Not everything can be fixed with a law, and sometimes it doesn't even make sense to try. We have a much deeper problem in this country, and we need to address it, not create another law to paper it over.
One of the more tragic news stories in recent memory occurred this week, when 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, an apparent suicide that was apparently caused when Tyler's roommate and a female co-conspirator set up a video camera and posted the live feed on the Internet, as Tyler made out with his boyfriend. According to reports thus far, it would seem that Tyler wasn't quite "out" yet, and the "outing" sent him over the edge.
The state of New Jersey wants to throw the book at the two "pranksters" who committed this act. They've already been charged with 'invasion of privacy;" now the state wants to charge them with hate crimes, apparently so they can throw these two teenagers in jail for a long time and "send a message," or some other such nonsense. Basically, the state wants to cover its political ass, and ruin two other young lives in addition to Tyler's life, which was taken so senselessly. Of course, as is usually the case with grandstanding politicians, it won't even come close to solving the problem.
Here's the first question to ask yourself; if Tyler had not committed suicide, would the actions of these two pranksters be okay?
The answer, of course, is no, it wouldn't. Ask Erin Andrews about this sort of situation.
There are two problems at play here. One of the problems is, bad behavior is ubiquitous in our society, and too many people do bad things without considering the possible consequences. Hell; thanks to the "reality tv" and "YouTube" phenomena, a lot of people actually hope for serious negative consequences, and that's certainly not a goof thing.
The other problem is, why should anyone be made to feel like an outcast based on their sexual preference, or any other physical factor, for that matter.
Teens commit suicide at an alarming rate. It's hard to be a teen, sure; but bad behavior among kids is far too acceptable in our society. We allow kids to develop cliques, and we treat them as "normal" (more on that later), without considering the possible detrimental effects on the kids themselves. This is not a new phenomenon, but we seem to celebrate it as a good thing. The jocks form their own little group, the band forms theirs, the geeks form theirs, etc., which is bad enough in itself, but we also allow them to conflict with each other, and we even laugh at it and seemingly encourage it. As much as I love the program "Glee," that we find physical assaults funny should bother us on some level. That the "popular" or "normal" kids seem to be free to pick on the "geeks" at will isn't really funny, and shouldn't be tolerated.
The problem is compounded when it comes to gay teens. According to whichever set of statistics you wish to read, LGBT teens are between four and eight times as likely to commit suicide as other teens. Just as troubling should be the reality that, for every successful suicide attempt, there are between 50-100 unsuccessful ones.
It seems natural for teens to feel alone and vulnerable and different in this society, but it's not natural at all. The transition from childhood to adulthood is a difficult one, even under the best of circumstances. But we don't have the best of circumstances in this country. For some reason, we seem to think that "being free" means that we should be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and consequences be damned. There is far too much discussion of whether we are able to commit an act, and far too little discussion of whether we should commit an act. And there is an underlying meanness in this country that needs to be eliminated from our social structure once and for all.
Bullying is never okay. Meanness is never okay. From the moment we begin raising our kids, we should be teaching them that there is room for all sorts of people in this world, and that everyone has his or her own place in it. We are who we are, and there is nothing we can do about it. Likewise, others are who they are, and there is nothing we can do about it. We all need each other in this world, and we should be making this clear to our children pretty much from the moment they're born. None of us is "better" than any other of us; we all depend on each otheron some level, whether you come from a rich family in Beverly Hills or a farming family in "The Holler" in Tennessee. You may drive a Rolls Royce, but someone has to repair it when it breaks down, or wash it when it gets dirty. Your multi-million-dollar estate only looks like it's worth that much thanks to the hard work of your landscapers. That Olympic-sized pool is only nice because someone cleans it. And those aren't mystical fairies who are picking your organic vegetables or disposing of your trash when you leave it on the curb every week.
We use the word "tolerant" a lot, and I wish we'd stop, because it's actually quite a negative term, when you really think about it. To "tolerate" something basically means to put up with it, whether we like it or not, and if that's our greatest aspiration is as a society, we're truly screwed. We should be teaching our kids to embrace others, not "tolerate" them. We should note our differences and learn to celebrate them, not castigate each other for them.
There really is no such thing as "normal." Everyone is different, even within the same family. My brothers and I were all born to the same two parents, and raised in the same household and the same middle class neighborhood, yet most people are flabbergasted by the fact that we all came from the same seed, as it were. If there is a concept such as "normal," it's that we're all different. One of my best friends has autistic twin boys (okay, they're now autistic twin "men"), and when I see them, I have one hell of a time telling them apart, physically. But when they speak, it's a no brainer, because even though they look very much alike, they have completely different personalities. Same womb, same home, some disability, but completely different. Get it, folks?
