Where is the boundary of civil discourse? That is the lingering question after the Atlantic magazine hired and fired conservative writer Kevin Williamson in a span of two weeks.
Williamson’s hiring in March outraged some liberals, who pointed to 2014 tweets (since deleted) in which he opined that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide” and added, when considering an appropriate punishment for women who undergo abortions, “I have hanging … in mind.”
Williamson’s firing on Thursday prompted equally angry responses from some of his fellow conservatives in the media, who contended the move shows they are an oppressed minority — “ghettoized,” in the words of the Resurgent’s Erick Erickson.
Here is a sampling of the reactions:
Atlantic editor Jeff Goldberg initially defended Williamson against critics, arguing that isolated remarks on social media should not preclude Williamson from working at the magazine. The liberal watchdog Media Matters on Wednesday resurfaced a 2014 podcast that revealed Williamson’s tweets were not isolated remarks.
“I would totally go with treating it like any other crime, up to and including hanging,” Williamson said of abortion.
“I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general, but I've got a soft spot for hanging, as a form of capital punishment,” he added. “I tend to think that things like lethal injection are a little too antiseptic. ... If the state is going to do violence, let’s make it violence.”
Goldberg said Thursday in a staff memo about firing Williamson “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. The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it.”
In the Atlantic’s reversal, we find one standard of civil discourse: It is okay — or, at least, forgivable — to tweet that women who undergo abortions should be hanged, so long as the tweet is hyperbolic rhetoric. It is not okay to actually think women who undergo abortions should be hanged.
In the fury of some conservatives, we find another standard: It is okay to think women who undergo abortions should be hanged, and such a position ought to be within the bounds.
Erickson, when he edited the RedState blog and organized its annual conference, memorably rescinded Donald Trump’s invitation to speak at the event in 2015 after Trump verbally attacked Megyn Kelly, who was then at Fox News and had posed a tough question to Trump during a presidential debate.
Trump said Kelly “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
Explaining his decision to exclude Trump, Erickson told The Washington Post at the time “I think there is a line of decency that even a nonprofessional politician can cross. Suggesting that a female journalist asking you a hostile question is hormone-related, I think, is one of those lines.”
Thus, we find a third standard of civil discourse. Okay: Saying women who undergo abortions should be hanged. Not okay: Saying a Fox News host has “blood coming out of her wherever.”
“My issue is that Williamson was hired after saying what he said,” Erickson told me. “It’d be one thing to have him make his statement after hiring, but it was before. His views on the issue of abortion are well known, including his belief that women who have abortions should be considered murderers. This was not something new. And while it is not something I agree with, it is also a single issue. Williamson was not being hired on that issue, but on the totality of his work and thought. But the Atlantic caved to an online mob.
“At a minimum, the line should be that one is not fired for views expressed prior to and known before hiring. Likewise, I think there is a real danger in the idea that we must be bound to our worst statements online. Williamson deleted Twitter and removed himself from social media well before the Atlantic hired him. To bind him still to those statements, or to bind anyone else to their worst statement, provides no incentive for that person to grow beyond those statements.”
This post has been updated with comments from Erickson.