A Dissent Concerning Kevin Williamson

When the “bonds of affection” are strained, the spirit of generosity and the virtue of tolerance demand extraordinary measures to avert a break.

Jason Lee / Reuters

Last month, The Atlantic hired Kevin Williamson, the longtime National Review staffer. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, announced the move, declaring him a writer “whose force of intellect and acuity of insight reflect our ambition.”

Immediately, critics began poring over Williamson’s substantial archive of published writing and public statements. Among the most controversial was an exchange on Twitter about abortion and the death penalty. Williamson declared that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.” Pushed to clarify, Williamson added, “I have hanging more in mind.” Later, he expounded, “I’m torn on capital punishment generally; but treating abortion as homicide means what it means.”

Many progressives cited those words as decisive proof that The Atlantic erred in hiring Williamson, even as many centrists and conservatives praised and defended him. “Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage,” Bret Stephens wrote. “Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something?”

The controversy divided The Atlantic staff in unknown proportions. And Thursday, Goldberg addressed the matter in an email. “Last week,” he wrote, “I mentioned my belief that Kevin would represent an important addition to our roster of Ideas columnists, and I addressed the controversy surrounding some of his past tweeting and writing. I expressed my belief that no one's life work should be judged by an intemperate tweet, and that such an episode should not necessarily stop someone from having a fruitful career at The Atlantic. Late yesterday afternoon, information came to our attention that has caused us to reconsider this relationship. Specifically, the subject of one of Kevin’s most controversial tweets was also a centerpiece of a podcast discussion in which Kevin explained his views on the subject of the death penalty and abortion. The language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views.”

Goldberg added, “The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. Furthermore, the language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”

Finally, he fired Williamson. And from that I dissent.

Do not imagine that I am any less appalled than you at the idea of hanging women who have abortions. I oppose the death penalty, full stop. I would regard any expansion of executions as barbaric and any vast expansion as authoritarian and nightmarish. Even if a politician proposed simply incarcerating women who have abortions, I would oppose the proposition in keeping with my civil libertarian convictions.

What’s more, I understand why the particular image of women strung up on the gallows stoked such revulsion in so many observers. In Williamson’s initial formulation, his inclination to provoke evoked a monstrous dystopia. My own reaction is informed by an interview Williamson gave at Hillsdale College where he was asked by a student if he really argued that all women who have abortions ought to be hanged.

He called that an “intellectually dishonest” accounting of his deliberately provocative viewpoint. “I am generally against capital punishment, I am generally against abortion, I am always against ex-post facto punishment and always against lynching,” he said.

Cathy Young, who is especially clear-eyed about the uncertainty around Williamson’s exact position, probes all the nuances for those so inclined, but as best I can tell, his position is this: if he were writing the laws, abortion would be treated as homicide but homicides would not be punished by death; whereas in places where the law did punish homicide by death, he’d nevertheless favor charging abortions as homicides.

Does he want to execute women who have abortions? No. Would he charge them with homicide even knowing that the state would kill them were they convicted? Yes.

Even if I am mistaken, it doesn’t matter for our purposes, both because I vehemently reject every plausible interpretation of Williamson’s position, and because what I dissent from today concerns matters that transcend the abortion debate, or anything I might believe as a conflicted civil libertarian who deeply respects the emotions that it evokes among the “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”

More specifically, I dissent from the way that Williamson was dragged, regardless of his position. That dragging would be a small matter in isolation, but it is of a piece with burgeoning, shortsighted modes of discourse that are corroding what few remaining ties bind the American center. Should that center fail to hold, anarchy will be loosed.

And I dissent from the termination that followed—a matter for which responsibility must fall on The Atlantic, not on Williamson’s critics, even those critics who most egregiously distorted his words or their prominence in his journalism.

What about the mode of Williamson’s dragging alarmed me?

Word of Williamson’s hiring was greeted by some as if by mercenary opposition researchers determined to isolate the most outlying and offensive thoughts that he ever uttered, no matter how marginal to his years of journalistic work; to gleefully amplify them, sometimes in highly distorting ways, in a manner designed to stoke maximum upset and revulsion; and to frame them as if they said everything one needed to know about his character. To render him toxic was their purpose.

