Controversial Hiring and Firing of Kevin Williamson at The Atlantic

The Atlantic recently hired a conservative writer, Kevin Williamson (from National Review), got significant criticism for doing so, and has not fired Williamson. This Daily Beast article breaks down the controversy, and I wanted to discuss what I think is a really complicated issue, and controversial issue. I suspect you guys might not want to talk about this, but I hope you do, because I’m interested in getting feedback on this.

Here’s the main source of the controversy:

…Williamson suggested on his now-deleted Twitter account that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide. When asked for a specific punishment, he offered hanging.

Williamson, apparently expressed this view in other places:

In a 2014 podcast, the liberal watchdog found, Williamson repeatedly and forcefully defended his view that those women should be executed.

He described current methods of execution—like lethal injection—to be “too antiseptic” and suggested that the state administer more “violent” forms of capital punishment befitting the “violence” of an abortion.

Has Williamson crossed the line, here?

Also, I don’t think anyone is saying that Williamson doesn’t have a right to express these views, but the question is, should a prominent platform like The Atlantic hire someone with those views? Another way to ask this question: Are there views and opinions that should disqualify from a prominent media outlet? (I think the answer to that is yes.)

Before I throw out some of my responses, let me just say that I’ve liked that, of the few articles I’ve read by Williamson, I’ve really liked his prose. (I believe I recommended him to Mitchell, specifically for this reason.) I also really want more ideological diversity in prominent publications like the Atlantic.

Now, let’s take the first question–has Williamson crossed a line? I’d like to answer this by identifying points at which he hasn’t crossed a line for me. An anti-abortion, pro-life stance doesn’t cross a line. Additionally, that individuals should be put in jail or face some penalty for having an abortion also doesn’t cross a line. What about advocating for the death penalty for those who have abortions? My knee-jerk reaction is to say that this doesn’t cross the line as well. If one believes that the government should view a fetus as a human being with inalienable rights, then most abortions would seem equivalent to murder. (It doesn’t seem appropriate to classify abortions performed because of the risk to the mother as murder.) If this is true, and one believes in capital punishment for murder, then logically, one who believes all of this would also hold the opinion that women who have abortions should be executed by the state. If you are pro-choice and against the death penalty, reacting in horror to this is understandable. If you’re pro-life, but against the death penalty, you may also bristle and react in horror. I wouldn’t be surprised if some pro-life, death penalty advocates would feel uncomfortable by this, especially the call for more violent forms of capital punishment.

It’s this last part–the call for more violent and cruel forms of punishment that clearly seem to cross a red line. A big part of why I feel this is is a red line relates to my understanding of the abortion debate. Specifically, I believe this isn’t a simple, black-and-white issue–not to the extent that advocates on either side may claim. To call for such extreme measures seems really inappropriate in my view, indicating an unreasonable, fanatical state of mind, and I don’t think a prominent national platform should hire individuals, from the left or right, like this. To be fair, I haven’t read Williamson enough to conclude that he is unreasonable. Indeed, my sense is that he is a thoughtful individual. But even if that’s the case, I don’t think the matter is settled. Perhaps the most compelling argument against the Atlantic keeping Williamson on board is the one Jeffery Goldberg, the editor-in-chief, supposedly gave:

The top editor emphasized that Williamson’s firing was not a result of his being anti-abortion—a common position for deeply religious Americans of all political stripes—but because of what his especially violent belief could mean for workplace relationships with female colleagues who may or may not have had an abortion.

I don’t think a employee should be automatically fired because their views and opinions would make co-workers feel uncomfortable. However, I do think there are certain views that would justify not hiring or firing an employee for this reason. As an extreme example, suppose an employee embraced white supremacy, believing that African-Americans were genetically less intelligent than whites. That this would create an unworkable and even hostile workplace environment, especially for Jewish or African-American employees seems likely and reasonable conclusion to draw. In that case, not hiring or firing an employee for these views seems appropriate.

The tricky part of this involves where the line should be drawn with regard to this question. How much leeway should you give employees with controversial views? How much support should you give employees who feel uncomfortable by these views? Suppose an employee was merely open to the possibility that science and data might show that whites are inherently more intelligent that African-Americans, and some African-American employees expressed discomfort and even antagonism toward that employee? Which side should management take? My guess is that this is something that management would have to decide case-by-case. In the situation above, though, I do feel like Williamson crosses a line. Honestly, a part of me is disappointed because I did want to not only read his ideas on that platform, but see an interaction with some of his opinions with others there on the site and in the nation in general.


I listened to most of the podcast where Williamson made some of the controversial remarks. Maybe I’m a ghoul, but based on this, I don’t think he crossed the line–although I would hate to be the editor who has to explain this to his staff that were outraged by these remarks. Also, just on these remarks, I think the following The Daily Beast description is misleading:

He described current methods of execution—like lethal injection—to be “too antiseptic” and suggested that the state administer more “violent” forms of capital punishment befitting the “violence” of an abortion.

In listening to the podcast, I have a very different read on the above. I draw two conclusions from Williamson that are relevant to the quote above:

1. The punishment for certain types of murder can and should vary. Someone murdering someone else in a bar fight should receive a different (lesser) form of punishment than someone who kidnaps a 90 year old woman, and murders her via torture. To Williamson, not only is abortion murder, but it’s a more severe type (because it’s premeditated, among other things);

2. Williamson says that he’s squeamish when it comes to capital punishment, but he opposes lethal injection because it minimizes the seriousness and significance of the act. That is, he doesn’t advocate for something like hanging because he wants to inflict more pain and suffering. Rather he wants people to realize how serious (and maybe even horrific) an execution really is. (It’s unclear why he favors these reasons. For example, maybe for deterrent purposes, or maybe people who administer and advocate for capital punishment should realize the full significance of what they’re advocating. I’m against capital punishment, but I think this second point is important, if the state is going to have capital punishment.)

I should also say that Williamson does not come across as fanatical or unhinged at all in this podcast.

(Note: I haven’t checked out the other sources yet.)

One thought on “Controversial Hiring and Firing of Kevin Williamson at The Atlantic

  1. Seeing some tweets from both left and right that make me feel a little exasperated.

    Here’s one from the left (at least I assume so):

    I bristle at the characterization (and assumption?) that the the Atlantic didn’t take the controversy around Williamson seriously. Hiring someone who has controversial views shouldn’t be seen as not taking the substance of the controversy seriously. As I said above, I do think certain views and opinions can cross lines that would justify not hiring or firing the individual who holds these views. But I also think that these lines can be unclear.

    Perhaps the problem is that individuals like Valenti are absolutely convinced that the a clear line has been crossed, whereas I feel fairly confident that the line isn’t clear at all. (I also am leaning toward the position that a line hasn’t been crossed.)

    Here’s one from the right (I think):

    The idea that this is simply about not tolerating ideas you don’t agree with kinda drives me crazy. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t think it’s that simple. Again, we would take the same stance if an employee was a white supremacist? I doubt it. I don’t think Williamson’s stance is equivalent to white supremacy, but I do think that it exists in a gray area, where it’s not totally unreasonable to think this could harm the workplace environment.


    A conservative that I consider thoughtful:

    Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it comes across as chiding the firing of someone simply for holding certain views–as if there aren’t some views that would justify a firing.

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