I wish I could say I was shocked by the news that a Princeton University student was arrested last Friday for taking sexually explicit photos of a fellow—sleeping—student. I was appalled, sure; but shocked? Sadly, no.
Richard Charles Tuckwell, the accused, is 20 years old—blond, clean-cut, an Aussie by birth. He looks like he might play lacrosse, or water polo. Honestly, I don’t know much about him. But I know this much: For one if not two years now, Richard Charles Tuckwell has been hearing time and time again from his illustrious university how special he is, how elite, how much of the world his education will prepare him to conquer. And I’m not at all convinced that kind of talk has done him any favors.
I’m not trying to blame Princeton for the actions of its students, or suggest that Ivy Leaguers don’t deserve praise for their achievements, or to place responsibility for Richard Charles Tuckwell’s actions anywhere but on his own shoulders. But I’d like to take the opportunity presented by this incident to consider the effect of privileged institutions on the egos they mold; the notion that constant affirmation of elite status contains an inherent possibility for social disconnect and exploitation.
I was lucky enough to attend one of the most competitive private schools in the country. The education and opportunities I received there were unparalleled, and so were the accompanying, almost daily ego boosts. “You are the top one percent of the world,” a teacher once said to our student body during a routine morning meeting. I remember laughing with a friend of mine about the arrogance of that pronouncement, but it was by no means unusual. We were, all of us, reminded almost daily of how great we were, and how great our school was helping us to become.
My sophomore year, two boys in the year above me were kicked out of school, suddenly and without warning. It soon came out that one of the two had invited a female friend of his up to his room and had sex with her while the other boy hid in the closet, filming the entire thing. These were popular, attractive, sporty guys, typical student-athletes of the highest caliber. And yet, somehow, these boys thought it within their rights as future masters of the universe to subject an unwitting girl to that kind of shame, humiliation and, fundamentally, violence.
What Richard Charles Tuckwell did to his new buddy is an act not quite on par with that kind of violation. But it seems to me that if you tell someone he’s special, if you tell him the world is his to take, if you tell him he’s the top one percent of the world enough times, sooner or later he’ll start to believe it. Sooner or later, if he’s a certain type of person to begin with, he’ll start to believe that what and who he is entitles him to what he wants—whatever he wants. And that’s a kind of privilege no one deserves—not me, not you, and not a lawn-partying Princetonian with a camera phone and a whim.