The common error here is a failure to see people as individuals.
On the quad at Mizzou, Click and the students who intimidated and pushed Tim Tai, the student photographer, were thinking of him as a symbol of The Media, not as a rights-bearing individual. Aggrieved by the way that their activism had been covered, they took out their frustrations on folks who had not even wronged them.
Unlike Tai, Click really did perpetrate a wrong. But as I noted in an article arguing that assault charges were a bit much:
No physical harm came to the photographer, his camera is fine, it isn’t as if Click is likely to reoffend, and it’s hard to imagine other campus photographers suffering due to a failure to prosecute. With all the dangerous fights, scuffles, donnybrooks, fracases, melees, rows, skirmishes, and brouhahas in which no charges are filed, this one is going to court?
With all the unjust behavior that goes on daily, why would a brief encounter with a photographer inspire a letter from politicians and scores of abusive emails and voicemails? I think her antagonists are convinced that intolerance on campus is a hugely damaging problem, and they are reflexively heaping all their related frustrations on this one person who happened to get caught on video, even though there’s no evidence that she accounts for more than an infinitesimal part of the problem.
When this familiar pattern plays out, it hardly matters whether the target is wholly innocent, like the photographers at Mizzou, or guilty of a venial transgression, like Click. Either way, the public shaming that they suffer is wildly excessive. And it is all the more lamentable because the outpouring of vitriol and abuse does nothing to fix the attendant or ostensible social ills.
Think of the case studies that Jon Ronson presented in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The mob that gleefully destroyed Justine Sacco’s life over one tweet thought of themselves as righteous anti-racists. In reality, Sacco wasn’t a racist and the attacks on her did nothing to ameliorate racism. The digital mob that went after Lindsey Jones for posing in a tasteless photo as a joke thought of themselves as righteous defenders of respect for the military and martial sacrifices. But Jones harbored no ill will toward the military, and destroying her life helped no one.
After reading those stories, I suggested a new norm: “We’d all be better off if Americans developed an aversion to people being fired for public missteps that have nothing to do with their jobs.” As long as the culture war rages on, we may as well agree to some rules of engagement that minimize the needless harm to innocents.
Of course, Click’s transgression has a lot to do with her job. And some punishment is warranted, so long as it is proportionate to what she did wrong.
Still, another useful norm occurs to me: Individuals are fairly held accountable for harms they cause, but they should not be treated as if they’re personally culpable for an outsized proportion of huge societal ills. A woman who sells Molly to a friend should not be punished in proportion to the total harm that drugs wreak on society. A scientist who cluelessly wears an inappropriate shirt should not be excoriated as if he bears responsibility for the overall condition of women in STEM fields. A teen who sexts another teen should not be punished in proportion to the harm caused by child porn. Brendan Eich should not have been punished as a stand in for everyone that opposed gay marriage and the collective harm that they did. And for all her faults, Click should not be punished for all the damage caused by an admittedly harmful phenomenon in which she plays only a tiny part.