Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi: Teenage Mind on Trial 

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May 21 2012 6:11 PM

Was Dharun Ravi’s Sentence Fair?

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In today’s New York Times, I was quoted as being in favor of a lenient sentence for Dharun Ravi, and I stand by that opinion. As I’ve written here before, we have to ask ourselves why, exactly, this young man—who was still a teenager at the time of the crime—was on trial. Which crimes did he clearly commit, and which crimes do many people (understandably, but unfairly) wish to attribute to him? That Ravi grossly invaded his roommate’s privacy and displayed a frighteningly low capacity for empathy is clear; that his cyber-violations forced Clementi to jump from the George Washington Bridge is not.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

The sentence that Judge Glenn Berman meted out this afternoon seems equal to those clear crimes. Ravi will experience some jail time, however brief; and, more importantly, he’ll be obliged to undergo sensitivity training and perform community service that I would hope has something to do with speaking to teenagers about issues of emotional maturity and the trying on of their peer’s shoes that, in an age of perpetual digital visibility (not to mention archiving), has evolved from an ideal to a necessity.*

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Of course, some might counter that inviting Ravi join the high school lecture circuit would require that he actually have some wisdom to share first. I’ll admit, I don’t know whether he is “truly remorseful”—as so many observers, including Slate’s own Emily Bazelon, have wondered—or if he has gained any perspective after what his mother characterized as 20 months of self-imposed exile. But then, those commentators don’t know that he isn’t or hasn’t, just as none of us know the true extent of Ravi’s (not at all uncommon) homophobic squeamishness.  

The truth is, we just don’t know much of anything about his—or of any teenage bully or victim’s—internal psychology, and it frustrates the hell out of us. The paradoxical relationship between the visibility and personal autonomy granted by social media and the chaotic white noise of still-forming adolescent intelligence, emotional and otherwise, terrifies adults (even those of us not so advanced in age) who can no longer penetrate the screen. If a young teenager can recognize and affirm his sexuality, does that mean he is prepared to deal with a world that is far from wholly accepting it? If a high-schooler can freely create and then attempt to hide digital records, does that mean he’s equally adept at composing mature relationships with his classmates?

In many ways, this case, or at least the intense public interest in its proceedings, was more of an inquisition of the contemporary adolescent mind than a trial of a discrete crime. As youths exchange sexts, viciously attack each other on Facebook, and, yes, kill themselves, teenage interiority, hinted at in 1080p, is experiencing a moment of intense scrutiny. We want to understand these impulses, to comprehend how a popular, bright freshman could so thoughtlessly disrespect his roommate, just as we struggle to grasp how a soft-spoken, musically gifted young man could choose to abandon the thrilling possibility of college for something much more final. Some call “cold and calculated” what others see as rash and stupid. Deleted tweets are either the machinations of a sociopath, or the ill-considered flailings of a kid who panicked (and didn’t consult state statutes) when things got out of hand. A suicide is either a sudden act of mortification, or the tragic conclusion of years of torment.

In the final analysis, there’s no way of knowing who’s right, and I’m as frustrated by that fact as anyone else. But I do know this: A decade of an already ruined 20-year-old’s life did not need to be sacrificed to that frustration, and, in any case, it could never have compensated for the one already lost.

*Clarification: This post originally suggested that Ravi would be entering the prison system, when in fact he will only be jailed for his 30-day sentence

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