People are born with different shades of skin color. They are born with different color hair. They are born with different eye colors. They are born with different cognitive abilities. Some are born to be artistic, while some are born to figure out the mysteries of the universe, some are born to repair things, and some people are born simply to bring us joy and laughter. Some people are born with every limb intact, others are born without one or several. People are really like snowflakes; no two are alike, not even twins.
Some people are born to be flaming heterosexuals, others are born to be flaming homosexuals, and everyone is born to be somewhere on the scale between those two endpoints. There are some who are attracted to both. There are some who are born with parts of both sexes. It's all a part of being human. And if you believe God made you, then He made everyone else, too, so you'd better figure out a way to get along with them.
The reason so many teens commit suicide is largely because we as a society seem to have an obsession with labeling everyone based on physical traits, and we set aside those who we perceive as "different" from us. The thing is, those perceptions aren't natural; they are taught. Go into a room full of toddlers and infants in a day care center, and you'll note that they mingle and hang out with each other, without regard to physical characteristics. You don't see all of the black kids in one corner and the white kids in another. You don't see blonde kids all hanging out together, with the brunettes creating their own little clique.
We are taught to see differences, and we are taught to treat different groups of people differently. I grew up being taught that black people were practically from another planet. Imagine my surprise when I became an adult, and found out that black people were actually pretty much the same as everyone else, in that every single one of them was different from every other one.
I am 52 years old, and as much as I love my parents, I had to reprogram myself in many ways when I became an adult. My mother, God rest her soul, was one of those people to whom everything had to be "just so," and she had a difficult time dealing with anything that wasn't
"normal." Therefore, when I became an adult, I was afraid of black and brown people, I had a hard time dealing with people born with mental or physical disabilities, and to be frank, gay people disgusted me. You know, to think about a GUY putting "that thing" in "there"? Ick, right?
But I grew up. I started meeting black people who were just like me, only with an inability to say the word "ask." I met a number of brown people I wanted as my best friends. And I met people who happened to be gay who were among the most fascinating people in the world. By the time I was out of my 20s, I had thrown off the old 60's style programming, and had learned to treat everyone as an individual. Try it; life is so much better that way, believe me.
See, being black or brown isn't who a person is. Being disabled or handicapped isn't who a person is. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite or transgender isn't who a person is. For that matter, being a lawyer or a migrant farm worker isn't who a person is, either. We spend far too much effort obsessing over what a person may or may not do, and not enough time trying to discover who a person actually is.
Tyler Clementi is dead because he committed suicide. And he committed suicide in part because he wasn't taught the immense value of his own life. And he didn't see the immense value in his own life in part because we as a society tend to judge people far too quickly and harshly based on our judgment of who we think they are.
But he is also dead because we don't teach our kids to consider their actions and the consequences their actions might entail before they act. We are far too willing to dismiss meanness among our children, and dismiss it with a "kids will be kids" type of an attitude. The more I read about this case, the more I'm thinking that calling it "cyberbullying" might be a little harsh. There is no indication that either Tyler's roommate or his friend harbored any ill feelings toward gays, for example. The real problem is that these two teenagers thought it was okay to place a web cam in a private room and stream video of a private sexual encounter over the Internet. If Tyler's partner was a woman, would that be okay? What if the woman was his mother's best friend? What if the woman was a prostitute?
It's just too easy to pigeonhole this "prank" as being a "hate crime." It goes far deeper than that. Whatever happened to simple concepts of right and wrong? It is simply NOT okay, and it's certainly not funny, to video someone's private interactions with other people and stream it on the Internet. And it's not just about sex; what if this was only about an intimate conversation? What if Tyler and the person he was with were talking about someone else, who was not yet ready to be "out of the closet," so to speak? Better yet, suppose it wasn't a sexual encounter; suppose Tyler was just discussing an extremely private matter involving the roommate and/or his friend who placed the webcam in the room? In what way is invading someone's privacy ever acceptable, and why would these two think it was? isn't that a major problem, in a nutshell?
We need to grow up and teach our kids to embrace others, whether they have dark skin or light; whether their hair is straight, curly or kinky; whether they are nuclear physicists, lawyers, doctors, construction workers or traffic cops; whether they like boys or girls. We have to start early. We have to teach kids that meanness to anyone is not acceptable, regardless of the reason, and we have to teach them that every action they take has consequences, and teach them to avoid those actions that might have negative consequences whenever possible.
And at what point do we as a society grow up to the point that "coming out" really isn't a big deal anymore? Why should anyone feel depressed because they just happen to be gay? For chrissakes, folks; unless they're having sex right there in the park where you play with your kids and walk your dog, who really gives a shit what two people do or do not do with each other? I thought this was a free country. Are we really only allowed to be free if we're rich white heterosexual men? Really?
We need to grow up, and we need to teach our kids and ourselves to be better than we are. The lives of many people stand in the balance.