Despite my repeated efforts to come off as a hard-ass in the classroom, I am actually something of a pushover when it comes to undergraduates engaging in undergraduate-like behavior. People between the ages of 18 and 20 are immature; in many cases shockingly immature, and rarely ever (in my experience) mature to an extent that matches their legally-defined status as adults. Of course, most of what I deal with does not involve long term consequences. Late papers and poor class attendance will not be branded onto any students like a scarlet letter of shame (pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in American Civil Liberties Union v. Ed with a Branding Iron). I am not a judge and I don't have to deal with the kind of immature crap that will follow these kids around life.

Would any of us like to be defined by, or spend the rest of our lives answering for, the worst decision we made when we were 18? Of course not. But some people have to do so anyway on account of the nature and severity of that "worst decision." The two people who have been arrested in the Tyler Clementi case, wherein two college freshmen secretly videotaped and then broadcast a male roommate fooling around with another male student, falls into the Mark of Shame category. At least it should. Whether it will is another question.

"Your Honor, they're just stupid kids who didn't know any better" is a remarkably successful defense, at least for upper-middle class kids whose parents can afford a fancy lawyer for Billy's First Drug Buy. In most cases these kids really don't know any better, which is to say that they are idiots who have no life experience, moral compass, or relevant parental guidance in their upbringing. To say "I had no idea this kid would jump off of a bridge, and had I known it I would never have done it" is, in every sense, a completely accurate statement. I'm sure the accused had zero intention of being responsible for a death. But they can and should be responsible for their intent to cause someone else harm. You don't post a secretly recorded video of an 18 year old guy with another guy for any non-malicious purpose. Their goal was simple and illustrates the foundation of the sociology of being an American teenager: one group or person humiliating or abusing another for their own entertainment or benefit. This happens on a smaller scale (at least in terms of outcomes) millions of times per day from grade school playgrounds to college dorms.

The only difficult question here – as their guilt with respect to New Jersey's invasion of privacy statute seems beyond dispute – is the frequently and lightly thrown-about concept of a "hate crime." If, for example, they had distributed a secret video of the victim masturbating while alone in his room it would have caused him an incredible amount of humiliation and, for an emotionally fragile 18 year old, could very easily have led to the same tragic ending to the story. Would that have been less reprehensible? Deserving of less punishment? Since motivation based on hatred or bigotry speaks to intent, the Clementi case seems to be a bad fit. The accused do not appear to have had any intent at all let alone one based on negative attitudes about gays. They are just horrible people incapable of understanding (or perhaps caring) what their actions would do to someone else. It's simply another case of popular kid mocks social outcast for the amusement of other popular kids. Film at 11.

Hate Crime would seem to be a better label for acts that would not mean the same thing if not motivated by hatred – throwing a burning piece of wood in my black neighbor's yard is illegal, but becomes a whole different issue if I shape it into a cross first. It is illegal to violate someone's privacy like Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei did to Tyler Clementi, and their punishment should be the same regardless of their intent. To say "Yes, punish them more harshly because they did this on account of his sexual orientation" is a hard step for me to take, though.
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Doing so may be justifiable by the circumstances, but in a strange way I think it would diminish the underlying issue that I think deserves more attention: why are we so tolerant of a social structure for people in this age group built almost entirely on varying degrees of bullying?

I understand if you feel like the take-home point from this affair is that they outed this guy to humiliate him, which says something disgusting about the extent to which homosexuality is stigmatized in America. That's legitimate. For me, however, the weight of the story would be the same if they decided to pick on the fat kid, the ugly kid, the kid with dyslexia, the foreign kid, or the kid who is simply too weak to defend himself. The point is that we raise kids to believe (or at least condone) that it's OK to interact with the world by belittling other people for one's own social benefit. And that is rarely recognized as inexcusable and unacceptable even when the consequences are shocking. I think that this sort of thing happens on a daily basis and it's unfortunate that the media can only take an interest when there's a sufficiently compelling "angle" (Ooh, gay sex drama at Rutgers!) It's too bad that we don't talk about the hundreds of other annual instances of kids killing themselves because we condone "kids being kids", which in the modern context means that they treat ruining one another like a game.