That mode was poison when reserved for cabinet nominees; it is poison when applied to journalistic hires; and it will be poison if, next week or year, it comes for you.

Insofar as opinion journalists indulged in it, the mode is also a professional failure. The best illustration of why that is so requires reading a 2015 post by Williamson where he reflects on his “unplanned” conception by parents who chose to give him up for adoption. “It is not as though I do not sympathize with women who feel that they are not ready for a child,” he wrote. And later, he added, “It is impossible for me to know whether the woman who gave birth to me would have chosen abortion if that had been a more readily available alternative in 1972. I would not bet my life, neither the good nor the bad parts of it, on her not choosing it.”

A journalist plumbing the depths of Williamson’s personal archive with the intention of fully informing their readers would surely note that context in their renderings.

How many who dragged him noted it at all?

And then the termination: I worry that the firing was a failure of “the spirit of generosity,” a value that The Atlantic has long touted as a core value. I know that it raised thorny, unresolved questions about what exactly is verboten at the magazine. I fear that it will make it harder for the publication to contribute to the sort of public sphere where the right and the left mutually benefit from fraught engagement. And I expect that many of my colleagues will bear the burden of being dragged in ways that opportunists on the right and the left will now take to be effective.

Finally, I worry that the dragging and the firing were failures of tolerance.

That virtue is unfashionable these days. And I believe that those who minimize, dismiss, or reject it underestimate its value and the potential consequences of its atrophy, even as many who value tolerance have lost the words or the stomach to defend it.

I have not.

Is any single viewpoint so heinous as to warrant firing someone from a job? I have previously probed that question, outside the journalistic context, in The Atlantic. I concluded that Nazis, KKK members, and white supremacists are the easiest cases—and even then, engagement short of total shunning has its uses.

But in most cases—in this case—I depart from the conventional wisdom.

I reject the assumption that social justice or civic progress are advanced, that repressive outcomes are avoided, or that vulnerable groups are best served, by partisans who focus on everyone’s most extreme, or wrongheaded, or taboo, or outlying, or shocking, or problematic view—all but guaranteeing needless polarization.

I believe that justice is best advanced, that repressive outcomes are best avoided, and that vulnerable groups benefit disproportionately from a polity in which the public sphere is characterized by tolerance, forbearance, deliberate cross-ideological engagement within moderating institutions, and attempts at moral suasion rooted in love. At the group level, my sort of public sphere serves as a bulwark against the threat of authoritarianism that targets minorities; on an individual level, I believe engagement within it causes many to soften their most extreme views.

And I draw a distinction between the position that a given belief “is not something that belongs anywhere in the mainstream,” and the crucially distinct belief that a person who holds any such position should be totally excluded from mainstream institutions, even if their participation in them never broaches the outlying view.

The latter approach fuels balkanization.

Those judgment calls are informed by my experience as a civil libertarian. Over the years, I’ve oft returned to subjects like the evil of torture; the misery inflicted by insufficiently constrained drone strikes; the outrage of Stop and Frisk; the barbaric practice of throwing humans in cages for possessing marijuana; and the carnage wrought by catastrophic wars of choice. Engaging on those subjects quickly cures one of the fantasy that any person’s antagonists are simply deplorable and irredeemable—most of us want good outcomes as surely as anyone.

Civil libertarians also quickly learn that morally repugnant policies cannot be stigmatized out of the mainstream; that moral grandstanding cannot substitute for persuasion; and that Twitter mobs seldom choose the objects of their ire wisely. Marc Thiessen acts as a regular apologist for torture—yet Bari Weiss was dragged for a micro-aggression in a well-intended tweet congratulating an ice-skater. Don’t drag Thiessen either. Purifying media institutions of beliefs that enjoy a measure of mainstream popularity, or of people most Americans do not regard as beyond the pale, merely guarantees that the terrain where fraught subjects are inevitably contested shifts to Reddit or Joe Rogan’s podcast.

In an era without gatekeepers, purity-seekers threaten the relevance of journalistic institutions. And forcing people toward fringes, even in those rare cases where they earnestly want to more closely engage the mainstream, threatens civil society.

