Encounters and pranks

Two collections of linguistic points in the reporting following on the suicide of Rutgers-Piscataway freshman Tyler Clementi: one having to do with the terms used to describe an encounter between Clementi and another man that lies at the center of the story, one having to do with the characterization of the streaming of video of the encounter by Clementi’s roommate and a friend of his.

1. Encounters. From the story as told by Lisa W. Foderaro and Winnie Hu, “Student’s Online Musings Point to State of Mind Before a Suicide”, NYT on 10/1/10, about Clemeneti’s postings to the gay chat site JustUsBoys, for young men (which, incidentally, also supplies gay porn of young men and opportunities for hooking up), after

… his roommate had streamed a live Internet feed of Mr. Clementi’s encounter with another man in their dormitory room.

Here we have simply “encounter with another man”. A fair number of reports from that time have “romantic encounter with another man”, and a huge number have “sexual encounter with another man”. Meanwhile, as Foderaro and Hu wrote,

[Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi] had made references to his roommate’s homosexuality in Twitter posts. Even before they arrived on campus, Mr. Ravi sent  a message of Aug. 22 that he had “found out my roommate is gay,” and included a link to JustUsBoys.com.

On Sept. 19, he told his Twitter followers that he had set up a webcam in their room and watched from [friend Molly Wei’s] room, adding that he saw Mr. Clementi “making out with a dude.”

So now it’s the vernacular “making out”.

“Making out” and “a romantic encounter” suggest that the encounter didn’t go beyond kissing and fondling, while “a sexual encounter” would usually be understood as going beyond that, to something describable as “having sex”, in which case penises would have been involved, though there’s a gray area between making out and the most routine “having sex” for gay men, fellatio.

[In this gray area are, among other things, masturbating in company with another man and masturbating or being masturbated by another man — both not uncommon acts for gay men. On several occasions, I’ve been faced with questionnaires, from health departments and social service agencies and the like, that ask things like how many times I’ve had sex in the past month and how often my partners and I used condoms — once, filling out such a form in company with a boyfriend with whom activities in the gray area were our main source of mutual pleasure. We were baffled by many of the questions.]

2. Pranks. Foderaro and Hu also reported on the characterization of Ravi and Wei’s actions:

Under a leaden sky, students debated whether the surreptitious broadcast was a thoughtless prank or a heinous crime.

Now, it is of course possible for actions to be both thoughtless pranks and also moral or even legal offenses. But characterizing these particular actions merely as (thoughtless) pranks downplays the aggression in them, deflects attention from their offensive nature (in particular, the invasion of privacy), and appears to excuse the responsible people from the (foreseeable) consequences of their acts.

A bit later (on October 17) came Walter Kirn, in a NYT Magazine column, “Little Brother is Watching” (in a “Way We Live Now” piece on the loss of privacy in the internet age)

For Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who recently committed suicide after a live-stream video of an intimate encounter of his was played on the Web, Little Brother took the form of a prying roommate with a webcam. The snoop had no discernible agenda other than silly, juvenile troublemaking, which made his actions more disturbing in certain ways than the oppressive prying of a dictatorship. The roommate, it seems, was acting on impulse, at least initially, and his transgression couldn’t be anticipated, let alone defended against. Clementi, unlike Orwell’s Winston Smith, who hid from the telescreens whenever possible and understood that the price of personhood was ceaseless self-censorship and vigilance, had no way of knowing that the walls had eyes. Nor did his unseen observer anticipate the ultimate consequences of his intrusion.

Kirn goes on to suggest that Clementi should have yielded his personal life to the machine:

… [As opposed to Orwell’s Big Brother,] Little Brother … dwells inside us rather than in some remote and walled-off headquarters. In the new, chaotic regime of networked lenses and microphones that point every which way and rest in every hand, permitting us to train them on ourselves as easily as we aim them at one another, the private and public realms are so confused that it’s best to treat them as identical. With nowhere to hide, you might as well perform, dispensing with old-fashioned notions of discretion and personal dignity. If Tyler Clementi had remembered to do this — to yield his personal life to the machine and acknowledge, with Shakespeare, that the world’s a soundstage — he might have shrugged off the embarrassment he suffered and made a reality show of his existence. He might have asked Little Brother into his room instead of choosing, fatally, to keep him out in the only manner he must have thought possible.

I was offended by this. Clementi’s suicide plunged me into a long period of despair and rage: because I identified so strongly with the young man (there but for the grace of God…), finally out of high school and into some kind of adult life, only to be faced with the real possibility of becoming the dorm fag; because my own coming out was prolonged and incredibly difficult; because I have worked with lgbt college students for many years (indeed, met with such a student the day, as it turns out, that Clementi killed himself); and because I’d come to naively hope that things had not only gotten better for such students, but gotten a whole lot better.

My objections to Kirn’s column were well voiced in a letter to the NYT Magazine on October 31 from Lois Horgan (of New Canaan CT):

I was disturbed and disheartened to see Walter Kirn, in an otherwise discerning essay on our loss of privacy, describe the behavior of Tyler Clementi’s roommate (taping an intimate encounter and putting it online) as “prankish” and “silly juvenile troublemaking.” We are not talking about an 8-year-old here; we are talking about a college student, someone surely old enough to be expected to make reasonable judgments about what might be upsetting or painful to another person, and then refrain from acting purely on impulse. Just because the technology is there doesn’t excuse a person from using it indiscriminately.

Instead of suggesting that Clementi, or any of us, “yield his personal life to the machine,” I would suggest that parents and teachers and other responsible adults start explaining to our children what is not acceptable behavior toward others, what kinds of actions are wrong morally, ethically and just plain humanely. Otherwise the barbarians will have won, and all notions of personal dignity will be lost.



2 Responses to “Encounters and pranks”

  1. IrrationalPoint Says:

    “finally out of high school and into some kind of adult life, only to be faced with the real possibility of becoming the dorm fag”

    Yes, indeed. The other point that Kirn glosses over is that Tyler Clementi’s roommate wasn’t watching in some kind of value-neutral curiosity — it’s clear from the news coverage that not only broadcast it, but publicised it to his friends and made fun of it.

    Kirn’s piece also talks about the incident as if surveillance technology had done the privacy-invading all by itself, with no roommate involved at all. “Little Brother”? Please.


  2. In September and October « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Encounters and pranks […]

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