Blame, blame, blame! There’s enough of it to go around, but people tie it closely to a person’s deservedness of punishment. Why are we so intent on making someone suffer as “payment for” an offense?

In a recent case, Dharun Ravi (a Rutgers student) set up a webcam in his dorm room and streamed his roommate, Tyler Clementi, having sex with another man live on the Internet. Clementi committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge shortly after the incident. Everyone blames Dharun Ravi for causing Clementi’s death. In fact, Ravi is currently in the midst of a trial related to his actions in the case:

Friday was the first day of the trial in the case involving Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student who used a web cam to spy on roommate Tyler Clementi while Clementi was intimate with another man. After Clementi found out about the spying and subsequent online broadcast of his sexual encounter, he committed suicide. Ravi faces 10 years in prison for being charged with bias intimidation against Clementi, a hate crime. The trial is said to hinge on whether the prosecution can prove that Ravi was moved to intimidation because of an alleged dislike of gays. The prosecution said in its opening statement that Ravi’s actions “were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation, and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s private sexual activity.”
Source: Daily Beast

UPDATE 3/16/2012:
A former Rutgers University student accused of spying on and intimidating his gay roommate by use of a hidden webcam was found guilty on charges of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation in a case that thrust cyberbullying into the national spotlight and prompted comments from President Barack Obama.

The jury found Ravi not guilty on several questions within the verdict sheet, but because he was found guilty on at least one question of whether his actions constituted bias discrimination, he could now face the maximum penalty: Up to 10 years in jail and deportation to his native India.
Ravi, 20, also was found guilty of witness tampering, hindering apprehension and tampering of physical evidence.
Source: CNN

It is ALL About Punishment

This whole case is about punishing Ravi for Clementi’s death. First, if Clementi hadn’t killed himself, the case wouldn’t have garnered so much attention, because the victims probably wouldn’t have brought it to light. The audience would have been limited to those who saw the live video streaming. It is the death of the victim, by his own hand, that attracts the outcry of public opinion, with claims such as, “Ravi made him kill himself,” and the like.

But, did Ravi actually make Clementi kill himself? Is there any level of personal responsibility that should be placed on Clementi for the choice to end his own life?

Unanswered Questions

Would they have blamed Ravi for his own death if Clementi had killed him instead of himself? This is to say, what if Clementi went out and shot or otherwise killed Ravi for exposing his sexual exploits?

Would those who seek “justice” against Ravi now have sought the same against Clementi if that had happened? Would they go so far as trying to find and interrogate the people who set up the webcam? Would they also be prosecuted for Ravi’s death in this hypothetical situation?

Someone MUST Pay

Prosecutors and their supporters want to conceal the true motive behind trying this case–that they believe Ravi caused the death of Clementi and he MUST be punished for it. They couldn’t prosecute Ravi for murder or manslaughter, so they charged him with whatever they could, to give him the most severe punishment possible.

They needed someone to blame. Clementi is dead and so Ravi must bear this burden alone. When something like this occurs, the axiom is that someone must be punished. We live in a society where crimes against individuals are often seen as symbolic crimes against and entire group, or in some cases all of humanity. The “wrongful” death of a person is viewed as an affront to all people, not just the offended group–gays in this case. Because people’s feelings are hurt, they want to make the person of blame feel bad so that they will suffer as well. Their way of accomplishing this is through punishment. The punishment is a form of payback, which is also intended to deter the individual and observers from similar offenses in the future.

The Role Of Blame In Crime And Punishment

The role of blame in the process of crime and punishment is twofold. First, blaming the individual identifies the target of the intended punishment.

The second role of blame in the process of crime and punishment is to remove responsibility from the person placing the blame–whether or not the individual is directly involved in the incident at hand. Pointing out the target gives it a different name, face, body, and mind than our own–it’s saying the problem is something/someone outside of us, which solidifies the idea that we are not the problem.

When we hear of a situation where one person treated another unkindly, there is a certain level of identification we feel with both the victim and the perpetrator. It’s okay for you to identify with the victim, because they aren’t in a position of “wrongdoing.”

The conflict arises when it comes to identifying with the perpetrator. We don’t want to be like the “bad guy” because that would make us feel guilty. For example, in the case of Ravi and Clementi, none of us were directly involved in what happened during those incidents. Yet, most of us can probably think of a time when we treated someone badly and the situation didn’t end well for the other person.

When something is on our guilty conscious, we want to be relieved of it, so we seek to make amends. Because of our culture and society, we view punishment as the only way to make amends for wrongdoing. As such, we seek the punishment for ourselves to ease the guilty conscious. By punishing the perpetrator, we are punishing that part of ourselves that we projected onto the perpetrator for the acts that they committed.

We feel pain as a result of what Ravi did in two ways. First, we acknowledge that what Ravi did to Clementi was terribly wrong, essentially saying “That was a really mean thing to do to someone else.” Second, we feel pain as a result of Ravi’s act reminding us of something we’ve done in the past that causes us to feel the guilt of our own actions. We’re both hurt and angry with Ravi (the perpetrator) for reminding us of our own wrongdoings of this nature. As a result, we now consider ourselves victims of the perpetrator as well. So now, they need to be punished for what they did to the victim and for what they did to us.