The weakest arguments against hiring and retaining Kevin Williamson judged him extremely harshly based on one or two things while giving little or no weight to literally years of beautiful, insightful work (much of it exhibiting the very concern for humanity that some Williamson critics mistakenly believe he lacks).

The strongest case against hiring him at The Atlantic contested whether or not Williamson’s full body of work embodies the aforementioned “spirit of generosity.”

Jack Shafer’s description is useful here:

I’ve long admired Williamson’s writing, if not his ideas, for the way he’s internalized Michael Kinsley’s warning that if you’re afraid to go too far, you won’t go far enough. Williamson almost always goes too far, taking his arguments to thought frontiers where there are no roads, no mobile phone service and sometimes barely enough air to breathe… see these National Review pieces arguing against reparations, decrying the mainstreaming of transgender rights, critiquing the “white working class” and dismissing the idea of “white supremacy.”

Since the rise of Donald Trump, Williamson has emerged as maybe the most eloquent and forceful internal critic of that part of the white working class that went for Trump. He’s a blue-collar Texan who regularly lets his fellow blue-collar white people have it for their moral failures, for their embrace of a strongman, for letting the “American values” they purport to stand for decay into a swamp of self-pity and conspiracy-mongering. He has become the center-left’s favorite righty firebrand, and it’s not hard to see why Goldberg wanted him aboard.

But once you get beyond the anti-Trumpism, he also holds a lot of social positions the center-left loathes, and he’s ferociously good at articulating them. He’s the kind of writer comfortable liberals ignore at their peril. Every Williamson article contains strong meat, which has led his detractors to dismiss him as a troll. But that’s not who he is. He’s really more of an ogre who loves to take arguments to the breaking point in hopes of shocking readers with his cold, unbound logic. Where other writers might serve 7 percent alcohol in their brew, Williamson likes to up his percentage to 20. Where other writers might stop at mean, Williamson keeps going all the way to cruel.

Erin Gloria Ryan is more harsh in her assessment, but offers similar characterizations:

Williamson and I disagree on almost everything, but I’ve enjoyed some of his work at National Review, his longtime professional home. He’s often a dextrous thinker, a compelling writer. He’s sometimes funny. I still think about and reference one column of his from last October on at least a weekly basis. The problem is that Williamson is fearless in the way that male political commentators who fancy themselves provocateurs are fearless, which is to say: a figure whose bouts of recklessness threaten any goodwill his moments of actual bravery garner.

Decide for yourself whether the positive or negative gloss on Williamson’s oeuvre fits best. Is a writer like that a good fit at The Atlantic? Reasonable people can disagree.

Asked what I thought of Williamson after he was hired, I emailed a colleague that his reported essays “are exquisitely written, and evince a deep concern for humanity that his critics miss … they don't understand the mode of some who grew up in dysfunction, hate what it does to people, and don’t think being polite about it serves anyone.”

And I acknowledged he has at times behaved in ways that I often criticize in public discourse, “so I see why they upset people,” I added. “I mean, they upset me: as someone who strives to think through arguments from a bunch of angles, I’ve often found even tedious or frustrating Twitter exchanges valuable in making my conclusions more nuanced; the way Kevin behaved in his worst moments was a tiny part of a big problem that has made social media a worse commons for everyone.”

On the whole, I thought that Williamson would bring out the best in us, and we would bring out the best in him; and that we might all learn valuable lessons during the daily work of bridging fraught gaps in the editorial and ideological cultures that separate The Atlantic and its sensitivities from National Review and its sensitivities.

If Williamson hadn’t have been hired, I would’ve understood that, too.

But once he was hired, it seems to me that the burden of embodying “the spirit of generosity” shifted to The Atlantic and its staff. We owed a person who took a risk to join us an opportunity to be judged on the basis of his work for us, and his comportment as our colleague, rather than to presume that things couldn’t work out.

Said David French after his firing:

I’ve spent my entire adult life in an academic and media environment that put a premium on shocking the conservative conscience. Advocate for the most barbaric abortion practices? Fine. Celebrate an artist who dips a crucifix in urine? Cool. Decry 9/11 first responders as “not human” because of white supremacy? Intriguing. But the marketplace of ideas isn’t for the faint of heart, and good conservatives learn to simultaneously defend the culture of free speech while also fighting hard to build a culture of virtue and respect.

