Suicide is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence in America. According to the CDC, 95 people take their own lives everyday. Most suicides go unreported, even by local media. By contrast, the recent suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi has drawn international attention. This is due to media speculation that the cause of his death was “bullying” about his sexual orientation. Two 18-year-old Rutgers students, Molly Wei and Dharun Ravi have been implicated as the bullies responsible. Dharun surreptitiously filmed Tyler in a sexual encounter with another man and posted a few tweets about it.
According to some gay rights groups, this was an act of discrimination. However, after reviewing numerous news reports on the incident, I was unable to find any explicitly homophobic statements by either student. I see no reason to believe that, if Tyler had instead been with a woman, Dharun’s actions would have been any different.
Humans are natural voyeurs. Many of us would just as readily spy on a heterosexual encounter as a homosexual one, given the chance. And while one of his tweets did include the statement “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” This could easily represent curiosity about his roommate’s sex life rather than condemnation.
While it is not one of our more endearing qualities, humans are endlessly fascinated by sex: who’s doing it, who’s not, who’s gay, who’s straight, who’s vanilla, who’s kinky. In the few comments attributed to Dharun, I sense more teenage curiosity than blatant homophobia.
Numerous media reports have, however, implied that Tyler did not die from depression — the usual cause of suicide — but was instead driven to his death by homophobic bullying. In other words, he was a martyr, killed for his personal stance on an issue. In the same articles, many of the columnists have added a number of other homosexual teens who took their own lives in recent months to the list of martyrs.
The media is taking troubled people’s personal struggles with self-worth and elevating them to grand political causes; we are on the road to becoming a nation of martyrs. What does a nation of martyrs look like? Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran, relates in “Persepolis” that the elevated status of martyrs in that society convinced thousands of young men to join suicide brigades in the war against Iraq. Next door, much of the violence in Iraq has been due to people who sought glorification through suicide bombings. Some of the most awful situations in the world also happen to be those that show the highest veneration for martyrs. Martyrdom erases the very personal details of a death and replaces it with a political statement, sometimes not one made by the victim himself.
Those who celebrate martyrs will tend to see martyrdom everywhere, being unwilling to accept that some deaths “just happen.” It becomes almost impossible to find rational solutions to any conflict, with so much “innocent blood” crying up from the ground, and so many emotionally-charged words filling the air. I do not claim to know Tyler’s reason for taking his own life — no suicide note has been published.
However, as noted in one advice column on teen suicide, “most teens who attempt suicide report a rich fantasy around the event, a fantasy that includes being noticed after death by those who have ignored them, causing regret among those they feel have wronged them , and teaching a lesson to those who have harmed them.” (teenadvice.about.com). Of the 18 million Americans suffering from depression many certainly have people in their lives they would be happy to “teach a lesson to.” Unfortunately, the media blitz surrounding Tyler and the subsequent international demonization of Dharun and Wei may give impetus to some of those fantasies. In a nation that glorifies martyrs and villianizes their “oppressors,” suicides will increase, even among people unlikely to be venerated by any political cause.
I do believe the media has a responsibility to report real lynchings — such as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shephard — but with due diligence given the fact that the perpetrators are depraved extremists with views far outside the mainstream political spectrum. In the case of thoughtless but common dorm-room pranks, the media should do the responsible thing, and leave the very personal tragedy of Tyler Clementi to be worked out only by those personally affected by it.