Sacrificial Scapegoats

October 2nd, 2010 by Sergio de Biasi

An undergraduate student at Rutgers just committed suicide after his roommate recorded him having sex with another man and distributed it on the internet.

Now, this is absolutely horrible. And in fact everyone seems ready and eager to pay lip service to underlining how horrible it is. And I agree. But the bottom line is – what are those among you who now mourn in easy words about a tragedy that already happened, but who were silent and indifferent as the victim was going through unbearable suffering and utter loneliness, what are you actually going to *do* about it? Are you going to do anything different next time? Are you prepared to change anything? I thought so.

Unfortunately, as in all circumstances like this, the first cry I hear is for more control. Sensitivity training. Mandatory ethics seminars. Codes of behavior that must be acknowledged and signed. Stricter laws. Cyberbullying must be a federal crime punishable by many years in prison. Right, more control must be the answer.

Instead of all that, I have this crazy idea here which is so revolutionary that is probably going to sound insane :

How about actually CARING about others?

Seriously, the *real* problem is not some idiots doing idiotic stuff. I am reasonably sure that if the victims were convinced that the reaction of society around them would be of almost unanimous disapproval and horror towards the idiots and of support towards the victims, they would not suffer so greatly and not be so hopeless. The *real* problem is that when idiots do something like this to someone, the reaction of those around them should be something along the lines of “WHAT? Dude, you’re a creep and an idiot, and I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” but instead for a million reasons it is not. It’s not socially convenient to antagonize anyone. It doesn’t really bring any profit to show support for someone who was been wronged. So people just go on and do business as usual.

And then when a tragedy happens because nobody seems to care, well, we need someone to pay for the guilt of everyone else, right? And since the guilt is so great, the punishment must be terrible, awful, cathartic. And then everyone can go home feeling smug about how righteous they are. Now, reality check : do you think that the victim would really be in peace if nobody in his social circle did anything about his suffering and by calling the police he could have the idiots arrested? Would that make him feel less lonely, isolated, alienated? Would he even *want* his roommate to go to jail and have his life destroyed? How does that fix anything?

Of course, the idiots should suffer the consequences, and the adequate level or harshness is rather arbitrary and not the point I’m trying to make (although I do think that the main purpose of any reaction should be to protect the victim and future victims). The point I am indeed trying to make is that this suicide was a collective work, and the two idiots are, if we take some steps back, just convenient sacrificial scapegoats, as was the victim. They are all paying for society’s sins.

What makes someone feel that there is no way out is not simply falling prey to the stupid actions of random idiots. The *real* problem is that most of the time nobody cares. Of course now that something tragic happened everyone speaks up, but how about all the silent lonely suffering that he had to go through? How about the silent lonely suffering that many others are going through right now? As long as they don’t do anything tragic, then it’s ok?

So in my personal opinion the main fault was *not* with the idiots, idiotic as they are, and using them as scapegoats for everyone else’s inaction and implicit quasi-approval is just too convenient. They should suffer the consequences, yes, but if those consequences are essentially only those enforced by the police and government and the way people are actually socially treated everyday goes on as usual, this will prevent nothing. The *real* problem is actually living in a society which as a whole and on average is indifferent to the suffering of others most of the time, and this is considered the pragmatic thing to do and perfectly acceptable.

More control is absolutely not the answer. Regulating social interaction by force to the last detail and impose insanely harsh penalties for being stupid will only create even greater hypocrisy and alienation. We don’t need more control. We need more actual caring actions in everyday life instead of inflamed rhetoric about it when a tragedy happens. We need more people who will stop and listen when someone else looks sad, not more people going to jail. What needs to happen is not making everything a federal crime. What we need is basic human decency, not a police state.

But even if we want to work at the societal level, the real battle, the one that might have saved the victim’s life, is to be fought elsewhere. It’s absolutely amazing that we live in a society in which there is still a *debate* about letting gay people get married, a society in which it’s socially acceptable to vociferously rant about gay people burning in hell. These are some of the real issues here. Unless people stop being harassed by society as a whole for not fitting their favorite prejudices, this kind of situation will persist. Converging on some circumstantial idiots and making them bear the full load of the guilt as if they were not just rather irrelevant pawns in this sordid game only serves the purpose of avoiding the real issues.

