The hurt caused by private lives being made public | Elizabeth Day

Why should we tolerate the casual cruelty of online comments that have already driven one young American to take his own life?

You might not have heard of Tyler Clementi, but there are reasons why you should remember his name. Clementi was a gay, 18-year-old American college student who took his own life on 22 September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in New York. Three days earlier, his roommate at Rutgers University, Dharun Ravi, had allegedly used a webcam to spy on Clementi's sexual encounter with another man, using Twitter to encourage fellow students to watch.

Ravi, now 20, is currently on trial in the States, charged with 15 criminal counts. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

In the States, the case has come to symbolise both the egregiousness of cyber-bullying and the increasingly blurred divisions between personal privacy and online interaction. But for me, the most disturbing aspect of the trial has not been the callous invasion of privacy, awful though that was. It has been the careless indifference with which the teenagers involved talked to each other online.

So it was that Ravi's response to his room-mate's sexuality was to message a friend: "FUCK MY LIFE/ He's gay." When Ravi discovered Clementi was not particularly well off, he messaged another acquaintance: "Dude I hate poor people."

Several more interactions of this kind follow. There is casual mention of "fags" and "faggots", each derogatory term bandied about as if it carries little more weight than a smiley-faced emoticon. The bigoted and insulting language is blithely deployed, with apparently no concern as to the harmful content of what is being said.

Leaving aside whether this behaviour constitutes bullying (and there is an argument that it doesn't, given its sporadic and furtive nature), the most worrying element is the startling lack of empathy. Ravi and his friends do not believe what they are doing is hurtful to others. They are simply trading in sarcasm, attempting to create an online persona that is popular and breezy and defines itself in opposition to something they find creepy or weird.

There is nothing new in the teenage desire to cultivate a pack mentality. But what is new is that, with so much of socialising online, the consequence of what young people say is not immediately apparent to them. In the heat of the moment, these teens seem to have forgotten that their comments are not private but available for wider consumption. This has profoundly worrying implications for how future generations are learning to communicate.

Would Ravi have said all these things in a public place, where he risked being overheard by the target of his gibes? Probably not. Speaking the words out loud requires a more active engagement of brain and mouth. If he had aired his loathsome opinions in a classroom, would a less ignorant contemporary have put him straight? You'd hope so.

But there are fewer social safeguards online, where we gravitate naturally towards like-minded people and where our responses are often knee-jerk. The need to keep things brief (140 characters on Twitter) means subtlety often gets lost. And the distancing nature of a screen means that if someone upsets us, they will not be able to tell. Empathy – the ability to intuit how someone else is feeling – relies heavily on visual triggers.

There is a belief in some quarters that if a comment is not intended maliciously, it cannot be thought of as harassment. I don't buy this. Just because one person might be strong-minded or mature enough to withstand name-calling or online abuse does not mean that everyone is similarly robust. Adolescents need to be taught that one person's banter can be another person's bullying, especially if that person is, like Clementi, a shy, somewhat lonely teenager who is only just beginning to understand his own sexuality.

In a virtual world of faceless interaction, impact is just as important as intent.

It is a tragedy that Clementi took his own life. How awful it would be if we learned nothing from it.

Only one cook deserves to win MasterChef

MasterChef is a television programme that shouldn't work but does: a competition based on cooking skill where the viewer is unable to taste the end result.

Still, I love everything about it: the cheesy music, the breathy voiceover, the way judge Gregg Wallace professes a desire to "bury his head" in anything that is remotely cream-and-sugar-based.

This year, I have developed a girl crush on finalist Shelina Permalloo who combines a calm self-confidence with a mastery of Mauritian spicing and an ability to get her dishes out exactly on time.

The most refreshing thing about Shelina, however, is her refusal to emote on demand. Whereas both male finalists – Tom Rennolds and Andrew Kojima – have frequently been filmed blubbing at various stages during the series, Shelina has remained resolutely stoic.

The only time she showed a glimmer of salt water was while pounding an enormous bowlful of Thai spices in searing heat. Instead of giving up, she shed a single tear, wiped it quickly from her face and asked for help. I hope she wins. I might cry if she doesn't.

Save me from whining old Etonians

It's not easy being an oppressed minority these days. Just ask Dominic West who knows a thing or two about being stigmatised. Granted, he's a white, middle-class male whose earnings as a successful actor are probably just about enough to keep him hovering above the poverty line. But this is as nothing compared to the terrible prejudice he confronts on a daily basis as – whisper it – an old Etonian.

According to West, the indignity of being a former pupil at one of the country's most prestigious schools is "a stigma that is slightly above 'paedophile' in the media in a gallery of infamy". Ah the media! Forever whipping up a frenzy about old Etonians and the danger they pose to young children. It's probably only a matter of time before a tabloid demands that old Etonians are named and shamed and tagged. (Although we already know the majority are located in Parliament, BBC period dramas or Burberry advertisements).

I struggle to find any sympathy for West's plight in much the same way as I recoiled when Julian Fellowes claimed that "poshism" was "the last acceptable form of discrimination". I can't help but feel that both Fellowes's and West's complaints are akin to those aggrieved men who ask why there is no male equivalent for International Women's Day. In fact, there is. It's called, as luck would have it, International Men's Day and is on 19 November.

Besides, one might argue that the remaining days of each year are already given over to an implicit celebration of male hierarchy. Similarly, former public school pupils such as West are likely to attend better universities and get better-paid jobs. But when old Etonians whinge about unfairness, it makes you wonder about the quality of their education in the first place.


Elizabeth Day

The GuardianTramp

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