No Decent Person...
The firing of Kevin Williamson and the conflation of disagreement and indecency.
Posted Apr 13, 2018
“You know what makes politics so toxic?” conservative commentator Charlie Sykes asked on Twitter. “The refusal to entertain [the] possibility that your opponent might be a decent human being despite being wrong about an issue...”
When I shared that tweet, someone immediately replied, “I can't consider someone who favors stripping healthcare and food from those who need it a 'decent person.' Ever.”
It happened much faster than I expected. After Sykes (from the political right) exhorted all of us to give our ideological opponents the benefit of the doubt, the immediate reaction from an ideological opponent was: “Not a chance.” A plea for using the principle of charity was met with the least charitable interpretation possible. People who take certain policy positions aren’t merely wrong, they’re indecent. And this overactive knee problem is not an affliction limited to the left. If Sykes’s tweet had, instead, originated from a left-leaning figure, undoubtedly someone on the right would have made a similarly disparaging comment, albeit with different “indecent” particulars.
The person who posted the 'no decent person' reply clarified that there is a difference between those with whom we disagree on policy (who are worth hearing out) and “bad actors” (who are not). The problem, though, is that it’s far easier to focus on “bad actors” (those whose intentions we interpret as malign) than on whether we unfairly interpret others’ intentions when we disagree; it’s extremely difficult to see the difference between a bad actor and a decent person we’ve painted that way.
Whether considering a Halloween email, a protest against racial segregation, or support for freedom of expression when we find that expression upsetting, it’s a mental heuristic—a moral shortcut—to believe that no decent person could possibly hold such views. It takes a complete rejection of motivated reasoning to consider that a decent person actually could.
Conservative journalist Kevin Williamson is the latest casualty in the war on disagreement. When Williamson was hired at The Atlantic, the backlash rivaled Bret Stephens' treatment when he moved from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times. Conor Friedersdorf described in The Atlantic the furor over Williamson's move to the magazine (whose original 1857 mission statement included being "the organ of no party or clique").
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.
Williamson shared his most toxic view in a 2014 Ricochet podcast (ironically titled Everyone Hates Kevin… Again.) “I’m absolutely willing to see abortion treated like a regular homicide under the criminal code,” he claimed, as he explained why he thought that abortion would never really be treated as a crime: First, “it’s going to be 150 years before this happens,” and in any case, “contraception will be so universal and so effective, probably within … a decade, that the problem will essentially go away.” Nevertheless, he did say that although he’s “kinda squishy on capital punishment in general,” where capital punishment is legal, in theory, it should be used for the most shocking and cruel homicides. “I would totally go with treating [abortion] like any other crime, up to and including hanging,” he concluded. On Twitter, around the same time, he made it known that “hanging” was his preferred method.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, initially defended Williamson as “an important addition to our roster of Ideas columnists.” But after the podcast came to light, Goldberg had to grapple with the fact that Williamson, who viewed abortion as murder, apparently truly believed that those who committed that kind of “murder” should be treated the way society treats other premeditated murderers. Only two weeks after hiring Williamson, Goldberg sent to the staff of the magazine an email that included the following:
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.… Furthermore, the language used in the podcast was callous and violent.
Goldberg added, “Kevin is a gifted writer, and he has been nothing but professional in all of our interactions.” And he announced he had fired him.
For those who fiercely defend women’s right to choose whether to terminate pregnancies, Williamson is easy to vilify. As journalist Cathy Young notes in her thoughtful essay, the view that “women who have abortions should be hanged” qualifies as “unacceptable in decent society.” Yet, what if every day we watched people callously and violently murder babies with impunity? Would we not want those murderers harshly (and legally) punished? Might we not use language some might call “callous and violent” to describe what should happen to people who murder babies? And if we were able to see through Williamson’s eyes, isn’t that exactly what we would see? What must it be like to go through life seeing babies murdered every day? As someone who does not view abortion that way, I can only imagine.
A 1998 study by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia found that 48% of respondents believed abortion was murder, and two-thirds of those who did not view abortion as murder still considered it the taking of human life. In 2000, almost a third of survey respondents held the view that women who had abortions should be punished. As of 2017, according to Gallup, one in five Americans agreed with Williamson’s view that abortion should be illegal, and close to half of Americans agreed with him that abortion is morally wrong. Born and adopted the year that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the country, Williamson, a product of an unplanned pregnancy, laments,
People like me — we “unplanned,” the millions of us — now live the first part of our lives outside the protection of the laws of these United States. Our lives, and very often our deaths, are instruments of the convenience of others. … 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.
In truth, most decent people who consider ourselves pro-choice likely have little disagreement with Williamson about what should happen to those who murder babies. Our disagreement with him is about whether an abortion is, in fact, the murder of a baby. But are we really so heartless that we can find no compassion for someone who believes that it is? Can we not recognize the dignity—find the humanity—in people who make that argument? The dragging of Kevin Williamson signals that at least for the moment, many of us cannot.
The Overton Window is closing, and the narrowing of acceptable discourse is pushing more of us to polar extremes. Friedersdorf, who notes that he disagrees with Williamson “on almost everything” still dissents from Williamson's termination, and dissents from the way he was dragged. “That dragging,” Friedersdorf writes, “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.”
Surely some revelation is at hand.
Things fall apart. It is up to each and every one of us to pull us back together. ♦
Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.