Look, I know it’s easy for some to dismiss Kevin’s termination as mere inside-baseball media drama. But it’s more than that. It’s a declaration by one of America’s most powerful media entities that it can’t even coexist with a man like Kevin. If he wants to write, he should run along to his conservative home. His new colleagues simply couldn’t abide his presence.

I am honestly uncertain as to whether or not the staff of The Atlantic could have abided Williamson’s presence—the staff has grown significantly in recent years, so I know a much smaller percentage of people than before, and I work from Southern California, so I am only rarely in the office and haven’t met a lot of people.

I do know, given the ideological makeup of the staff, that getting along despite deep differences would’ve required Williamson to tolerate beliefs that he finds highly objectionable in many whom he encountered; while many of those encountering him would find just one such person in the company. The ability to tolerate the outgroup is a vital skill at any publication that aspires to the motto, “Of no party or clique.” I hope that the deliberate work it takes for any institution to cultivate, hone, and maintain that skill is a priority for The Atlantic going forward.

In an empathy-inducing column, Ross Douthat laments what he perceives as “the inability of contemporary liberalism to see itself from the outside, as it looks to the many people who for some reason, class or religion or historical experience, are not fully indoctrinated into its increasingly incoherent mix of orthodoxies.” Whether he is right or wrong in any particular, the balance of his thoughts are worth reading for insight into the degree of toleration folks with his views often achieve.

Goldberg’s email to staff about the firing raises also questions about what he considers verboten as the publication’s decider-in-chief. Here’s the passage about a podcast where Williamson reiterated his Tweets on abortion and the death penalty:

The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. Furthermore, the language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.

In that formulation, Williamson transgressed partly because he held a verboten viewpoint; partly because of inconsistent explanations about that viewpoint; partly because he used callous or violent language; partly due to a failure of respectful debate; and partly due to violating unnamed workplace values. Significantly, such behavior needn’t characterize one’s work at The Atlantic to bear on one’s place there. Merely having engaged in those behaviors—or any one of them?—on a bygone podcast, or a since deleted tweet, is conceivably actionable.

The line could hardly be more open to interpretation.

Now, unfortunate ambiguity was perhaps inevitable; Goldberg was alerting staff in real time to a termination, not sketching out a definitive document on editorial philosophy. Complicating matters, there’s no way for The Atlantic’s staff, or the public, to fully know what took place in conversations that ultimately led to the decision. Perhaps other factors unknown to me and you were definitive in the termination.

But the rationale for the firing, whatever its fullness, doesn’t alter certain of its consequences. Says Shafer, “The real losers are Atlantic writers and Atlantic readers—writers because they’ll become faint-hearted about their work (who wants to be the next Williamson?) and readers because the magazine will be less eager to challenge them.” I hope he is wrong; showing him so will require work at clarity, so that current staffers, prospective hires, and readers know where they stand.

For example: As surely as I tolerate Williamson, and benefit from reading his work in spite of our deep disagreements, I would tolerate a pro-choice colleague who went on a podcast, followed deep convictions to a logical but extreme conclusion, and found themselves declaring in conversation that even in the third trimester, even when there is no risk to the mother’s health, abortion ought to be legal, even if the doctor performing it used a procedure accurately described as follows:

During the partial-birth procedure, the abortionist uses forceps to pull a living baby feet-first through the birth canal until the baby’s body is exposed, leaving only the head just within the uterus. The abortionist then forces surgical scissors into the base of the baby’s skull creating an incision through which he inserts a suction tube to evacuate the brain tissue from the baby’s skull. The evacuation of this tissue causes the skull to collapse, allowing the baby’s head to be pulled from the birth canal.

Would The Atlantic tolerate a staffer with that view? Would the answer turn on something about its substance? Or the proposition that Atlantic staffers should not be expected to tolerate colleagues with views many find odious beyond a given point?