27 thoughts on “HATE CRIMES”

  • I think the great, unspoken truth of our declining empire is that Bullying Is The American Way. That's why the only way to control it is to put certain people off-limits as victims. You can't discredit the whole enterprise – who would show up for work the next day? Let the bullying continue apace, and if a bully is dumb enough to get caught hunting certain game off-season, publically bully them.

  • Margaret Nolan says:

    I am now, and have been, a teacher for many years, on all levels,including high school. Middle school is where I spent most of my years, but I've witnessed bullying, persecuting actions of every sort. It starts early, and yet we have no need to study why, as much as we must establish zero tolerance for this cruel behavior. The one who should feel personal pain or discomfort should be the bully.
    Schools have been quite effective in proscribing other antisocial personal habits, so why not this offense to the public good?

  • We can't know exactly how imprudent the behavior was, until we learn (if we can) the nature of the relationship between the roommates. We may say generally that no one wants his adolescent sexual fumblings broadcast to the world; also that you would have to grow up in a cave on Mars to be unaware that this is not only harrassment, but a hate crime (no matter how many gay friends the roommate had.)

    But specifically, the roommate probably knew this kid was not strong enough to laugh it off, but would be emotionally wrecked by this action. Goading someone to suicide may not have been the goal, but humilation and major suffering were. You learn not to do that shortly after the age of reason, not the age of majority.

    Unless you were asking what makes a hate crime worthy of additional punishment; that's a separate matter. But saying "he just wasn't experienced enough to predict the consequences of his actions" suddenly excuses a class of adults from behavior that junior high schoolers know is seriously wrong because of potentially extreme repercussions, such as driving while buzzed. He didn't mean to kill anyone, he just wanted to go home and go to bed! No, sorry. They may have been raised by Jackass re-runs and eating carnival food, but they were smart enough to get into college, weren't they?

  • As usual, I think Ed's reasoning is faultless in this Rutgers case.

    But I've always thought the "hate crime" category was built on legal quicksand anyway: murder is murder, harassment is harassment, die gedanken sind frei, and our system has it hard enough dealing with objective fact, never mind proving subjective states of mind. If I want to annoy my black neighbor I may toss in a little racist symbolism just to sweeten the taunt, but does that make it racism-inspired?

    Anyone know any reading, article- or book-length, on the "hate crime" subject, I'd love to see it.

  • As a high school teacher, I see the same sort of immaturity every day. We're struggling with a form of mass hazing this year that I don't think I remember from my days as an adolescent.

    Broadly speaking, the reason kids "do dumb things" is that their prefrontal cortex is usually not developed until they are in their mid-20s. Since the prefrontal cortex is responsible for long range planning they literally can't understand that their actions will have repercussions.

    But it also seems that wanton cruelty is more a part of youth culture than before. Not the sort of sociopathic "wilding" that people hyperventilated about in the early '90s, but just a culture of disrespect.

  • @ anotherbozo: thoughts may be free, but actions have limits. Here is an article that mentions some strengths and weaknesses of this particular enhancement: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~mert1230/hatecrimes.htm

    My reservations with hate crimes as such is that the phrase is applied, buzzword-like, to situations that are awful, but which may not meet the actual definition. My point is that in this case, until we know the specifics of their relationship, we can't make the call. If the roommate thought it would be cute & clever to leave "Die Faggot Die" notes for the victim, razz him night and day, and bring others in on the act, we can see a systematic pattern of hate speech and other behavior. If this roommate (who, again, has gay friends) is simply an asshole, with a history of playing odious pranks on all his buddies, in various ways, we can tell this was probably one more odious prank. Specifics are what we need and don't have.

  • Well, I think it brings up an important and not often discussed topic: What exactly *is* a hate crime, and what is the purpose of defining certain crimes as hate crimes that draw extra punishment?

    To go back to Ed's "burning wood" example: throwing a burning piece of wood in the neighbor's yard is illegal, and is a standard crime. Doing it to a black neighbor is still a standard crime. But shaping it into a cross and putting on a white hood makes it a hate crime.

