Discussion on privacy, hate crimes, respect for each other and the pursuit of societal change

The past couple of weeks have been sad and contemplative at my house:  My husband is on the faculty at Rutgers and on September 29th, we learned that we had each lost a student from our respective universities.  At Pace, Max Moreno was fatally shot in his off-campus apartment; at Rutgers, we learned that after a shocking violation of his privacy, Tyler Clementi had committed suicide. 

The Center for Disease Control (CD) lists homicide and suicide as the second and third leading causes of death among males between the ages of 15 and 24, responsible for nearly one third of all deaths in these ages. [http://www.cdc.gov/men/lcod/2006/AllMales2006.pdf]  These statistics are of little solace to those of us trying to make sense of these terrible losses, but they are certainly a call to arms as we try to untangle the specific facts that led to each loss in the hope that we will learn how to prevent these situations from recurring. 

It is encouraging to see so many people discussing issues of privacy, tolerance, and respect for each other and seeking ways to reinforce these ideas at a societal level.  But these are not easy areas to affect change—history and the arts are replete with stories that carry a similar theme. 

I had the opportunity to see Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera House a few nights ago (my husband signs us up for the ticket lottery, and every so often we win a pair of tickets!).  Though I love Verdi’s music, I managed to avoid hearing Rigoletto until now and was not familiar with the story. 

The opera opens in the courtyard of a womanizing duke who has a court jester (Rigoletto) with a hunchback.  The courtiers feel that this difference makes the jester fair play for their pranks and contempt.   One night they decide it would be a great prank to kidnap the hunchback’s mistress, not realizing that the young woman in the jester’s home is his daughter.  They invade his house, kidnap his daughter, and turn her over to the womanizing duke who, as they would have said in more genteel times, takes advantage of her, leaving her feeling publicly shamed and abused. 

It was chilling to come face to face with a “timeless” story in this way: a story that resonates strongly because, even though it premiered nearly 160 years ago, it bears so many touch points with a current situation.  In this case, I kept seeing echoes of what had played out with Tyler Clementi: the isolation of someone viewed as an “other”, the invasion of a private place with inappropriate behavior for the amusement of the majority culture, and in the end, when Rigoletto’s daughter sets herself up to be murdered by the hired assassins, the destruction of a young life. 

Verdi wrote his opera to influence public opinion and change a culture.  To some extent he succeeded, but the lesson is still there to be learned, so many generations later.   As we organize our responses to bullying, invasions of privacy and hate crimes, it reminds me of the need for “Eternal vigilance” in the pursuit of any societal change.  Clearly more needs to be done to ensure our campus and society are safe and inclusive.  As we emerge from these events, I welcome your suggestions for ways to work together, as these types of changes can only be made and maintained if we, as a collective community, take action.