The Allocation of “Hate Crimes” Dismisses Empathy
This photograph brings home the reason that I’m fundamentally opposed to the notion of “hate crimes” and, indeed, identity groups overall:
The young man in the foreground is Tyler Clementi, who recently plunged to his death from the George Washington Bridge (which spans from New Jersey to New York City), apparently as an emotional response to his college roommate’s violating his privacy to an extent so egregious as to be evil. The building in the background is Ridgewood High School, from which Tyler graduated.
If memory serves, the spot on which he is standing is within yards of the placement of the school’s polevaulting mats during track and field season, which was the vantage point from which I most frequently observed the scene. The building’s main entrance presents a beautiful, classic high school facade and, at least for a writer-type like me, readily suggests the stories for which it would stand as an apt setting. Stories of adolescent turmoil, fortitude, and growth.
My own experience of adolescence was heavily inclined toward the turmoil — largely attributable, if I’m being honest, to my unhealthy attraction to the dramatic — with fortitude manifesting only in the small degree required to lift my head sufficiently to breathe when at last I felt the ripples of drama lapping into my nostrils. As for growth, well, I was a long, long way from high school before I could claim any of that.
There’s nothing unique in this experience — as testified by the ease with which we can all raise images from literature and cinema to fill out the details. More of us than would like to make the admission can put ourselves in Tyler’s shoes as he stepped onto the bridge, and it has very little to do with the particular events and catalysts that brought him there.
By categorizing the qualities that made Tyler Clementi different, in the sense that his tragic end fits neatly in the ongoing narrative of a particular identity group, by giving that group alone a stake in his experience, such that criminal charges brought against his tormentor may be elevated on its behalf under the rationale of “hate crimes,” we cannot do otherwise than deepen our sense of social division. And that’s just the crack running along the emotional face of the matter.
The same poorly conceived understanding of self and society arises intellectually, as when we conflate the question of whether the action of Dharun Ravi (the roommate) was horribly, horribly wrong with the question of whether hate crime prosecutions and identity group legislation can maintain legal neutrality or even resolve the underlying problem. Or when the argument for same-sex marriage rests on the conclusion that homosexuals have feelings. Or when advocates for amnesty of illegal immigrants claim it as the only possible policy following the belief that immigrants are human beings with natural rights. Or when politicians from any particular group behave as if they inherently speak for all members of their demographic category.
It is an astonishing fact that so many well-meaning people assent to this strategy of forcing us to give over what truly makes us individuals. We ought rather to find it overt and offensive when public lines are drawn along differences as superficial as skin color or as private as affections. For our society to unify, and for our democracy to function in any degree, we’ll have to begin rejecting the facile — canned and processed — story lines that disclaim the possibility of deep empathy on the grounds of superficial or circumstantial differences.