Sunday, October 03, 2010

In Sorrow and Solidarity

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. -- Henry James (1902)

(The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi leaped off the bridge to his death on Sept. 22, after his roommate showed video of him being intimate with another man on the Internet. Photo Credit: Richard Perry, New York Times)

A candlelight vigil will not change the world. A video will not bring down the socio-cultural machinery that encourages violence toward individuals and groups seen as threateningly non-conforming in relation to sex and gender norms. A "Safe Space" sticker on a resident assistant's door won't stop a drunk kid with a baseball bat determined to find a fag to bash in a dorm hallway on a Saturday night -- or a sober kid with a camera, a gay roommate, and the ability to stream live video.

We know that none of these gestures is sufficient to end the violence aimed at sex and gender queers of all ages. Nor do they offer much to the targets of such violence beyond the perhaps hollow comfort of knowing that not everyone wishes them dead. And the dead, of course, are beyond even that hollow comfort.

Nonetheless, we see more in these gestures than salvific wishes and sentimental longings for some easy, individualized way to achieve a feeling of having done something in response to verbal and physical assaults on LGBT persons. Insufficient as they may be, such gestures are nonetheless important, because they demonstrate our determination to be kind rather than unkind. That determination is not nothing, and it is not merely sentimental. Henry James was no fool. He knew that kindness made life bearable and its absence made life unbearable. He knew that if we forget kindness we have forgotten how to be in relationship with others, for kindness is above all being considerate of others. Kindness comes from having the capacity to imagine how one's words or deeds will affect another -- precisely the capacity Tyler Clementi's tormentors seem to have lacked.

Technology hasn't made humans less kind than they were in some non-existent machine-free past. It has only amplified the sound and accelerated the speed at which our unkindnesses circulate. We shouldn't disparage any act of kindness or any effort to foster greater kindness in the world. Instead, we should commit ourselves to creating a world in which kindness travels as quickly and gets as much attention as its opposite. Yes, it's corny and naive to promise that "It gets better," but it's better to be naive than silent  or cynical when kids are killing themselves. (Here's an even better response, though, from another video in the "It Gets Better" campaign, from a young dyke of color who critiques the false assurance of the campaign's slogan while insisting that the victims of bullying will get stronger, more able to love themselves and more equipped to deal with what the world dishes out. Go watch it. H/T)

If we could, we would stand in the rain this evening, on the campus of our alma mater, with students, faculty, and friends, to honor the memory of Tyler Clementi and to protest the brutal unkindness that appears to have led him to take his life. You deserved better, Tyler, as did all the other young queers bullied to death in recent weeks. We stand for all of you, against hatred, fear, and thoughtless violence that calls itself pranksterism. We can't guarantee it will get better, but we promise we will work like hell to try to make it so. Peace out.

Update (early Monday a.m.): Here are some local links on the Sunday night vigil at Rutgers: 1) The report in the Star-Ledger, which says there were close to 1000 people in attendance, and 2) a photo and commentary from our friend Kate, a member of the Rutgers faculty. Send more links if you have them, and we will update as necessary.


  1. Anonymous9:21 PM EDT

    All I want to say is we are doing something at Columbia this week to bring lgbt faculty and students together, so we can be in a safe space, visible, in whatever place we are with our various sexualities, so the bullies look like marginalized nuts, and we are the solid, hang together community. Thank you for Henry James. Let's be kind, three times.


  2. Glad to hear it, JL. You get enough little lights together, you begin to dispel the darkness, if only for a moment. We learned that lesson standing on a porch holding candles together back in the fall of 2001, didn't we?

    Much love, always.

  3. The James quote is wonderful. My personal view is that this kind of thing is not just currently being amplified by morally neutral technological changes, but by a morally reprehensible sociopolitical movement built atop the lie that brutal vicious nasty greedy hateful pig-ignorance is a virtue and a mainstream media so cowed by "balance" that they refuse to accurately name this movement for what it is. The poor kid's blood is on all their hands. This is the tragedy of the United States right now, and it may very well be our downfall.

  4. Anonymous10:47 AM EDT

    The Henry James quote is beautiful in its graceful simplicity. In fact, I may use it this afternoon in a discussion with a colleague's class of first-year students around the topic of language, voice, and sexuality identity. If kindness is the most radical act we can imagine in the world in which we find ourselves, so be it. Thanks for the marching orders!

    -Brian N

  5. Amen, PhysioProf! We left out the part about the morally reprehensible sociopolitical movement that fuels and enables so much hatred, because our focus was elsewhere in this post, but you are 100% right.

    Oh, and we are always happy to deliver marching orders, Brian -- Thanks for marching! Hope the class went well.

  6. I'm a grad student instructor who hopes to be in the classroom for a long time. I'm also someone who was bullied for several years (tapering off late in high school, and-- thank doG-- before the advent of online social media).

    Are there non-invasive ways you've found of checking in with your students? I feel the need to do something when a student appears to be suffering, but I remember days when even the question "Hey, is everything all right?" would have been too much to handle. I'd be grateful for any advice you have.

  7. Thanks for the post, and for the James quote.

  8. RachelB: You ask a good and difficult question. I'd be interested to hear what others would have to say. A lot of students nowadays are pretty comfortable with self-disclosure and will readily let a teacher know what is going on. For the more reticent, my inclination would be to observe and listen closely to try to get a sense of whether a question like, "Is everything all right?" would be welcome or, more importantly, feel safe to the student. Perhaps in some cases, rather than a direct question, the more indirect, "I hope everything is all right" would feel less invasive but still let the student know that you are concerned and open to a conversation. As someone who would have found the direct question difficult to handle at some points, how does the less direct method sound to you?

    Thanks for making us use our noggins!


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