an immutable, brutal force; media-Tyler, a powerless, victimized object.
If successful compassion and understanding comes, as Nussbaum argues, from a “critical compassion” (26), from decoding the sufferings of everyone involved, then what Parker shows us is the opposite. The media encoded Tyler’s suffering. Rather than working to mold audiences’ compassionate response to Tyler’s actual situation, the media worked instead to shape the presentation of Tyler’s situation to fit the compassionate response. Polarizing compassion is a side effect of this encoding: every expression of “us” and “them” codified the representations of media-Tyler and media-Dharun, and these constructs provoked expressions that fit (and thus furthered) the pattern.
Within this media-constructed framework of compassion, the slip that Parker works to expose is completely obscured. Our lily-white, saintly media-Tyler and our inhuman media-Dharun force a polarizing compassion upon us. Without questioning the veracity of the media account, an act of decoding, it’s impossible to avoid the slip. That is, avoiding a slip into polarizing compassion is synonymous with attempting to decode the suffering not only of those we feel compassion for, but that of those we don’t, too. An attempt to decode suffering, then, is an attempt to decode the context surrounding that suffering.
But given how warped the media’s framework is, how are we to decode? Nussbaum begins her essay with a summary of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Euripides, a Greek, recounts to an audience of Greeks the Trojan perspective of the fall of Troy. Nussbaum highlights the problems of this play, asking, “Did compassion really enable those Greeks [the audience] to comprehend the real humanity of others, or did it stop short, allowing them to reaffirm the essential Greek-ness of everything that’s human?” (11). This question parallels the problems of compassion in Tyler’s story: are outsiders—whether they be the audience of a Greek tragedy, Dharun’s friends, or the American news audience—capable of decoding a situation and feeling true compassion? What enables this compassion, what hinders it?
The answers to these questions are enmeshed in the presentation of the situation—the media coverage, or Euripides’ play. Dharun’s friends, responding to his tweet about spying on Tyler, were unable to successfully decode his situation because the only story they heard was Dharun’s, encoded on his terms: he wasn’t spying on Tyler; no, he merely “went into molly’s room and turned on [his] webcam” (qtd. in Parker 16). Likewise, the Greek audience ran the risk of only seeing the Greek-ness of humanity in Euripides’ play because in the end, his hero, Hecuba (the wife of the fallen Trojan hero), is “not a Trojan but a Greek. And her imagination is a Greek democratic (and, we might add, mostly male) imagination” (Nussbaum 11). Nussbaum shows Euripides encoding Hecuba in Greek terms in a way disturbingly parallel to the problems we find in Parker’s description of Dharun’s friends and the media. Encoding a situation to fit our limited understanding, we see, precludes real understanding.
The difficulty comes when we try to correct our polarizing compassion—to decode our way to a fuller understanding. As Nussbaum claims, “compassion required making the Trojans somehow familiar, so that Greeks could see their own vulnerability in them, and feel terror and pity, as for their own relations” (11). That is, an entirely faithful rendering of the Trojans would have been ineffective, prompting no compassion from Greek audiences. Nussbaum’s understanding of compassion sanctions, even requires, a certain amount of encoding. Euripides’ play is so arresting, she suggests, because his Hecuba is in fact a media-Hecuba, encoded with symbols of Greek-ness and therefore humanity. Media-Hecuba and media-Tyler are both constructions, designed to foster more compassion for them; Euripides’ play was written as an attempt to dissuade his audience from committing the same atrocities his Grecian army does in The Trojan Women, and the linking of Tyler’s story with the It Gets Better Project brought the latter to a global audience, gave it an opportunity to spread its message further than it might otherwise have. Decode either, and the power is lost.
The truth is always imperfect, but Nussbaum’s argument for critical compassion does not aim for perfection. The emotional impact of the encoded situation is powerful but dangerously inaccurate, while the nuance of the decoded situation is accurate but crippled; both are useful, both flawed. However, Nussbaum’s motivation for arguing for critical compassion is that it will improve our ability to look beyond ourselves both with compassion and understanding. Critical compassion arises from a tension between encoding and decoding, emotion and criticism of emotion. As it leans to encoding, it lends power; as it leans to decoding, understanding. Attempting both at once leads to contradictions: a Tyler at once exactly the bullied kid our gut tells us he is and yet not, or a Hecuba at once familiar and foreign.
All this is not to say that strong-enough, thorough-enough compassion is impossible—Nussbaum’s and Parker’s analyses are examples of attempts at such compassion—but rather to reiterate that such attempts are just that: attempts toward an ideal whose dialogic nature provides only for approximation. True compassion for Tyler requires a consciousness of this fact, a remove from pure emotion. Since I wrote the first draft of this essay, Dharun Ravi has been found guilty on fifteen charges, including ones that typically carry a prison sentence of five to ten years (thankfully he only served about 20 days) (Zernike 1). The prosecutor said of the jury, “They felt the pain of Tyler” (qtd. in Zernike 1). Yet again, it seems, compassion has failed.
“It Gets Better Project.” It Gets Better. Savage Love, LLC, 21 Sept. 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.
Nussbaum, Martha C. “Compassion & Terror.” Daedalus 132.1 (2003): 10–26. Print.
Parker, Ian. “The Story of a Suicide.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 5 Feb. 2012.
Zernike, Kate. “Dharun Ravi Guilty of Hate Crimes in Rutgers Case.” The New York Times. 16 Mar. 2012. Web. 21 May 2012.