    Now, why has this become a hate crime? My contention, which may be substantially different from that of others, is that it is now a hate crime because there is evidence that it was done with a specific motivation: the victim's race. This is the same in similar cases of murder: beating a man to death is a crime. Beating a minority man to death is a crime. Beating a minority man to death *because he was a minority* is a hate crime.

    It is for this reason that I believe that this case is a hate crime. Because, again: invading the roomate's privacy is a crime. Invading the gay roomate's privacy is a crime. Invading the gay roomate's privace *because he was gay* is a hate crime.

    Which brings us to the second question: Why do we define hate crimes as a special sort of crime that draws extra punishment? Again, answers here can vary wildly, but at least in my mind, the idea is to actively discourage prejudicial and bigoted behavior that is harmful to society. A lot of right-wingers and libertarians rather dislike the idea of hate crimes, saying that they are, in effect, thought crimes. And I don't necessarily disagree with them on that, because at a base level that's the case — the crime is punished more harshly because of what you were thinking at the time.

    But unlike thought crimes of, say, imagining doing something illegal, these 'thought crimes' are uniquely connected to actual criminal activity. I believe there is a substantial difference between it being illegal to draw a picture of murder (excepting, of course, actual plot and intent — that's 'conspiracy to commit murder'), and it being… well, 'more illegal' to actually commit a murder under specific circumstances.

    The idea behind hate crimes is to say, not only that the activity itself was illegal, but that doing it to be bigoted is even more unacceptable than usual. The point being to discourage such bigotry because it is actively harmful to society.

    And make no mistake: If the roomate had been straight, they wouldn't have done this. He asked to have the room, and was given permission to use it privately — the only reason his roomie taped him was because he was gay.

    And I see very little difference between that, and situations where the only reason a guy got murdered was because he was black/brown/gay/a lawyer/fat.

  • I'd first read about this from Sadly No!'s article kicking Alex Knepper. In my reading, Alex came off as a jerk, but I saw his point and I happened to agree with him. I remember being set free at college and, well, I was a drunken lout that often behaved badly. And that's what I saw with this.

    Granted, I've not followed up on the history of the perpetrators relationship with Clementi, so if new information has been released, I would appreciate an update. But if there is no history of acts against other gays, I have a really hard time calling this a hate crime. I spent one semester in the dorms and my roommates tormented me endlessly, though they were really quite stupid and easily ignored, so I know how people behave. It seems to me that this was a heartless prank that went horribly wrong and it should be treated like that.

  • Eighteen to twenty year olds have no moral compass?! This is something their parents should have been instilling in them from childhood. If not during this time frame then when do people learn to respect other people and their property? When do they learn there are consequences to their actions and therefore maybe they should think things through before doing something? Yes, I understand that kids' logic isn't fully developed but by the time someone is 18 yrs old the basics should have been instilled in them. Kids shouldn't have to learn their lessons on respecting other people only when a fatality occurs.

  • My own personal anecdotal evidence from growing up attending public schools around the country (af brat) is that only a small portion of my peers had any sort of bullying instinct. 29 out of a 30 were fine people. It was that 30th asshole who spent all his time and energy on being a bully.

  • Almost always I avoid commenting in order to just say, "I agree. Good post," but I have to make an exception here. Homophobia is a big problem, but bullying and general assholery effects almost everyone at some point or another. I'll be passing this post around. Thanks, Ed.

  • @ladiesbane: thanks for the reference re: hate crimes, but I didn't see that it addressed my problem with the matter. Wikipedia's article on it had several categories in the margins that were presumably related: Ableism, Ageism, · Caste, Classism, Colorism, Genism, Heightism, Linguicism, Lookism, Mentalism, Racism, Rankism, Religious, Sexism, Sexualism, Sizeism, Speciesism, Weightism, and Xenophobia generally. That leads me to ask: how many of these maladies fall under hate crimes legislation? Aren't serial killers like Ted Bundy woman-haters (not that, in his case, it matters)? What if it's argued that a racist really has displaced his rage against his father onto an arbitrary group? Where does the psycholanalysis stop? And what if all my victims are baldheaded because I hate bald people? Have I committed hate crimes?

