The Atlantic made a really bad decision recently in firing Kevin Williamson for expressing a controversial opinion on abortion, weeks after hiring him because he is able to articulate controversial opinions.
Some of the people pushing for his removal predicted a spate of hot takes defending him, although this isn’t really a hot take matter, since there are sincere good-faith opinions on multiple sides (people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he was a poor fit for the Atlantic, people who agree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s good fit for the Atlantic, people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s a good fit for the Atlantic.) Hot takes are done in bad faith, and most of the discussion doesn’t fall in that category.
The underlying question is more about what ideas should be considered so beyond the pale that there must be professional repercussions to voicing them, and whether the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime with what this implies in terms of criminal penalties falls into category. Personally, I don’t think obtaining an abortion should be treated as a serious crime. My view on the controversy is that the belief that abortion should be a serious crime should not be considered to be so outrageous as to be a cause for denying employment, especially when the specific goal was to get a diverse array of opinions.
There is a key distinction here that might not matter for many. My understanding of Williamson’s comments was that it was about a policy going forward, with the understanding that this would be unlikely to actually be put into law, rather than an explicit endorsement of ex post facto or extralegal punishment. I don’t know how much this matters to anyone, whether there’s someone else who thinks the idea that in the future abortion can have the maximum criminal penalty possible is acceptable to discuss, but advocacy of prosecuting anyone for things they did in the past when these were legally and fully protected by the law is going too far.
There are two further problems with the Atlantic’s decision.
I think people should be honest about the implications of their views, and the decision encourages an intellectual cowardice in which people are unwilling to say what they believe, or to openly consider the implications of their own views. Late-term abortion is a rather icky procedure, and people who advocate for it should be honest about what they want, rather than sanitizing it. People who want police officers to change their procedures and use force less often should be willing to discuss the downside of what they want (greater risk for police officers which does mean more dead cops) in addition to the upsides (other people get to live; probably resulting in a net gain in terms of lives saved.) There’s a potential counterpoint to that one in that there will be people who believe that there will be no effect on police safety if they are trained to wait longer before opening fire, although that suggests the pundit would be willing to abandon the earlier position should any new information come to light.
The second problem with what the Atlantic did is that the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime is one that is held by a non-trivial percentage of Americans. It’s not going to go away if there’s a refusal to engage it, and when people who hold these positions are marginalized or realize that they should keep quiet, the main result is that the public and the media are less informed, and don’t realize the popularity of a position until a state legislature passes a bill on it. Buck Sexton notes how a smaller range of acceptable ideas creates more ideological polarization, a further issue.
Selfishly, I’m happy that this mess probably means the continuation of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast.
“I would totally go with treating it like any other crime, up to and including hanging.” Is not articulating a controversial opinion, it’s articulating crippling autism.
But wasn’t the issue that he initially tweeted and then later detailed in a podcast that he felt women should be hanged for having abortions? That’s harsh words and not unlike an alt-right troll. I don’t fault The Atlantic for not wanting to associate with him.