Hatred on college campuses and elsewhere

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When I sat down this morning I planned to write about Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s War, but instead I find myself literally drawn to write about the sad story of the college student Tyler Clemente and his recent suicide after a video of a sexual encounter was placed online. I just returned from visiting my daughter for parents’ weekend at her college – and Emily, my son Jonathan, and Tyler are on my mind.My daughter is now a junior in college and my son will be off to college next September. Tyler himself was just a freshman at Rutgers University, nestled in-between the ages of my two kids. He was known to be a talented musician and a good student with a bright future. But one recent evening his roommate (along with another student), used hidden cameras to videotape Tyler’s encounter in his dorm room with another male student and invited friends to watch. It was too much for young Tyler to bear, as it might be for any of us, and so he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

I was struck by the interviews of hometown friends of the roommate who had wielded his video cameras as weapons; they were said to be shocked that he was mixed up in this affair. They uniformly described him as a good kid, a friendly kid, someone who would never go out of his way to hurt another person, someone who liked a good joke. Perhaps they were telling the truth. Or, perhaps we have come to choose to know only those parts of people and society we want know.

I wonder how many people have talked to their children, their friends or colleagues about this tragedy. I wonder what has been discussed. I wonder what we will choose to remember?

In so many ways, I feel we are each complicit in cases like Tyler’s. I hate to say that and I know it can sound harsh, but it’s what I feel. We engage in conversations with others and allow certain phrases or prejudices to go unchallenged, and by doing so we appear to accept them, maybe even support them. At times we turn the other check or cast a blind eye or pretend we didn’t hear what was said. We assume the other person must not believe what they just said, or maybe we decide we just don’t want to make waves.

I know that at Rutgers University they are deeply concerned about Tyler’s death and the larger societal norms that have led to other deaths and incidents. I applaud their leadership. In fact, Tyler’s death occurred just as the university was launching a new campus-wide initiative on civility and tolerance. Is that even imaginable?

But as I write this piece today it is not a program on tolerance that I long for, but rather for each of us in our own way to step forward and make ourselves visible – to stand next to those who are bullied and berated, to stand down those who insist on acts of hatred and prejudice, and to give voice to a society that is at least a bit more humane. While new laws and policies and programs may be needed, they cannot substitute for what each of us must do in our daily lives – to choose to engage with those nearest to us and take a stand.

When I walked across my daughter’s beautiful campus this past weekend and looked into the eyes of the young students passing by they seemed filled with enthusiasm and happiness. And yet, I also know that there are “Tylers” on every campus and in every community who feel pushed out, pushed down, and pushed aside. When will we have the conversation with our children and others who are close to us? Will we say what needs to be said?