Last month, The Atlantic, a nonpartisan magazine that provides literary and cultural commentary, hired columnist Kevin Williamson, known for his conservative views and sharp writing. This decision sparked outcry among those who believed his views, especially on gender issues, to be extreme and bigoted. Twitter campaigns were launched to convince The Atlantic to fire Williamson, including the #FireKevin hashtag used by the abortion rights group Naral Pro-Choice America. This week, The Atlantic fired Kevin Williamson.
Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg explained that while The Atlantic conceives of itself as a “big tent,” a recently uncovered podcast in which Kevin Williamson had previously spoken about hanging women who have abortions was “callous and violent,” and runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”
This firing decision has begun a new round of debates, often (but not exclusively) with a right-left political valence, about which ideas should be accepted and facilitated in mainstream discourse. The three major ways in which the issue has framed – the intellectual diversity argument, the bigotry against women angle, and the de-platforming angle – all have limitations. Getting the framing of this issue correct is important to clarifying whether The Atlantic’s decision was appropriate.
The Intellectual Diversity Framing:
Many argue that The Atlantic has abandoned any pretense of having an intellectually diverse staff. In the strongest form of this framing, the firing of Williamson demonstrates both an intolerance to opposing ideas, and an increasingly alarming uptick in campaigns to fire writers for their ideas. One critic of the decision described it as a “cowardly” acquiescence to one news cycle’s worth of “friendly fire,” in which an independent and provocative voice that compellingly took on the alt-right and the opioid crisis was being told that he “can’t even coexist” with a mainstream media outlet.
In many ways, I think this framing is correct and concerning. Far too many use Twitter platforms to gather momentum against those whose views and practices they find objectionable. Those insistent on enacting change through Internet shaming often use overblown and hyperbolic tactics that render anyone taking less than an anodyne stance (or a Twitter-popular stance) on anything subject to serious penalties, especially if he or she depends on market forces. In this space, serious discussions cannot be had, and people and companies often allow their position to be re-defined as the most extreme, sensationalistic, and easily shared version of their position – causing them to abandon what now appears to be an absurd stance.
So long as Williamson’s ideas are a useful contribution to debate, the intellectual diversity framing of this issue is fair. However, there are arguments that his positions have gone beyond useful stances and are not necessary for intellectual rigor or pluralism. In that case, the mantle of intellectual diversity would be used to foster ideas that are, perhaps, anti-intellectual, and one person’s unhelpful, uncivil contributions would be associated with important enlightenment principles to give them greater deference than they deserve.
The “Execution of Women” Framing.
Kevin Williamson believes abortion is pre-meditated murder, and he would like to see it treated as such. He also, apparently, believes that, in every scenario, pre-mediated murder should be punished with state-mandated executions, completed by hanging. Or, if not, he at least believes this for women who abort their unborn fetuses.
Many have argued that Williamson’s views do not belong in The Atlantic, because they evidence bigotry against women. After all, about ¼ women will have abortions by age 45, so Williamson is calling for the state-sanctioned killing of 25 percent of the female population. On its face, that appears to be a position potentially hateful enough to justify the view that his positions do not contribute to debate on critical issues.
I think this framing is important, and maybe even correct, but simplistic. I do not share Williamson’s views, either about whether abortion should be the legal equivalent of murder or on the propriety of capital punishment for any murder. However, if abortion were made illegal (which it currently cannot be, due to Roe v. Wade), presumably far fewer women would have abortions. Further, I do not think it true in every case that the argument that abortion is murder is necessarily anti-woman (almost the same number of women oppose abortion as men, as one indicator). Though controversial, there are morally and legally coherent reasons to equate abortion with murder, and I do believe there is some space for reasonable minds to differ on the issue.
Laws prohibiting abortion certainly exact a heavy burden on women that many would say is unacceptable, and the Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional. The important question to ask is when having a view that burdens only one biological sex amounts to animus against women. It is noteworthy that laws allowing only women to decide the fate of the fetus burden mostly men and give rights only to the woman carrying the child.
Writer Jessica Valenti wondered how Williamson’s female colleagues who have had abortions would feel around him, knowing his views. The feelings elicited in individuals in response to ideas is one of the most pernicious reasons to oppose speech, and should be recognized as such. Williamson might also feel badly, knowing his colleagues (perhaps rightly) despise his ideas, but that’s the price we pay for living in a pluralistic society where we all hold different moral views. Williamson’s argument seems to have enough moral and legal coherence, and represents enough people, that it is at least arguably a useful contribution to debate. [Edit: I cannot say whether most opponents of abortion believe that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment, but it’s hard to imagine that is the median view.]
The Platforming Framing:
The next question becomes whether The Atlantic should give Williamson a platform. Discussing Williamson’s de-platforming is my least favorite way of framing this debate. First of all, a private organization never has to give anyone a platform. (A public institution, in contrast, cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint when it has opened up a platform for discussion on a particular issue.) That said, the premise behind the platform argument is dangerous. Just because a media entity or organization gives someone a platform does not mean that entity endorses the person’s views. Instead, giving a platform should be interpreted as endorsing the view that a wide range of useful ideas should be shared. Equating providing a platform with endorsing a view may be why The Atlantic likely felt compelled to fire Williamson, and will ultimately be corrosive to a well-informed, reasonable, pluralistic discussion of issues.
[Edit: Here is a piece making the case that Williamson wasn’t entirely serious in his comments on the penalties for abortion.]