Scapegoats in the Culture War

Melissa Click is the latest in a long line of people to be punished not just for their own transgressions, but for the problems they’ve come to symbolize.

David W. Cerny / Reuters

Last fall, Professor Melissa Click made headlines after being caught calling for “some muscle” to stop a University of Missouri student from photographing a protest. While hardly alone in flagrantly disrespecting the First Amendment that day, she quickly emerged on YouTube as the adult face of the intolerance of the campus left.

There is no doubt that she behaved objectionably. And colleges should punish professors who threaten students, especially those who do so to stop them from exercising their civil rights.  

But how much punishment is too much?

The 45-year-old mother of three young children was suspended from her job and banished from campus. A colleague filed a Title IX complaint against her. A local prosecutor charged her with third-degree assault. One hundred and seventeen Republican lawmakers signed a letter calling for her to be terminated. She resigned a courtesy appointment with the Mizzou School of Journalism. And all this came while she was under review for tenure. In other words, her indiscretion may permanently alter her career.

Meanwhile, the Columbia Missourian reports, her email account and voicemail box have filled with a steady flow of abusive messages, including rape and death threats. For participating in a mob that self-righteously threatened photographers she’s being victimized by a mob that is self-righteously threatening her.

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.

With regard to the third-degree assault charges, the prosecutor in Columbia, Missouri, seems to have moved toward my view. “Click has agreed to complete 20 hours of community service, to not break the law for a year and to waive her ability to use the statute of limitations in her defense should she be charged again,” the Missourian reports. “The charge will be dropped after a year if she meets all the terms.”

At the same time, Click made headlines again on Valentine’s Day when the Columbia Missourian published another video of her engaged in protest. “Click steps in between a police officer and MU graduate student and activist Jonathan Butler,” the newspaper reports. “In the video, Click tells the police officers to ‘get your hands off the children’ and later curses at an officer who grabbed her shoulder.”

Here’s what Mizzou Interim Chancellor Hank Foley emailed the newspaper about the video:

Her conduct and behavior are appalling, and I am not only disappointed, I am angry, that a member of our faculty acted this way. Her actions… are just another example of a pattern of misconduct by Dr. Click...

To me, stepping between a police officer and a graduate student during a protest is totally different behavior than calling for “muscle” to oust a photographer from a quad. As Click told The Missourian, “I remember thinking, stupidly, that if as a white person I put myself in front of the students, that maybe they wouldn’t push me."

And while I very much favor mandatory body cameras on police officers, this footage strikes me as an example of their costs. A woman becomes an object of controversy, and suddenly people are digging back into the archives of body-cam footage to unearth any moment that might reflect poorly on her. As a result, there’s another moment of her life thrust into the public sphere, even though it is no different than countless other moments of minor, inconsequential conflict between police and protesters that happen during any protest. Had Click complained about the police that day I wouldn’t object to their trotting out the footage in their own defense, but I regret that we now live in a world where more and more passing moments like this are captured forever to define us.

If I were on Click’s tenure-review committee, I would certainly investigate whether she is capable of acting fairly toward students and colleagues who do not share her ideology. Her public statements and apology leave me far from persuaded. But the abuse that she’s suffered is clearly excessive, and so is the renewed scrutiny that she’s now facing due to the release of this latest protest video.

Arguments about campus culture, ideology, and activism are bound to continue for the foreseeable future. But there is no rational reason that Click should be treated as an embodiment of what’s wrong on campus. She erred and has paid dearly. Fairness requires treating her like an individual—not an avatar of campus excess—and refraining from punishing anyone for anything beyond their own behavior. It’s probably worth adding that a conservative professor who behaved similarly would almost certainly have no chance at all of securing forgiveness or tenure. That is, however, a distinct unfairness to be adjudicated another day.