Commentary: Anti-'Silencing' Author Mounts Unconvincing Defense of Kevin Williamson's Firing

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Posted: Apr 06, 2018 3:30 PM
Commentary: Anti-'Silencing' Author Mounts Unconvincing Defense of Kevin Williamson's Firing

Much of what I think about the firing of Kevin Williamson has already been written elsewhere, including a great deal of the commentary highlighted in Matt's Thursday post.  The Atlantic knew exactly what they were getting with Williamson, whom I've gotten to know a little bit over the years.  He is a fierce thinker, a savage and brilliant writer, and a fearless voice in our national discourse.  I agree with much of what he writes.  Other times, I disagree, sometimes vehemently.  And in a number of cases, I've found myself nodding along with his general point on the merits, yet alienated by the manner he's chosen to defend it.  But agreement isn't the point here.  The views that got him ousted by his brand new employer went something like this: Abortion (an issue he takes very personally, for understandable reasons) is mass violence against innocent lives and should be treated accordingly under the law. Depending on other laws on the books, the legal consequences for homicide may include the death penalty -- of which he admits he isn't a great fan, but adds that if it is  the controlling law in some jurisdictions, he's 'got a soft spot' for hanging the condemned.

Whether this was an explicit endorsement of executing women who obtain abortions as a matter of policy, or simply an intellectual exercise exploring how his underlying beliefs might play out if implemented in real life, is under dispute.  Regardless, I disagree with him.  I'm pro-life, but like nearly all pro-lifers, I believe that punishing women for abortions is unjust, impractical and counter-productive.  I also think it's dishonest for critics to claim, as some have, that Williamson was advocating vigilante justice against women.  He wasn't.  Nevertheless, the opinion he advanced, or at least indulged, was objectively radical and undeniably offensive to many.  But is that a fireable offense?  Enter liberal columnist and CNN contributor Kirsten Powers -- a Fox News alumnae -- who isn't always ideologically predictable.  She converted to Christianity during middle adulthood, drastically shifting her stance on abortion as a result.  She also wrote a 2015 book called, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, which shared a general thesis with my book on the subject from that same year, End of Discussion.  

Opposing weaponized political correctness and the punishment of dissenting thoughts must not and cannot become a partisan exercise, so forging cross-ideological alliances in the battle for free expression is essential.  Powers' voice is a valuable one in this space.  So in light of her apparent commitment and clarity on this issue, I was surprised and disappointed to see Powers cheer The Atlantic's decision to cave to a left-wing outrage mob and fire their newly-hired conservative columnist (whom I've heard editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg aggressively pursued for months) over his years-old comments:  


To be clear, the magazine was well within its rights to cashier Kevin, so this isn't explicitly a 'First Amendment' issue.  Having the right and being right are two separate questions.  This controversy does, however, speak to the (primarily) Left-driven phenomenon of trying to "win" political and cultural debates by preventing them from happening -- via various forms of ideological warfare, such as "no-platforming," purging wrong-thinkers, and hounding or shutting down speakers.  This approach intentionally avoids engaging ideas, in favor of penalizing their adherents, thus signaling to others that they might meet similar fates should they dare to articulate unpopular or 'subversive' viewpoints.  Granted, some ideas and policy proposals deserve to be stamped out; rank racism and racial discrimination come to mind as obvious examples.  But in free and open societies like ours, such examples should be rare exceptions to the cherished rule.  Powers expanded on her thoughts about Williamson's firing in a USA Today column, entitled, "Kevin Williamson is wrong. Hanging women who have an abortion is not pro-life:"

According to Williamson’s defenders, [his abortion comments represent] just another viewpoint like, say, believing in supply-side economics or that the government is too big.  It’s “mainstream conservativism,” apparently. Except it’s not. It’s not even mainstream among conservative anti-abortion rights organizations. When candidate Donald Trump said in an interview that he thought women should be punished for abortions, the rebukes were swift and mighty. The March for Life put out a statement saying, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about.” The National Right to Life Committee also released a statement making clear that it has never supported penalties against women who undergo abortions. Trump was forced to reverse his position to say that should abortion be outlawed, the only person who would be held accountable would be the doctor, not the woman.  Even Trump didn’t gleefully muse about hanging people. Williamson seems to believe his way of thinking is merely the intellectually consistent view. He says abortion is murder, and murderers (sometimes) get the death penalty — though typically not by hanging, unless you live under the Taliban — ergo women who have abortions should get the death penalty. Easy peasy. Yet the Catholic Church, of which Williamson is a member, has somehow managed to be opposed to both abortion and the death penalty.

