The Problem with Youth
Much ink has been spilled about the death, life, and roommate of Tyler Clementi, the gay teenager who in 2010 jumped to his death from the GW bridge during his first semester at Rutgers in the days after his roommate twice web-cam’d him having intimate relations with another man. In the past week there has been a general outcry over the conviction of his roommate Dharun Ravi, now facing up to 20 years in prison, on charges of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering.
The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, he was just a “jerky kid.” A sympathetic New Yorker article by Ian Parker primed a liberal public for this a few months back. Parker painted a picture of Ravi as a puffed up, insecure teenager (in other words, an American teeanger) and suggested, “[Ravi’s] predicament could be seen either as a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.” Both Emily Bazelon in the New York TImes and J. Bryan Lowder at Slate have recently written in support of the latter sentiment.
I’m not sure why we’re surprised that a teenager has seen a rough day in court. This appears to be the norm these days, with over 2,000 kids sitting in jail for life without parole, Occupy movements violently broken up by the police, depicted as threats to both private property and the state, and anti-bullying laws on the move, in part due to this case, which raises the inevitable question of whether we really want seven-year-olds to have round-the-clock access to the Crimestoppers hotline. It’s not that the law doesn’t recognize youth as an important identity, it’s that it doesn’t like what it sees. Youth, in other words, is an increasingly useless category of defense.
I’ve been thinking about identity a good amount lately while going through the Wendy Brown/Janet Halley volume Left Legalism/Left Critique. Richard T Ford’s “Beyond ‘Difference’: A Reluctant Critique of Legal Identity Politics” worries about the way in which the law, while providing recourse to those who can claim a certain identity like “woman” or “black American” simultaneously reconstitutes that identity, reifying it in its cultural associations. For instance, an employee who brings suit against her employer because the employer has told her she cannot wear her hair in cornrows does so on the basis of racial discrimination. Yet in doing so, cornrows become the “‘cultural essence’ not of one black woman but of all black women.” With racial identities thus culturally concretized, Ford worries that the politics of difference will threaten to become another hegemonic discourse “no less myopic than the universalist ideal that preceded it.”
Yesterday I sat in on a discussion on Karla FC Holloway‘s new book, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics. As a professor in both the English department and Law School at Duke, Holloway is well aware of both the constructiveness of identity and of the legal recourse certain socialized and historically subjugated identities like “black” and “women” provide in today’s America. When asked, she said she was not yet willing to do away with these socialized identities. In light of the recent Trayvon Martin shooting, one can see why. It’s unclear what will happen at the criminal level, but it seems likely that Martin’s family will seek reparation from the city or from the neighborhood watch organization through a civil trial whose success will swivel on the fulcrum of race. The shooter’s racist exclamations may make it an easy case, yet in arguing that Martin was targeted because he was a young, African-American male, the trial will inevitably articulate certain “truths” about his African-American-maleness.
Similar debates on how the law provides relief through the reiteration of reifying identities and stereotypes run through the theory of many identity groups. The Arizona Senate recently passed legislation that will protect doctors from liability in cases where a child is born with congenital disability following prenatal testing– in other words doctors will no longer be under any real legal obligation to tell parents about diagnosed congenital disabilities. The back story of this law is a series of “wrongful birth” lawsuits. See historian Leslie Reagan’s very good article tracing this back to the German Measles outbreak in the 1950s/1960s. In “wrongful birth” suits, parents who unexpectedly gave birth to disabled children have sued their doctors for malpractice. The implication is that had the parents been provided correct information, they would have chosen to abort. Some have criticized such lawsuits for proliferating the idea that the disabled are “less worthy” of life, but the flip side is that parents don’t bring such suits in order to symbolically disavow their disabled children; they do so to seek financial redress to help cover medical bills.
It may seem like we’re a long way away from Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi’s dorm room at this point, but I want to swing back for a moment, because there were a few key identity categories at play in the media arc on this case. First, appealing to “youth” as an identity that explains and excuses the crime isn’t working. We live in a world of rapidly evolving, destabilizing technology, of media articles that avow and disavow rampant teenage sexuality all in one breath, and of successful campaigns like the Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better,” a campaign I’m sympathetic to in sentiment but which subjectivizes homophobia and reduces it — temporally and geographically — to the local schoolyard.
Disciplining the young, our future citizens, is nothing new. Foucault’s “The Carceral” begins with “that glorious day, unremarked and unrecorded, when a child in [the penal colony] Mettray remarked as he lay dying, ‘What a pity I left the colony so soon.” What is interesting today is not that youth are a target of overreaching discipline, but instead the relationship between law and social discipline at a moment where technological innovation has opened up unique behavioral, but also surveillance and disciplinary, possibilities. Yes, it seems that Dharun Ravi was punished harshly for a variety of reasons, but surely in part he was made an example of — a spectacle — for thousands of others teens to reference as they think about their daily technological routines and interactions.
One last word on a final identity that seems to have become completely stabilized in media discourse as object of Ravi’s homophobia: Clementi’s homosexuality. Given the way our culture sees sexuality as an innate, biological, subjectivized identity, this is no real surprise, yet Parker’s discussion with Molly Wei, the girl whose computer Clementi used, reveals that Ravi had a real discomfort with the object and kind of Clementi’s desire:
“It’s a really old-looking guy, like, What the heck, what’s going on?” Ravi thought that M.B. seemed “really shady.” [Wei]went on, “He actually was kind of angry. He’s, like, ‘If he steals my iPad I’m going to make Tyler pay for it.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, and my roommate’s gay, like what if something else is going on?’ ” Speaking to the police, Ravi recalled M.B. as “slightly overweight,” with facial hair of some sort. Ravi’s reaction appears to have included some class prejudice: the man, apparently working-class, was a likely thief. He was “random,” as one of Molly Wei’s friends later put it—he was troublingly not of their world.
It seems that the issue, at least at this moment, was not just, or not totally, that Clementi was gay, but that he was participating in a certain kind of deviant sexuality: crossing class, age, and respectable relationship bounds. This isn’t to say that Ravi would have had the same reaction had Clementi brought home a girl. More likely such an illicit heterosexual hookup would have been cause for celebration had it been orchestrated by a straight male. But in this case, a gay sexual identity opened Clementi up for visual probing into a private space that would have been respected had he been straight.