Empathy

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Tyler Clementi was an excellent student and fine violinist when he began his freshman year at Rutgers University in September 2010. Tyler was also gay and he had arranged with his roommate to have the room to himself while he had a male guest in for the evening. The roommate set up a video camera to secretly record Tyler’s encounter with the other man. The roommate shared the video with another student and was making plans to put it on the Internet. When Tyler heard this, he became distraught and committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge.

Much has been written about the incident. Many measures have been proposed to prevent such a thing happening again — new laws; new college policies, new anti-bullying programs. The roommate and the other student are facing legal consequences for the prank. But this is all legalistic, after the fact hand-wringing. Nowhere have I seen any discussion of morality and the fact that what these students did was immoral.

Whether you take your moral code from organized religion, unorganized religion, or some vague sense that some actions are good and others are bad, it doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that humiliating another person and holding them up to ridicule for your own entertainment is a bad thing to do. Applying the simple rule of “do unto others . . . “ ought to tell you that. In the book of Jeremiah, the Lord says, “I will write my law upon your heart” (Jeremiah 31:27-34). I think what the ancient author was trying to describe is that gut feeling we get when we are doing something we know instinctively is wrong. Apparently this feeling was repressed or ignored or otherwise did not concern the people who abused Tyler. So, what went wrong here?

I think one big problem is the general coarsening of our society. Much of our pop culture derives its entertainment value from the degradation of others. Reality television humiliates a steady stream of victims to provide yucks for the most desirable (to advertisers) viewing demographic, 18 to 34 year-olds. A popular insult is to say that a person is so worthless, about the only thing they are good for is to go on television and eat bugs (Patti Blagojevich?). Similarly, much television content is put-down humor; you can always get a laugh with a clever insult. I once saw a commercial for a program that showed the main character falling into a toilet bowl to raucous rounds of canned laughter. This kind of material draws a lot of viewers and sells a lot of advertising. But is also infects our society. You can teach morality in schools or churches or in homes. But when kids see what the cool people on television do, you may as well be whistling in the wind. No wonder, then, that our children insult teachers and other authority figures, verbally harass their peers, and bully others physically and emotionally. They are encouraged in this behavior and rewarded for it with the approving laughter they get for their coolness while their victims are devastated.

The other day, a friend of mine mentioned that one indicator that you are an adult, is that you have learned to make moral judgments. Well, Tyler’s tormenters were college students, so they probably were legally adults, i.e. over the age of eighteen in New Jersey. Enough said.

Who can know what was going through Tyler’s mind that night? Perhaps he was depressed because he thought he had left the harassment of his high school years behind, only to find that it had followed him to college. Perhaps he just could not face another round of derisive laughter and contempt that he knew the video would provoke. A small attempt to try to empathize with Tyler, to walk a little way in his shoes, and maybe the students who drove him to his end might have thought twice, perhaps asking themselves, “how would I feel if my most intimate actions were broadcast on the Internet?” Laws, rules and policies, anti-bullying programs will never make grown people empathetic or cause them to refrain from intentionally humiliating another person for their own entertainment. It takes careful instruction in moral behavior from the time a person is a child to produce an adult who instinctively listens to that law of the Lord that is written in their heart.

“But you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fear,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.”

Bob Dylan. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

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