And the main issue here, I would say, is : what really made the victim feel that he had nowhere to run, no escape, no safe harbor? Was it the actual actions of the idiots? Or rather the (predicted or actual) reaction of the social surroundings? Notice, we are all confronted with injustice and evil from time to time. But when we are, say, mugged, the reaction of the people around us is in general *not* to laugh at our misfortune and then ignore or ridicule it. Now of course we feel safer and better if our aggressor is caught and punished but much, much more important than that is the support that we receive from those around us, the way that our misfortune is perceived and handled by others. If everyone is completely indifferent to your suffering and then the police bolt of out the blue, arrest your roommate and disappear, does that really make you feel safe and cared for? Is that a world in which you want to live? Or is it more like a world that makes you want to jump from the George Washington bridge?

Now, will this issue really be addressed by “solutions” like “mandatory ethics training”? What message will someone get from society if what they concretely observe is “Ok, you’re surrounded by people who do not care whether you live or die and who are totally not there in your moments of deepest despair and who believe you’ll go to hell for being who you are and by the way you can’t get married because we don’t really like your kind around here but hey, it’s ok, we’re going to give mandatory ethics training to everyone so that they know which words to use without getting in trouble.” You tell me. You tell me how effective you think this is in preventing people from wanting to jump from the George Washington bridge.

2 Responses to “Sacrificial Scapegoats”

  1. Caroline says:

    Not effective at all. Since I shared my story with you (that long email) and a handful of other people, I have been getting responses such as “I’ve been bullied, too.” from people ages 30 to 64. This is a problem that’s been ongoing for centuries. It all comes down to this: bullies are driven by the need for power. This type of power comes from putting others down. Bullies are fostered through some kind of abuse and fear of failing in the eyes of others’. Bullies will pick on people who they see as having the same “flaws” that they themselves fear. This may come from an upbringing that lacked emotional support, love, communication, or whatever else is required to responsibly bring up a child.
    I grew up and went to high school in the pre-Columbine era where bullying was not taken very seriously in school. (You read my story). Nowadays, schools are different. They are more proactive dealing with bullying by providing safer environments.

    However, the other issue at hand is that aside from bullying, what drove Tyler to end his life? Why was he concerned with people finding out if he was gay? Coincidentally, the small town where he grew up is where I was raised and spent my formative years. Homosexuality was a no-no. (My friend dropped out of high school because she was harassed for being bisexual.) This young man believed that it was better to end his life than confront his parents and conservative community with the news that he was gay! Rutgers offers excellent LGBT support but at a mere 3 weeks of being there, he wasn’t ready to seek help. :-/

    I don’t blame Rutgers at all. I partially blame the public school system that failed him growing up. I partially blame the community’s values of where he grew up. Why wasn’t Tyler allowed to be himself? It wouldn’t surprise me if Tyler was bullied growing up. Maybe kids were very cruel to him and already called him names like “fag” or “gay”. I also blame the bullies’ lack of judgment and the media for glorifying negative behaviors (“90210″, “The Jersey Shore”, “One Tree Hill”, “Melrose Place” and all of those stupid shows are full of people scheming against each other, bullying each other, and belittling one another for pure amusement and entertainment.) What these bullies did was for pure entertainment. They get their entertainment at the expense of someone else. They were fully aware of this at the time they chose to video record Tyler. It will take a lot of working together and awakening for things to change.

  2. Leila says:

    The conservative churches, newschannels and Tea Parties of the world will continue to spread their hate and ignorance as usual. “Society as a whole” will not spontaneously change, unless a major event changes public opinion or a strong civil rights-type movement starts pushing new ideas and, yes, legislation. I fully agree that repression alone will not do the job. Anti-bullying educational training is the best solution if it starts from Elementary School throughout the school years, and I don’t see why mandatory training/awareness at the university and in the workplace would hurt. Because human beings are naturally self-absorbed and they DO tend to forget about the pain of others unless it happens to someone close to them, it is necessary to bring Tolerance/Anti-bullying training to the schools and the workplace.

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