The story of Tyler Clementi is a tragic and fatal one. Clementi was a student at New Jersey’s Ridgewood High School, a violinist, and an introspective soul ( Tresniowski , 2010, p. 56); Clementi also happened to be homosexual. Clementi hid his homosexuality from other students until his personal life was discovered by roommate Dharun Ravi through a secreted webcam. Clementi would take his life three days later, after images of Clementi and a male companion engaging in sexual acts were displayed by Ravi on public internet forums. Several psychological concepts relate to this incident, which was covered in some detail in the October 18th, 2010 edition of People magazine. Identity suppression was actively carried out by Clementi (Pennekamp, 2009, p. 778), who hid his homosexuality in order to belong to a heterosexual ingroup. Identity suppression is the restriction of the expression of certain characteristics by a minority group when threatened by a larger majority (Pennekamp, 2009, p. 778). An ingroup, on the other hand, is “a group of people who share a sense of belonging, a feeling of common identity.” Whereas, outgroups are seen “as distinctly different” (Myers, 2010, p. 433). Identity suppression leads to a diminished sense of well being, while expression brings health benefits: “being able to express one’s identity as a minority group member seems to have positive consequences on one’s well-being” (Pennekamp, 2009, p. 779). Clementi, a member of a sexual minority, did not have this right of expression as “overt anti-homosexual biases remain prevalent [in America]” (Hodson, 2009, p. 974). Clementi actually showed some health detriments from identity suppression, as Clementi “seemed depressed” ( Tresniowski , 2010, p. 57). The outing of Clementi’s homosexuality by fellow students Ravi and Molly Wei excluded him from membership in the heterosexual ingroup. This led to a reduction in social support for Clementi, and the outing of his homosexual identity led to an angry backlash towards a newly created outgroup (Pennekamp, 2009, p.778). These two factors would ultimately lead to his death.
The journal article In matters of opinion, what matters is the group: Minority group members’ emotional reactions to messages about identity, published in 2009, states that majority groups (heterosexual) often argue for the suppression of the minority’s identity (homosexual). Comments left by Ravi on the social media network Twitter: “I saw Clementi making out with a dude. Yay” ( Tresniowski , 2010, p. 58), show that Ravi is not understanding, nor accepting of Clementi’s homosexual expression. The expectation of identity suppression of a minority by a majority often leads to angry feelings on the part of the minority: “sources who argue for the suppression of the minority’s identity are appraised as threatening…minority group members experience anger towards these sources” (Pennekamp, 2009, p. 785). Clementi now saw Ravi and his confederates as threatening, which aroused his anger. Clementi chose not to change the opinion of the majority and their desire for identity suppression of homosexuality, which is often the case according to Pennekamp’s research. Instead, Clementi chose to express his anger in a self-destructive manner, in the face of a threatening majority.
As a minor adjunct in relation to identity suppression, Ravi could have accepted Clementi’s expression of his homosexuality to diffuse the arousal of Clementi’s anger: “on anger, the outgroup source is also reacted to more positively, if identity expression is supported” (Pennekamp, 2009, 782). Acceptance of minority identity expression also reduces the minority’s perception that the majority is threatening (Pennekamp, 2009, 782). So, acceptance of identity expression by the minority from the majority is one solution for the reduction of negative emotions, such as anger amongst minority group members e.g. homosexuals.
A second study conducted by Gordon Hodson, Becky L. Choma, and Kimberly Costello entitled Experiencing Alien-Nation: Effects of a simulation intervention on attitudes toward homosexuals, found that discriminatory attitudes could be changed amongst university students through story-telling. Fictionalized aliens experienced “social constraints” in the stories, much like homosexuals, and group discussion promoted “perspective taking,” which increased empathy towards “an individual outgroup” (Hodson, 2009, p. 974). Clementi’s social identity was challenged by the exclusionary behaviours of his friends e.g. Ravi setting up a secret webcam. A social identity is an individual’s self-concept based upon group identity (Myers, 2010, p. 433). Yet, Hodson’s study showed that group discussion involving stories of discrimination improved attitudes towards outgroups, if they were related to homosexuality (Hodson, 2009, 974). Therefore, the use of the Alien-Nation teaching program could be applied to high school and college institutions to promote empathy amongst ingroups and outgroups. This teaching tool would promote empathy among minority groups and reduce hostility and exclusionary behaviours, like those undertaken by Ravi.
The death of a gifted student, Clementi, is a reminder of the damage that the formation of ingroups and outgroups can cause. While group membership does promote positive health benefits, exclusionary behaviours and expectations of identity suppression directed by the majority towards the minority fosters anger amongst minority group members. Hodson and Pennekamp’s studies show that the acceptance of identity expression of minority groups by majority group members reduces anger amongst minority group individuals; as well, empathy is consistently shown to be a powerful tool for reducing discrimination. However, this research has not been fully applied to educational institutions. So the tragic cases outlined in the October, 2010 edition of People magazine involving Clementi and other homosexual teens will continue until the heterosexual majority accepts homosexual identity expression.
Hodson, G., Choma, B. L., & Costello, K. (2009). Experiencing Alien-Nation: Effects of a
simulation intervention on attitudes toward homosexuals. Journal of Experimental Social
Psychology, 45, 974-978.
Myers, David, Spencer, Steven, and Jordan, Christian (2010). Social Psychology (4th ed). iStudy.
Pennekamp, S. F., Doosje, B., Zebel, S., & Henriquez, A. A. (2009). In matters of opinion, what
matters is the group: Minority group members’ emotional reactions to messages about identity expression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 778-787.
Tresniowski, A., Weisensee, N., Herbst, D., Triggs, C., Messer, L., Fowler, J., & Levy, D. S.
(2010, October 18). Tormented to Death? People, 56-58.