The Atlantic‘s firing of Kevin Williamson over his views on abortion sent political Twitter abuzz this week. Conservatives and libertarians generally condemned the cowardice involved, and the swarming pushback from progressives captured the pitch-perfect drone of the hive mind.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Despite having achieved their goal, progressives felt it necessary with a torrent of widely-varying but equally flimsy rationales in support of the firing. Here is a handy guide to the seven most common (and dumbest) attempted defenses of the firing.
1. National Review Doesn’t Hire Progressives.
This response is based on the faulty premise that The Atlantic is the same as outlets like National Review. In reality, The Atlantic‘s founding motto was, “Of no party or clique.” It still pretends to this motto; otherwise, editor Jeffrey Goldberg would not have hired Williamson in the first place.
In contrast, National Review was founded precisely because conservative views were marginalized in the establishment media. Goldberg’s cowardly cave-in demonstrates the necessity for conservative media, even though marginalizing roughly half of America has corrosive effects on left and right alike.
2. You Conservatives Are Snowflakes.
This response is not really a defense so much as a counter-attack. As counter-attacks go, it’s remarkably stupid for at least two reasons.
First, it is obvious that the “snowflakes” in this situation are the whiny leftists who demanded The Atlantic exist as a “safe space” free from Williamson’s ostensibly controversial views. This despite the fact that no one would be forced to read his views on any subject.
Second, the claim essentially doubles down on the leftist intolerance. In this view, it’s not just Williamson who is out of bounds — it’s anyone who would defend the value of debating provocative ideas in a free society, even if they disagree with Williamson (as I do).
3. Williamson Advocates Lynching Women.
This response and its variants rely on gross mischaracterizations of Williamson’s comments. Williamson described how he would like abortion to be treated as a matter of law. He did not advocate lynching, which is an execution without due process of law. He did not advocate punishment for women who already had abortions under the current legal regime.
Williamson mentioned hanging, which his opponents have taken out of context. This reference relates to his “squishy” position on capital punishment. Williamson’s argument was that if one truly supports capital punishment, the State should be honest enough to be truly violent, instead of treating an execution like a medical procedure.
A fair reading of Williamson suggests he wrestles more with the question of when it’s appropriate for the public to legally kill someone who has received due process of law (a rare event) than his critics wrestle with the morality of taking hundreds of thousands of innocent human lives annually.
Williamson’s biggest opponents really object to his premise that abortion should be a crime. Yet a recent Pew poll suggests that some 40 percent of the public believes abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Williamson’s position on who should be responsible and the severity of the punishment are mostly a target of opportunity for those who wanted him fired.
A subset of this group also objects that Williamson would place women in danger of death for exercising a Constitutional right. But Williamson does not believe such a right exists. And the objection ignores the breadth of legal scholars — including some who favor legal abortion as a matter of policy — who find Roe v. Wade to be as poorly reasoned as Constitutional law.
It is easy for critics to ignore these points because they have insulated themselves and others from opposing arguments. They are responses either based on ignorance and laziness, or dependent on an audience with those qualities.
4. Williamson is Inciting Violence Against Women.
This response could be considered a variant of the”lynching” argument, but it has its own unique defects.
If Williamson’s critics want to cling to the Supreme Court, note the Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio holds that the State cannot “forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Williamson’s comments do not constitute incitement, let alone of imminent lawless action.
Conversely, you could ask how many of Williamson’s critics believe they should bear the moral responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed annually in the United States. Probably not many, outside the extremists who attach no moral weight to abortion in the first place. Increasingly, the left wants to conflate speech with violence — but only in cases of speech they don’t like.
5. What About Miscarriages or Frozen Embryos?
This category of response at least pretends to engage the consequences of Williamson’s position, but it is also a badge of ignorance. To ask these questions is not to win the argument or discredit Williamson. Rather, these are questions that have been long debated within the pro-life community. Williamson’s critics would know this if they were not so busy burying their heads in the sand.
6. Williamson Harshly Refused to Acknowledge Abortion as a Painful Decision.
It is true that Williamson did not mince words in his comments. It is also true that Williamson has written about his sympathy for women who become pregnant unexpectedly and why abortion is not the proper response to that situation.
In contrast, Williamson’s critics not only ignore the totality of his writings on abortion, but also tend to avoid explaining why they think abortion is a painful decision. This supposed response allows the critics to pose as people who agonized over a morally difficult decision, while attempting to exclude from the mainstream those who follow the logic of the opposite conclusion, as though the decision was easy.
7. Williamson is an A–hole.
Frankly, Williamson might plead guilty to this one. Certainly, his abrasive style and his willingness to challenge conservative dogmas can infuriate even those who enjoy reading his work.
However, as noted previously, compelling writing generally requires a writer willing to challenge the audience — and that in turn usually requires a willingness to risk offense. Progressives embrace this principle when they are celebrating their own provocations as “edgy” or “transgressive.” They reject the principle when convenient. Accordingly, Williamson’s critics might earn the same vulgar epithet — but they lack his abilities as a writer and a thinker, as their lame defenses of their intolerance demonstrate.