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Public Humiliation: It's Not The Web, It's Us

Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after a recording of him having a sexual encounter with a man was broadcast online.
Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after a recording of him having a sexual encounter with a man was broadcast online.

Tyler Clementi was described as quiet and shy, perhaps lacking the mental toughness to deal with the humiliation of having his sex life put on display.

The Rutgers University freshman jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his sexual encounter with a man was secretly taped and broadcast over the Internet. Public humiliation is nothing new, but the prevalence of the Internet means that what happened to Clementi is going to keep happening, sociologist C. J. Pascoe says.

"New media simply changes the audience for this," Pascoe says. "Instead of having to be present for this public humiliation, we can spread it to larger and larger audiences."


But Pascoe says we shouldn't place all the blame for their actions on new technology.

"I think the problem starts pre-technology, which is, what are the motivations we have in humiliating another person, and humiliating them sexually?" she says. "That's the issue we need to deal with, and then follow up with concerns about new media."

Some critics point to prime-time TV -- to shows like Survivor, American Idol and Kitchen Nightmares that showcase hapless contestants getting harsh putdowns. Veteran journalist Linda Ellerbee calls it "vulture culture."

"Who's going to be voted off the island?  Who is our weakest link?  Which of you, who can we be nastiest to in order to win?  That's public humiliation for sport, and a lot of us love watching it," she says.

NYU performance studies professor Tavia Nyong'o says there's one TV show that understands the way public humiliation is an everyday part of life for young people: Glee.


"I think Glee is so important in this context because it's a show that's hysterically funny, and yet also about how to manage and maybe even transform experiences of public humiliation." He points to a particular scene in which one young man asks his bullies to let him take off his designer jacket before they stuff him in a dumpster.

Nyong'o says that shortly after news of Clementi's suicide broke, his students began asking about whether coming out of the closet was relevant -- Clementi was gay -- and what it takes to withstand public humiliation.

"We were talking about the misleading perception ... that there's no cost to coming out anymore," he says.  "There's a kind of equal opportunity for giving offense and for public hazing and for humiliating.  We should all be able to deal with this now because we're all equally comfortable in our own skins.  Tragically, what Rutgers reveals is that we're not all equally comfortable in our own skins."

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