Robert P. George posed this question on Twitter: “Thought experiment: Imagine that The Atlantic hires Peter Singer, but critics demand that he be fired for saying it's not in principle morally wrong for parents to kill newborn infant children. Conservatives: Would you support his being fired? Liberals: Would you oppose it?”

These are the sorts of questions that Atlantic staffers, freelancers who wish to contribute to the magazine, and prospective hires will inevitably wonder absent clarity.

Of course, all publications face thorny questions of this sort.

My long experience at The Atlantic imbues me with faith in the prospect of clarifying matters in ways that avoid the slide toward the faintheartedness that Shafer fears.

As ever, the work that appears in our pages will be the truest test.

But in my experience as a writer who, while certainly not a movement conservative, departs frequently and vehemently from what might be called woke consensus progressivism, I’ve always had the freedom to write about what I want; and I have never been pressured to take, alter, or soften any viewpoint whatever, full stop.

Indeed, from the time I was a junior staffer, when the political landscape was utterly different, Goldberg himself, Jim Fallows, Andrew Sullivan, and other senior figures encouraged me even in my sharpest disagreements with them; before the 2016 election, it was made explicitly clear to me that if I disagreed with the magazine’s decision to endorse Hillary Clinton, the third endorsement in its history, and wanted to dissent, or even to make a case for Donald Trump, I was welcome to follow my ideas wherever they led. Last week, Goldberg went out of his way to affirm that I could write about Williamson’s firing, regardless of whether I took issue with his decision. “You have to come down where you come down,” he said. “You already know this, but I want to make it clear that you have my full support.”

Goldberg is earnest in his desire to publish ideologically diverse voices at The Atlantic—remember, no one made him go and hire Williamson in the first place. That Williamson was fired, for better or worse, does not render The Atlantic a small tent. It remains depressingly difficult to find many bigger tents in American media.

Alas, Goldberg’s aspiration to create a bigger tent may be much harder to achieve now. Prospective hires with outlying views, left or right, will suspect that they are likelier to be dragged with whatever is most inflammatory in their personal archive. And they will have lingering doubts about whether The Atlantic will stand behind them, come what may. The push for ideological diversity will be easier to achieve among junior staff, and perhaps future hires there can serve as a proof of intent.

In Tolerance Among the Virtues, John R. Bowlin describes those who hold that tolerance “carries the taint of moral danger, decadence, and betrayal. For why should we tolerate beliefs we consider false, actions we consider vicious, social practices we consider dangerous or scandalous, institutional arrangements we consider cruel or corrupt?”

The reason, of course, is that rejecting tolerance shows “disregard for the world that we inhabit,” where conflict among lives and commitments are inescapable, and where the inescapable alternative to tolerance is violence or repression.

And yet he understands why some reject it.

The virtue is difficult, requiring us “to choke down our outrage and stifle our desire.” To escape that difficulty, many simply abandon their objection to what they at first found odious, “and instead generate some other attitude, perhaps indifference, perhaps acceptance.” Those practicing actual tolerance and those who are merely indifferent to the odious start to look alike by outward appearances. It becomes easy to mistake constructive tolerance for apathy toward injustice.

What happens next is ascendent in 2018:

As perfect tolerance is rare and painful differences many, most assume that tolerance is nothing but these postures, nothing but elite indifference that quickly melts away into easy acceptance. Indeed, most of its critics are quick to assume that tolerance simply is this moral collapse.

And, fearing moral collapse, some will not only decry tolerance but flee … Looking for a solution to the problems of association that disagreement and difference invariably generate, unable to combine objection and endurance as the virtuous do, and appalled by the smooth indifference and contemptible acceptance that is so often mistaken for tolerance, they reassign the objectionable and yet potentially tolerable to the unbearably harmful and possibly dangerous.

Individuals participating in the public sphere, and publications that aspire to cultivate a broad civic dialogue, ought never slip into indifference to injustice or abandon moral judgments. But neither should they mistake tolerance for moral collapse. Much can be worked out by objecting to the objectionable in ways that do not foreclose the possibility of all cooperation. As citizens, if not as employees of any particular company, we are inescapably bound. And it is incumbent on all of us, even in our inevitable moments of pained outrage, to model how to work together.