Cultural Hypocrisy

It is our own thirst for the salacious details of peoples’ lives that drives this culture of invasion of privacy. It started with the whole obsession with celebrities and their lives–what they were wearing, who’s screwing whom, who’s having a baby, what they wore to an awards show, who’s beefing, sex tape exposes, who’s getting married or divorced, look who’s cheating, look at this nip slip, this celeb has naked photos, so and so is gay, and the list goes on…

Next came reality TV, where it was “regular people” showcasing their lives. All of this paved the way for what happened in the Ravi and Clementi case. It is this whole “reality show” mentality, where people are comfortable prying into the personal lives of others. Shows like Candid Camera, Cheaters, Maury, Jerry Springer, and a host of other reality shows are really no different than what Ravi did. The only difference is that Ravi isn’t famous.

He was delivering the culture to the people on the college campus. Perhaps he thought that it was something that would be funny–laughter at someone else’s expense. What he ultimately did was in accordance with the culture–he made the campus sex tape, giving the people what they wanted and Clementi killed himself because of it.

So basically, Ravi being punished for this is to make it look as if there are ethics in the culture and that something is being done to keep us ethical and moral–to make it appear as if there are limitations on the privacy invasions. It is only seen as unethical when the person whose personal life is exposed does something objectionable. This is done so that we can all continue to get our fill of the garbage TV and entertainment, watching sex tapes and other debauchery without feeling the guilt of the pain it caused to produce and distribute it.

Beyond The Ravi And Clementi Case

We can argue about how wrong Ravi’s acts were, but one thing CANNOT be denied–Clementi walked himself onto that bridge and decided to jump off. Does he have ANY responsibility in his own actions? Is only one person to blame, or can there be shared blame? Let’s take a look at other real-world cases that can help to drive this point home.

Smoking Cigarettes And Tobacco Industry Blame

In 1998, four of the largest U.S. tobacco companies were sued by states’ attorneys general to recover healthcare costs associated with tobacco use. In the end, tobacco companies were forced to pay $365.5 billion. Who is to blame for the need and cost of tobacco-related medical conditions?

Whenever a person starts smoking and becomes addicted to the nicotine, and the dies from cancer, many people believe they did it to themselves because they got the cigarette, lit it, and inhaled it. Are the tobacco companies to blame for producing a product with slew of known harmful chemicals and carcinogens to tobacco–including the nicotine which caused the the individual to become addicted in the first place? Or is the smoker to blame for puffing the cigarette and causing those chemicals to enter their body and bloodstream?

Chevy Vehicle Recall

In December 2011, Chevy recalled its 2012 Chevrolet Sonic models because some of them were missing break pads. The assembly issue was isolated to the automaker’s Orion Township, Michigan plant.

Suppose you were speeding down the road in a 2012 Chevrolet Sonic with missing break pads and you couldn’t stop in time, causing you to hit a tree. Are you to blame because you were speeding? Is Chevy to blame because they failed to install break pads during the manufacturing process? Is the government to blame for not having better vehicle manufacturer oversight?

Working While Black

In August 2009, Yunusa Kenchi, a Black Muslim, was fired from Hanes’ Manhattan office after suffering racial discrimination. These incidences culminated in Kenchi’s “interception” of an email written by his boss to her boss, which read, “We should go forward with getting this nigger out of here.” He filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Hanes, citing a pattern of discrimination by his bosses from the day he started working there.

Hanes eventually made a public apology and offered his job back. Kenchi declined and has since found other employment and continued with the lawsuit. Suppose you are Kenchi in this situation, and your new employer fired you as a result of all the publicity surrounding the lawsuit. Who’s to blame for your termination? Are you to blame for “intercepting” the racist email and filing the suit? Is Hanes to blame for not knowing or doing nothing about their racist management team? Is the new employer to blame for being unreasonable about the conditions of your employment?

2000 Election

In 2000, the contested results of that year’s United States presidential bid were solidified by the Supreme Court’s opinion that manual recounts as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court were unconstitutional.  As a result, George W. Bush was determined the winner and assumed the Office of President.  Because most American citizen exhibit faith in the U.S. political and judicial system, the Supreme Court’s opinion was respected, and President Bush’s election was subsequently validated by American citizens whom show faith in the American system.

Not long after assuming office, large tax cuts were given to the wealthiest of Americans and the United States found itself in two wars overseas with a seemingly endless cashflow, causing the national debt to skyrocket.  These being factors, eventually the U.S. economy took a major plunge in 2008, and millions of Americans lose their jobs.  Who’s to blame?

Is President Bush to blame for being the captain of the ship and enacting policies that steered it into the iceberg? Is the Osama bin Laden for “constructing a plan” to attack Americans on U.S. soil?  Is it the U.S. Supreme Court for paving the way for a president of Bush’s caliber?  Are the founding fathers to blame for developing a constitution, a basis for law loosely written for interpretation?  Are you to blame for supporting–and even calling for–the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as a form of revenge?  Do you blame yourself for having such faith in and validating a system of such injustice and politics facilitates much of the above to take place?

The End Game Of Blame

What makes all of these situations different? Why is the responsibility placed differently in different situations? If Ravi is not to blame, then is Clementi to blame? Could it be that our obsession with invasion of privacy is to blame?

Why does the blame need to be placed solely on the one of many factors that absolves you and those like you of all accountability in the matter?  Why is there a need to punish just one of the collective who’ve contributed to an act or condition that exists?

There is enough blame to go around, but all too often, we CHOOSE to place blame on one thing. This decision is a reflection of our own desire to shift responsibility from ourselves and others with whom we prefer to identify, and project it onto a target we view negatively.

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