    Watching a jury find a perfect lunatic (the "Long Island shooter" from years ago, the crazy who went up and down train cars on the LIE in New York, killing perfect strangers at random) guilty, but not by reason of insanity, even after he fired his state-appointed lawyer and demonstrated his total irrationality for all to see, I concluded that social pressures all too often skew verdicts and sentences as it is; we don't need others. The only thing I gained from the article you cited was that a judge may consider the intentionality behind a crime–an X factor, call it–and adjust his sentence accordingly, if law permits. Otherwise "hate crime" would have limits and definitions which were arbitrary, tailored to the "official" hate groups du jour and not to enduring principles of law.

    But this probably isn't a very good forum for the kind of back-and-forth I'd welcome. I need to find some knowledgable people of good conscience to kick this around with…and perhaps get educated.

  • I think the take home point about this is that bullying is endemic to American society. The consensus seems to me that it's ok that this keeps happening as long as the suicides are not members of the in-group. I also don't think that's enough to make this a hate crime. Hate crimes charges should be used against individuals that attempt to use their crime to intimidate a entire group. And really, we can't charge a whole institution for a hate crime either for letting gay kids be bullied. This was the 5th suicide of a gay kid that month and sadly, I don't see any inclination for society to change. At least until gay kids begin to go Columbine on the asses of their bullies and the schools that ignore them. Then, when the in-group members and their parents start feeling threatened, there might be something done about it, but it'll inevitably be the wrong thing.

  • @John: "My contention, which may be substantially different from that of others, is that [burning a cross] is now a hate crime because there is evidence that it was done with a specific motivation: the victim's race."

    The question "what is a hate crime" is made more complicated once you see the distinction between the ideal category and the fact that there are actually laws that differ from state to state and on the Federal level. I'll stick to the ideal case, but also note that New Jersey has a very loose definition of hate crime that the Clementi case certainly falls under.

    I think John misses an important distinction in the ideal sense of hate crime. The purpose of burning a cross is not to express hate for a particular person based on their membership in a racial group. Rather, it is to intimidate *all members* of that group by virtue of harming one member. You don't burn a cross because your neighbor failed to mow his lawn, you burn a cross because you don't want *any* black people living in your neighborhood. So I do think cross burning is rightly classes as a hate crime, but not because of the intent directed to a single person. In the Clementi case I don't see such a motivation. Ed is right that this is about our sadistic youth culture — it appears that homosexuality was a weapon used to abuse an outsider. If the perps had spray painted "go home faggot" on this dorm room door, it would be an entirely different matter. They harassed *Clementi,* not *all gays* so I would argue it shouldn't be classed as a hate crime. Whether the NJ prosecutors agree on the basis of NJ statutes is another matter.

  • Aaron Schroeder says:

    I think that John's comments are spot on here, save for the last few lines. Hate crimes are just those whose perpetrators can be shown to have been at least partially motivated to commit the crime by the victim's membership in some protected class. Since New Jersey treats 'sexual orientation' as a protected class, the question isn't whether 'being gay' is legally worse than 'being fat' or 'being ugly' (legally, it's clear that the state treats it as worse); rather, the question is whether the Wei and Ravi would have committed the crime, had they not known Clementi's sexual orientation. Little of Wei's participation in this debacle has been released, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Ravi was disgusted by the fact that Clementi was gay, and on that basis, proceeded to humiliate him across the internet.

    To draw the parallel with the cross burning case, it's a hate crime to plant one in a black person's yard as much as it is a white person's yard, because the historical nature of the crime suggests that no one performs that act without some form of racial motivation. But the important point isn't the cross burning per se; it's that race is a protected class, whether you're white, black, Hispanic, or as Dwight on "The Office" would say, some kind of halves, the fact that a crime was committed against you because of your race is enough for the crime to be considered a hate crime.

    Obviously, there are libraries full of books published on why the state should (and shouldn't) protect certain classes of citizens. And even if there's plenty of room for debate on what groups should be protected and whether there should be protected 'classes' at all, the law as it stands is pretty clear. If the motivation for a crime is the victim's membership in a protected class, then the punishment multiplies by some jurisdiction/crime-specific factor.

