Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Modern Tragedy

The Tyler Clementi story has resonated with the country in part because it touches upon so many complex issues. In writing this week’s post, I felt the same conflict others have expressed: mainly, that if the invasion of privacy was a driving factor in this young man’s death, then the last thing we should do now is invade his, or even his accused antagonists’, any further in a superficial, speculative way. Still, what happened at Rutgers is symptomatic of a greater cultural storm, and as parents raising kids in this world, we are feeling the chill of it—even if we still don’t know what it all means. With that, and the acknowledgment that this is only one way of looking at the evolving story, here is this week’s post.

I agree with Hank Kalet’s editorial in The Princeton Packet, (We’re all Complicit, October 7, 2010) when he says the Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi, Molly Wei story is a tragedy in the deeper sense of the word. It speaks to a “societal flaw that has led three lives to be ruined and three families to be terribly broken. Tragedy, in the Aristotelian sense, is not accidental but based on human flaws and human agency,” Kalet says.

Theatre Mask from Pompeii
I’d add there’s another element of ancient tragedy that plays out in this modern story: the feeling that catastrophic outcomes seem both unexpected and predetermined—at the same time. “How could this happen?” is met with an equally strong, “of course, in our world, of course, this happened...”

Freshman Dharun Ravi allegedly used his webcam to videotape his Rutgers roommate Tyler Clementi being intimate with another young man. Using Twitter and live streaming, and the reported assistance of Wei, he made his roommate’s actions public. Clementi is said to have told his RA about the events, and then, soon after, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.

If Tragedy defines this outcome, then could another type of drama be the antidote? Can modern theatre teach young people what lectures on tolerance, Internet protocol, and privacy laws, cannot?

The Laramie Project might be the best hope. It’s the documentary-style play about the Wyoming town of Laramie and Matthew Shepard, the 21 year old gay college student who was brutally beaten and tied to a fence and left to die, a decade ago. More than 500 high schools have staged the play and many use excerpts from the HBO film in classrooms.

Teaching tolerance doesn’t get much more pure than the example set by Shepard’s mother, who on the day her son succumbed to his injuries and died in a hospital, expressed this, stated in news accounts and in the script of the play:

Tell everybody who’s listening to go home and give your kids a hug and don’t let a day go by without telling them you love them.

No cries for vengeance, just a reminder to us all that everybody is someone’s child.

My friend staged The Laramie Project six years ago at a high school in my New Jersey town, about ten minutes from the highly ranked high school the two accused in the Clementi case graduated from last spring.

The administration at my friend’s school was “nervous about the play,” she said, “ but they trusted me to do a good job educating the be proactive in the way I approached the constituents of the school—parents, teachers, students.” She had a workshop with the Anti-Defamation League, brought in the real Romaine Patterson, a character brought to life in the play, to speak at an assembly, and held talk-backs with the school counselor.

After the production, the school integrated an anti-defamation policy into the student handbook, and a few faculty members started a Gay Straight Alliance.

But, other drama teachers have been pulled into a debate just trying to get the play approved. A high school in Ocean Township, New Jersey made national news three years ago when an attempt to stage The Laramie Project was blocked by the principal and superintendent.

And, in Burbank, California, high school students took to rehearsing in a student’s backyard and renting a theatre on their own, when a principal vetoed their drama teacher’s selection.

In both of these cases, after a national outcry, and persistence by the high school students themselves, the administrations reversed their decisions.

Teaching compassion, tolerance, and giving people the vicarious experience of tragedy—and time to re-evaluate their own beliefs or actions before making the fateful decisions in their own lives—is a very real, and sometimes mystical—aspect of theatre.

But, in our culture, I wonder, how far the impact goes.

I wanted to say it is deep and long-lasting. And, maybe it is.

But, looking online for more articles about the Clementi story--next to the inspiring ones about Dan Savage’s powerful, It Gets Better Campaign or the new film, Bullied, part of The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance campaign, (and free to any school) about the historic lawsuit in which a school district was held responsible for not ending anti-gay harassment of a student-- next to these stories, what did I see?

An article about 48 year old Courtney Love upping her embarrassment and fame (does she make a distinction?) for posting partially nude photos of herself and accidentally linking to them on twitter.

An article about thirty-six year old Nick James, who secretly videotaped his wife having sex with Tiger Woods and is now advertising the sale of his sixty-two minute video to the public.

And, just a few days ago, an article about a Duke University graduate who has gained fame and reportedly inquiries from a publisher, because of a PowerPoint she made ranking the 13 men she slept with in college—many on the same lacrosse team—on their sexual skill. Somehow, that “unofficial senior thesis” got emailed to 14,000 people. The men listed in her rankings call it harassment.

But, there’s a different word to describe the young woman who made the document: famous.

 Whatever legal or cultural progress we make in gay rights; however deeply we reach into the psyche of students, both marginalized and not, to teach tolerance and empathy; whatever plays we perform; how can these efforts compete with the example our culture is establishing?

Do whatever you can, with whatever means possible, to use Twitter, YouTube, and the Internet at large, to gain attention.

Sometimes the consequences are devastating.

Sometimes they are humiliating.

Sometimes they are unethical. Or illegal.

But, you’ll be famous. Maybe only to your circle of friends. Maybe to the world. Eventually, maybe, to both.

If the accolades that come with fame trump everything else, then how can the values of kindness, tolerance, respect, and decency—or even the threat of the law--ever compete?

The young people accused in the Clementi case surely didn’t wish to become famous to the world for being linked to a young man’s suicide. And, as of now, they have not been charged with a bias motivated crime. We don’t really know very much about their motivation or deeper feelings about their gay roommate. Not yet.

But, had Clementi not taken his life, and the “prank” as it had been called, had simply lead to an increase in their social status within their clique at the expense and humiliation of someone else, then didn’t they use social media and the Internet in precisely the way our culture has taught them?

Couldn’t this happen again, and again, regardless of the education, open-mindedness, compassion, and otherwise-decent behavior of would-be alpha twitterers?

And, that, too, is a tragedy.

statue of fame: Wikimedia commons. User: Brunswyk


Tuesday, October 12th
 at 7:30pm
in Philadelphia
Lunch Box Mom presents
 "The Three Biggest Issues in Parenting News in 2010"

The event is free and open to the public. If you're up for an evening out--and live near Philly-- please join us: St. Peter's School, 319 Lombard Street.


Liz said...

A provocative and important post. Hopefully it, and others like it, will have some impact.

Tim Morrissey said...

As parents, we do what we can to inculcate a strong attitude of acceptance in our children; but tragedies like the one at Rutugers make us aware that our children's peers often do not share those values. I think you handled this topic with great sensitivity and made a very positive contribution to the discussion.

Cathy said...

A very important post. And very timely, as today (Monday) is National Coming Out Day. As a nation, we need to combat these hateful actions and non-accepting attitudes that are still pervasive in today's society.

Alyson said...

Wonderful post Sarah. You beautifully articulated something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I hope our world can find a way to care more about compassion and acceptance than we do about fame and power. Sadly, it's a tough sell for many people.