In elementary school, I was known as the person who really liked cats. So people would approach me at school to tell me stories about how they had tortured or killed cats, because it was funny.
In middle school, I had crushes on girls. So people would approach me to tell me how ugly the girls I liked were, or otherwise insult them, in order to get at me, because it was funny.
It's still somewhat surprising to me that, as someone who probably matched so many of the stereotypes in a public school in Mississippi, I don't remember ever encountering specifically homophobic harassment. It's possible that I did, and just didn't know enough about the topic to recognize it. Or maybe they just never needed it, since they had plenty of other ways to laugh at me. Whatever the cause, I'm certain that nothing I encountered in school could really compare to what Tyler Clementi had to deal with. Certainly I've never felt that my sense of self had been so completely violated for the sake of someone else's entertainment that the only option was to jump off a bridge.
But I think I'm at least somewhat qualified to understand the motivations of the people who did this to him.
It's tempting to say that they did this because they live in a culture that hates homosexuality. But I think it's misleading to call this an act of hate. It's sometimes said that intense hate is hard to distinguish from intense love, and there's some truth to it. In my view, to deeply hate something is just to deeply love that which it threatens. Someone who really, fundamentally hates homosexuals is someone who loves God, or the traditional family, or his own self-perception as heterosexual, and sees homosexuality as endangering that which he loves. People have been known to do terrible things out of true hate. But hate, like love, is a response to sincerely held values, and that gives hate a kind of integrity that one just doesn't see in the sniggering, petty maliciousness of juvenile pranks.
When I read the tweets sent by Clementi's roommate as quoted in the article above, I don't see hate. I just see amusement and apathy.
Hate is just the other side of love. This sort of thing is the real absence of love. It has nothing to do with valuing anything. It's just the desire to tear down what other people value. It's a disdain for the very idea of having any values. Because to be "cool" means to be unaffected by and unattached to anything. No one I knew in school actually hated cats, or the girls I liked; they just thought it was funny that I valued them. Just like these people thought it was funny that Clementi valued his partner, or his privacy, or his sense of self. It's a moral calculus in which concern for other people is so completely omitted that even the momentary amusement one gets from an act of cruelty is enough to make that act worth doing. That's what it means to be truly without love.
For all the good that it has done for youth unable to find a sense of community in their real-world lives, the Internet has also become another powerful weapon for these people to use. The promise of a temporary fame to anyone who creates a sufficiently amusing YouTube video is a significant exacerbating factor. So much of the social landscape of the Internet has devolved into an arena for competitive schadenfreude, and it's impossible to quantify the hurt that has been done by it, since so much of it occurs on a much smaller and less dramatic scale than the case of Tyler Clementi. But it needs to be called out, and people need to think about what it is that they're laughing at when they start browsing YouTube. There is absolutely no excuse for using the Internet without love in one's heart.