  • Aaron Schroeder says:

    Loneoak, the last part of your post is not true. If a person leaves racist literature or a postcard picturing a lynching in one black neighbor's mailbox and invites another to his annual barbecue, the first act is still a hate crime, despite it's being private and the fact that the perpetrator seems not to hold that sentiment toward every member of the protected class.

    In short, it isn't a necessary condition on being a hate crime that the act have been directed at or perceivable by each member of some protected class. It need only have been directed at some member of a protected class because of that person's membership.

  • @ Aaron: Since when is racist literature or postcards a crime? Good lord, I hope written material isn't illegal yet. I'm not sure what is meant by "Loneoak, the last part of your post is not true," because I'm not arguing about facts here, I'm elaborating a philosophical position about what distinguishes hate crimes from otherwise identical crimes. If you want to talk about actual laws, then we can talk about facts.

    The problem with your definition is that it hateful sentiment is often present in crimes and yet that sentiment may have nothing to do with the rest of the group to which the victim belongs. We need a definition that is capable of handling this distinction. Consider the particular sorts of crimes that hate crimes legislation is aimed at preventing: gay rolling, cross burning, attacking migrant workers, beating homeless people, etc. Hate crimes legislation is not meant to lessen the murder rate or protect privacy, even if they do so incidentally. The crimes that it is meant to prevent all are driven by animus directed towards groups of people. It is the public, and not private, sentiment that makes a crime a hate crime, in my opinion. Cross burning is not a statement of private sentiment, it is a very loud statement of a public sentiment. In my philosophical opinion, without that animus directed indiscriminately against a group of people it is not properly classed as a hate crime. And I don't see that in the Clementi case.

    Whether the broad legal definition accomplishes that exclusively is another question—I think the laws should be tailored much more tightly.

  • Ethically, this one's a no-brainer. Check the infamous Twitter post: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

    Setting aside the degree to which turning on the webcam to spy on someone just for shits-'n-giggles is seriously fucking creepy, there's an obvious ethical breach in that the roommate asked, and was presumably given, the private use of the room. To then go back (even visually) and spy is a violation of that promise.

    If it seems as if I'm being all college-y and abstruse about this (and I am), it's to this end: There's no reason why anyone old enough to go to college doesn't clearly know that When You Make A Promise, You Keep It. That's a pretty fucking simple moral lesson, and one that we all learn *way* earlier than our late teens.

    So regardless of their ignorance about knowing what the consequences would be, regardless of the horror of those consequences, and regardless *even* of the bigotry present in their actions, these kids cannot hide behind "We didn't know that what we were doing was really wrong." Yes, you did. Period. You knowingly did wrong, which meant that you accepted the consequences, even if you didn't know what they were. So when the Hammer of the Justice of Man and God drops on you, accept it. By committing an act you knew to be wrong, you implicitly accepted any punishment that came as a result. So whatever happens to these kids, they have it coming.

    But that's the easy part. Now it's just a question of what *our* ethical responsibility is as the punitive party. Is this a hate crime? (Sloppy language–'crime of bigotry' might come closer.) Sure, in the sense that the victim was targeted for a vulnerability created by social stigma. But as anotherbozo points out, it could just as easily been his weight, his facial appearance, his poverty–things which don't qualify one as a potential victim of a hate crime. What if this had been an obese kid jacking it to trannie porn? A similarly disseminated (sorry) video might have yielded a suicide attempt, yet no Hate Crime would have occurred. By focusing on the reason for the victim's vulnerability, we ignore the real cause of the crime: the perpetrators' cruelty–or evil, if you want to go that far. Which really doesn't care whether or not the kid is gay–it just knows that it makes him easy to humiliate in an unfriendly environment.

    Hyenas can't commit hate crimes. They only spot the ones they can take down, and do so. I'd say treat them like hyenas, rather than bigots. Which would mean, I suppose, throwing them in a cage with actual hyenas, a little object lesson in what it's like to be the outlier of the herd…

  • Again, I think this really gets down to what the purpose of hate crime legislation is.

