Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Felony Insensitivity

Many years ago, a friend of mine came up with the term felony stupidity to describe certain incidents of what we call “date rape.” I liked his terminology because it implied no evil intent upon the perpetrator, but instead, that he got himself into a situation where he did something stupid with very bad consequences.

I like to think of the term felony stupidity as also applying to those cases where kids out on a lark drop water balloons, pumpkins, or even bricks, from highway overpasses onto the cars below. I’ve seen what a water balloon dropped from a 10th story dorm room can do to a car’s windshield, so I don’t even want to think about what a pumpkin or a brick could do. Did you ever wonder why so many pedestrian overpasses have chain link fencing to a good arms-length height above?

Once again, we have cases of people with no evil intent doing something stupid, with often tragic results.

And now, with the tragic events at Rutgers last week, I’d like to add another term to the lexicon: felony insensitivity.

Was it truly a hate crime when Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei used a hidden webcam to stream live video of Tyler Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man to the Internet? Did they target him because they knew or suspected that he was gay, or were they just out for a little “fun,” hoping to embarrass him by catching him with anyone, male or female, or maybe even masturbating on camera? Was what they did motivated by hate, by homophobia, or by simple stupidity and insensitivity? Felony stupidity and felony insensitivity?

Does the motivation even matter, as long as one person is dead as a result of these actions?

For that matter, does the person’s orientation really matter in cases like this? I have a dear friend who had intimate video of her copied off of her boyfriend’s computer by his roommate, and then posted to the Internet. Was it any less wrong that this was done to her because she was straight? It might have been less embarrassing, but it definitely wasn’t less wrong. Fortunately she had a good head on her shoulders, and lots of supportive friends, as well as a supportive family; and her body was not found floating in the Hudson River.

It’s worth noting that according to New Jersey law, collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a 4th-degree crime. Do you hear that? It’s not just a little prank, it’s a crime. Furthermore, transmitting those images is a 3rd-degree crime, with a maximum sentence of five years. These are things that everyone should know before they even open the shrink wrap on their webcam.

Before this story broke, I talked to my 6th, 7th, and 9th grade computer literacy classes about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. We concluded that knowledge is knowing how to do something, while wisdom is knowing whether or not you should use the knowledge you have. I was, however, particularly struck by the definition one young lady gave me when she said that wisdom is knowledge with a conscience.

“Knowledge with a conscience.” This appears to be something that Ravi and Wei didn’t have. They knew how to set up a webcam to spy on the private moments of a fellow student, but they didn’t stop to think that maybe this was something that they shouldn’t do. The conscience seems to have been lacking there.

It is unspeakably tragic that Tyler Clementi gave himself a permanent solution to a temporary problem, because as Ellen DeGeneres said in her widely circulated video statement about this, “Things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”

In the meantime, it's up to all of us to see to it that there are fewer cases of this kind of felony insensitivity.

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