In this passage, Powers is doing what ought to be done when one encounters an objectionable argument: She objects.  She addresses and counters it.  And guess what?  She's quite right that the point Williamson made does not constitute "maintream" thinking, even within the pro-life community. But mainstream-ism, while perhaps an important factor in evaluating candidates for political office or other public positions, is far less important when it comes to adjudicating who is and is not welcome to contribute to a journal of ideas.  She goes on to pre-emptively rebut cries of hypocrisy over the author of The Silencing supporting, well, silencing:

Where I find common cause with Williamson’s defenders is in their concern that intellectual diversity is lacking in our society’s cultural institutions whether it’s the media or academia. In fact, I wrote an entire book on the topic. I just don’t think this event is a good example of that phenomenon. While we should afford wide latitude for what people can say in public without fear of sanction in an effort to encourage vigorous debate, no publication is obligated to hire people who express views that violate their ethos. For example, is anyone criticizing the National Review for not having a marquee pro-abortion rights liberal columnist, let alone one who is making an argument that is outside the farthest fringe of what abortion rights organizations support?  It is nonsensical to say that the firing of Williamson proves the Atlantic can’t tolerate ideological differences. The Atlantic is a center-left publication, yet they hired Williamson knowing he was an articulate conservative who opposes abortion rights.  What the Atlantic didn’t know was the callousness and inhumanity with which Williamson discusses women who’ve had an abortion.

This is a weak argument.  First, if Powers believes that people should be afforded "wide latitude" to discuss tough issues in public spheres "without fear of sanction" in order to promote "vigorous debate," she should be alarmed over the Williamson episode.  He was denied such latitude, suffering a dramatic form of sanction as a result, which effectively declared any debate over his highly controversial belief to be out of bounds.  This is the opposite of vigor.  In context, his views on this one narrow subject -- which should not be casually conflated with his entire body of work -- are undeniably out on the fringe, but expressing fringe views should not be disqualifying in his line of work, and has not been disqualifying for others at his erstwhile publication.  More on that later.  In the meantime, let me repeat that Williamson was explicitly sought after and hired as an acidic writer who challenges boundaries of discourse and who deliberately provokes both thought and passion.  

Second, The Atlantic holds itself out as ideologically heterodox and diverse, unlike National Review, which is unapologetically conservative in its editorial point of view.  Indeed, The Atlantic's (apparently ill-fitting) slogan is, "of no party or clique," so Powers' NR comparison fails.  More to the point, nobody is arguing that Goldberg was obliged to hire Williamson in the first place.  Many of us are arguing that Goldberg was wrong and craven and hypocritical to fire Kevin Williamson for the crime of being Kevin Williamson.  As I've stated several times now, Williamson was a known commodity when he was brought on board.  Then he was purged by a targeted outrage campaign, fueled by cherry-picked pull quotes and wrinkled-brow hand-wringing over 'unsafeness' and 'workplace fit.'  Let's not pretend otherwise.

Finally, I'd like to address Powers' point about "callousness and inhumanity," which echoes Goldberg's statement trying to justify his decision to "part ways" with Williamson, which decried "callous" and "violent" words.  If this is the indictment against Williamson, how can Ta-Nehisi Coates maintain his perch at The Atlantic?  Coates has written in extremely de-humanizing terms about 9/11 first responders, and has effectively justified rioting by attacking calls for nonviolence.  These viewpoints could very easily be construed as hitting the unacceptable trifecta of "callous," "inhumane" and "violent."  It is also entirely possible that some of Coates' colleagues feel uncomfortable with his racial jeremiads against "white America," even if they aren't sure they can say so out loud.  How might that factor into 'unsafeness' and 'workplace fit' considerations?  Another question: Does Powers believe that Coates' description of NYPD officers racing into burning buildings as subhuman "menaces" represents "mainstream liberalism"?  What about his quasi-rationalization for smashing and burning things during protests?  If she's intellectually honest, Powers will concede that these are radical stances that fall outside of the typical ideological guardrails of American politics.  Yet Coates enjoys the wide latitude to expound upon his extremism at The Atlantic without fear of sanction (as he should), while Williamson does not.  Why?  

Because, frankly, America's 'mainstream' is dominated by liberals, to whom one "side's" radicals are charming, intriguing and brave, whereas the other's are frightening and dangerous.  And they want to keep it that way.  Many of them, especially their activist hatchet men, see a partisan utility in energetically narrowing the scope of what can be thought or said in 'polite society.'  Yes, determining the limits of acceptable discourse is an imprecise and subjective proposition.  It can be messy and occasionally lead to contradictions and imperfect "rules."  But those of us who generally fall on the pro-liberty side of broad toleration for a very wide range of speech should be troubled by glaring double standards, which have only been underscored by The Atlantic's cowardly surrender to rock-throwers who howled until Williamson's tenure at their publication was terminated.  His controversial stint beyond the conservative media ghetto had the half-life of a mayfly.  Mission accomplished.  And of all people, someone who "wrote an entire book on the topic" of the Left's calculated and escalating pariah-ization of "problematic" viewpoints might reasonably be expected to at least seriously question the dynamics that led to Williamson's firing.  Instead, she picked up a rock.