    If the idea behind hate crime legislation is to add greater discouragement to crimes commited with bigotry as their motivating factor, then what happened here certainly falls under that category.

    The essential question is, what makes beating a person to death because they are a member of some protected class more deserving of punishment than beating a person to death for no reason other than to take their wallet? Why do we heap harsher punishment upon the perpetrator if they did it because of someone's race or creed than we do if they did it seemingly at random, or for some non-bigoted purpose like simple theft?

    I contend that the answer is to demonstrate that our society does not tolerate bigotry. That the purpose is to punish not only the crime, but the mindset that the crime is worth comitting because the victim is less than a person, which is harmful to society.

    And under that reasoning, I'd say this case fits that. As it would if, as said earlier, it was an overweight individual masturbating to odd fetish porn. If we are punishing the idea of bigotry, we must punish all forms of bigotry.

    And if we are not punishing the idea of bigotry, then what *is* hate crime legislation about?

  • Aaron Schroeder says:

    Loneoak, My claim isn't that a perpetrator having a hateful sentiment is a necessary condition on a crime's being classified as a hate crime. My claim is, rather, counterfactual: for a crime to be classified as a hate crime, the state has to be able to show that it's sufficiently likely that the perpetrator would not have committed the crime had the victim not been a member of a protected class. Or to the put the point somewhat differently (and this really is the legal definition), the state need only show that the fact that the victim of a crime was a member of a protected class was some part of the motivation for the perpetrator having committed the crime.

    And consider the cases. If I go around putting burning crosses in anyone's yard that isn't mowed frequently enough, then the state will have a difficult time proving that my act was racially motivated. But if I put a burning cross in only one black neighbor's yard (even if I don't put it in that of another) and no other yards, the state will have a significantly easier time showing that I might not have committed the crime had my neighbor been of a different race. And this is why your own definition is insufficient: it can't handle all of the cases that the state has a legitimate interest in disincentivizing. The motivation for hate crime multipliers is to stop individuals from being discriminated against for 'protected class' reasons — that is, as John put it, because our society doesn't tolerate bigotry, and to the degree that bigotry is part of the intent motivating some criminal act just is the degree to which the crime is worse.

    The broader point is that you haven't provided an argument for your philosophical opinion — and for that matter, against the state's. The state may recognize the wrongness of acts directed against entire groups — a fact that your definition of hate crime captures. But the state also recognizes the wrongness of acts directed against individuals in virtue of their participation in a protected class even if the act can't be determined to be directed against the class entire. Maybe your claim is that the one sort of behavior ought to be illegal and the other oughtn't — I don't know. But it's clear what the state's position is, and as near as I can tell, there's some prima facie appeal to it.

    [Also, for the record, it's not that the literature in the mailbox is illegal; it's that it's tampering with the federal mail. And it can be considered a hate crime if it can be shown that the perpetrator would not have tampered had not the victim been a member of the protected class.]

  • I'm sort of surprised some enterprising future Ramesh hasn't tried to exploit this incident by claiming that none of this would have happened if the libruls and feminists hadn't made it a crime to act like a real manly man. That way these fine college men would be appropriately confrontational and settle things the old fashioned way. ode duello!

    If Sarah Palin ran for president and supported legalized duels, it really wouldn't shock you at this point. How could it?

    As for Ed's argument on hate crimes: yes.

    The burning wood example is the exact reason I support hate crimes. Regardless of the fact that I am extremely angry about this case, I don't think this passes the test. I'd love to be wrong on this but I think the burning wood test is a necessary boundary for the application of hate crime statutes.

  • You had what, for me, is the crux of the matter when you asked what non-malicious purpose they released the video for. There is none. The only reason for releasing the video is to cause harm. Generally, if you do something to someone with the deliberate intent of harming them, AND they die. It's a lot more serious than "invasion of privacy".

  • As far as "ruining eachother as a game" is concerned, I believe that is the defining characteristic of senior management across this country. The nice kids go on to work as drones as the bullies, cheats, and sociopaths climb the corporate ladder leaving endless piles of decent people's careers in their wake.

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