Last week, Tim wrote about the Civility Project, a campaign at Rutgers University that uses “panel discussions, lectures, workshops and other events to raise awareness about the importance of respect, compassion and courtesy in everyday interactions,” with a special emphasis on the Internet and other social technologies (09/29/10 N.Y. Times).
Sadly, a great irony has emerged. On the campaign’s inaugural day, news came that a Rutgers freshman named Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide. It seems clear that he was driven to this tragic act by the actions of his roommate and another student. They streamed video online of Tyler having a sexual encounter with another man. Tyler is one of six recent suicides by teenage males that have been linked to anti-GLBT bullying by peers.
Tyler’s death also echoes other recent teen suicides linked to “cyber-bullying.” This term describes people using the Internet, including email and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, to target and publicly humiliate victims. These incidents are raising troubling questions about the uses and abuses of technology. In particular, some in the media wonder whether the Internet makes us more callous and cruel.
I agree that technology has radically transformed the way we interact, and that we should constantly critique the ways it both connects and disconnects us. But I find myself reluctant to “blame” these tragedies on the Internet. History shows that human beings been hurting each other since the beginning. Is “cyber-bullying’ the latest symptom of a deep and persistent illness in humankind?
I find myself turning to the story of Cain and Abel. In some ways, this ancient story seems so removed from the realities of today. Yet these words from Genesis 4: 9-11 still compel me in light of recent events:
Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
There are many Cains and many Abels in the stories of these six lost young men. Real people making choices. I wonder how we, as a community of faith, are called to weigh in on such choices. I wonder if together, we can find the courage to name the ways in which we ourselves are Cains and Abels.
For more info about Tyler, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/30/nyregion/30suicide.html