Like many progressives, I’ve been following the Tyler Clementi case with much interest, because it’s part of a larger ongoing conversation about the dangers of being queer in the United States. As the trial wound up and people started discussing the verdict, I found myself utterly fascinated by the intensity and viscerality of the progressive calls to lock Dharun Ravi up and throw away the key. People expressed outrage, horror, and disgust at his comparatively light prison sentence and the fact that he wouldn’t be deported.
I was disgusted too, but not at the outcome of the trial. Rather, I was horrified by my fellow ‘progressives’ and their unabashed embrace of the prison-industrial complex in the United States, which chews up young men of colour and spits them out. This isn’t the first or the last time that the fraught progressive relationship with the US justice system was on full display, and it’s troubling to me that there’s so much widespread acceptance, and support, of the way the current system works.
When pressed, many progressives indicate that they have concerns about racial inequalities in the US justice system. They are aware of racial profiling and the grossly disproportionate representation of people of colour in prison. Some are also concerned about mandatory sentencing and other flawed laws that determine who goes to jail or prison and for how long. Many also express worries about safety within the prison system, particularly for LGBQT prisoners.
But many progressives stop short of questioning the prison system itself, and asking why it exists in its current form. There’s a social myth that prison is rehabilitative, intended to lead people on the path to personal change, but it’s pretty obviously punitive and retributive. Those paying lip service to the rehabilitative meme are well aware that reform is not what prison is for. People calling for Ravi’s imprisonment wanted to see him punished for what he did. Asking him to spend an extended time in prison wasn’t about hoping for rehabilitation, but about a punitive measure, a reactive lashing-out.
And those wanting to see him deported were playing even more deeply into myths about justice in the United States. The same progressives who express concern about the way we handle immigrants were loudly shouting for Ravi’s expulsion from this country; game over, go home, we don’t want your kind here. You will have no more chances in this place. Calling for his deportation was a form of direct participation in the deeply flawed, dangerous, and racist system that tortures and abuses immigrants not just in the US, but around the world.
People didn’t seem to experience any logical inconsistencies or cognitive dissonance here, when it came to demanding that Ravi be trapped by the prison-industrial complex in the United States. And they betrayed their true colours by focusing on retribution and punishment, rather than rehabilitation and reform.
What Ravi did was wrong. Categorically and clearly wrong. Whether or not his actions led to Clementi’s death—and there’s compelling evidence that the videos did in fact contribute to Clementi’s suicide—they were invasive and wildly inappropriate. Videoing someone without consent is not okay, particularly in intimate moments in the privacy of your own room, where you think you are safe and out of the public eye. Ravi could have dealt with his discomfort around his roommate in many ways, like requesting a room change, but instead he chose to act out in an incredibly juvenile and disgusting way, to exploit Tyler and make him a subject of mockery.
Tyler Clementi’s suicide was a tragedy.
And Dharun Ravi does need to be held accountable for it. But sending him to prison, or deporting him, is not the answer, if your goal is actual change, reform, some kind of healing and progress out of this case. Punishing Ravi accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t bring Clementi back, and it doesn’t send a strong message to people contemplating similar actions; if creating object lessons worked, our prison system would be empty by now, right? Because no one would ever commit crimes.
People who do terrible things aren’t going to be dissauded from them by one cautionary tale. Providing Ravi with a chance for reform, on the other hand, could lead to a true social catalyst. Maybe with an opportunity for reflection, Ravi could come to a place of genuine understanding. And he could bring that to the community around him; rather than being locked up to molder in a prison cell, he could become a speaker and advocate. He could talk about the harm he inflicted and could become an agitator for change.
The approach to justice in the United States is deeply and categorically flawed. And those flaws extend into the progressive community, which lobbies to lock people up forever and deport them even as it claims to care about the serious race and class problems rife in the US justice system. Critically, progressives claim to care about the capacity for understanding and change, and the possibility of reform and genuine changes of mind, but they don’t actually want to provide people with an opportunity to do that. Ravi’s not the only person progressives have raked through the coals and thrown away.
What Ravi did was horrific. I am not disputing that. The question here shouldn’t be how he should be punished, though, but how he can be held accountable, and what, if any, good can come from this. Imprisoning Ravi makes him into a martyr, and fosters even more hatred and fury. It ensures that any potential for reform is eliminated, turning Ravi into a reactive, furious man.
Giving Ravi a chance to make reparations for his crime won’t bring Clementi back either, but it might be a small step towards actual change.