Comment Of The Day: Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2018: #2: “Williamson No Longer Of The Atlantic’”

This is an epic Comment of the Day using an unusual approach. Michael West explores aspects of public discourse that is at the core of ethical misunderstanding and ethics malpractice by focusing on a multi-party twitter exchange regarding an issue discussed on Ethics Alarms, the firing of former National Review writer Kevin Williamson after he doubled-down on an extreme position regarding abortion: he believes it is murder, and therefore believes that capital punishment is a fair punishment for what should be considered a crime. Moreover, he said that because of the violent and depraved nature of the crime, a violent execution, like hanging, would be appropriate for the women who allowed their fetuses to be aborted.

Michael also used his comment to highlight a concept we have not used on Ethics Alarms, at least by name, “the Overton Window.” That is defined as “The spectrum of ideas on public policy and social issues considered acceptable by the general public at a given time.” Of course, what the “window” is can be tricky to determine. Donald Trump broke the alleged window repeatedly. My preferred approach to this “window” is to challenge it, and to try to expand its boundaries, consequences be damned. I equate the Overton Window with de facto censorship and thought-control.

I am especially glad that this comment again raises the Williamson firing and the related ethics issues. These are rich topics, and yet the matter fled the blogs and commentary sites quickly, paved over by successive outrages of the day.

Here is Michael West’s Comment of the Day on #2 in the post, Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2018: “Ruggles Of Red Gap” And “Williamson No Longer Of The Atlantic’.”  This is a bit challenging to read, but worth the effort. For clarity, Michael’s commentary is in bold italics.

I think this is an informative tweet dialogue on a handful of levels. For one, it reveals some informal fallacies that inevitably ruin any discourse and are especially ruinous tendencies in any summarized forum (which twitter represents the extreme end of the spectrum). It also reveals what I think is the fundamental problem with the discussion [on Ethics Alarms.]. I think we’re operating on two different meanings of “mainstream”. Simultaneously this reveals two different attitudes regarding the Overton Window.

As for the term “mainstream”, Almaqah below seems to mean it as “anything someone is willing to hear another person discuss.” I presume [commenter Chris’s]  friendliness toward Almaqah’s opinions implies [he] generally believe the same. When I use it, and I think when most others use the term, we use it as more of a quantitative assessment, where “mainstream” means “anything that a sufficient percentage of people believe”, to which it might be effective to add “that it holds enough weight to begin to sway policy discussions” …but that’s not essential.

I think Almaqah’s subsequent side-bars reveal a somewhat concerning attitude towards diversity of opinion as well as tolerance of that diversity. He seems to think that acceptable discourse should be extremely narrow and that anything outside of that window should not be tolerated one bit.

Cast of Characters (mostly from their twitter profiles):


Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) – “Oklahoman. Attorney. Contributor at @FDRLST, @dcexaminer, and other places. Keep reminding me that I’m supposed to be rising above.”

@Elwampito – “petty bourgeois”

Mollie Hemingway (@MZHemingway) – “Senior Editor, @FDRLST”

Katherine Mangu-Ward – Editor in Chief of Reason Magazine

FyodorPossibly a libertarian & probably anti-Trump… (judging from a quick scan of tweets)

@MsBaileyGurl – “fundamental human rights and fast wifi. So easy to please.”

Mark Hemingway (@Herminator) – “Senior Writer @WeeklyStandard. Husband of @MZHEmingway”

Jacob T. Levy (@jtlevy) – “Tomlinson Prof of Political Theory, McGill. RPF Niskanen Opinions here are mine not McGill’s.”

Alexandra DeSanctis (@xan_desanctis) – “Buckley Fellow at National Review. Co-host of “Ordered Liberty” with @DavidAFrench. @NotreDame alum. ”

Bre Payton – “the culture and millennial politics reporter for The Federalist”

@JackFromAtlantapossibly a conservative & possibly an Eastern Orthodox Christian (judging from a quick scan of tweets)

@UrbanAchievrprobably a leftist, most probably anti-Trump (judging from a quick scan of tweets)

Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) – “senior media reporter, @CNN. writing at the intersection of media & politics.”

Kirsten Powers – “USA Today Columnist / CNN Political Analyst / Cohost of @thefaithangle podcast”

Here’s the opening salvo, as Almaqah responds to Gabriel Malor (which “El Wampito” rapidly jumps into).

@gabrielmalor – “The man just lost his job because of his political beliefs. The people celebrating it, particularly the ones who work in media, are trash human beings, not to mention completely unself-aware morons.”

@_Almaqah (two combined tweets) – “Stop convincing me “executing women who have abortions” is a conservative belief, I’m trying to be generous. Also he’ll be fine, NR will take him back. Most prolifers say they don’t want to punish women who have abortions, so it’s odd to see some of them conflate KW calling for execution with normal conservative beliefs. Which is it?”

@Elwampito – “it’s the latter”

@_Almaqah – “I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt!”

@Elwampito – “i mean, if you believe abortion is murder and support the death penalty, it would seem to fit unless you think women lack moral agency or something”

@_Almaqah – “This is true, most of them get around having to reach this conclusion by just saying women are victims of abortion too. KW was willing to say he takes their agency seriously and thinks they should be held culpable”

Here, Almaqah subtly shifts the accusation. The topic is the specific stance that women who kill their unborn children should be executed. Almaqah expands this to “Punishing women who seek abortion.”.There’s a significant difference here where his latter use of “punish” compels the person he’s arguing with to either agree or disagree to a general assertion which may or may not reveal an actual attitude towards the specific assertion. This isn’t rhetorically responsible dialogue.

@MZHemingway – “In only article pubbed @ Atlantic before being fired for being pro-life, NeverTrumper Kevin Williamson wrote enemy was @VDHanson.Interesting”

@_Almaqah – “Another person who equates ‘prolife’ with ‘wanting women who have abortions to be executed’. I’ll take your word for it!”

Molly Hemingway, is playing the typical journalist role of saying something triggering to her base, “Fired for being pro-life”, when she knows he was fired for having a stance about how to enforce those who have abortions. She isn’t being responsible with her tweet, and Almaqah capitalizes on this. But in reality, we know he wasn’t fired for being pro-life, but standing up *for* him and his right to hold opinions, is not an endorsement of those opinions NOR is it a claim that the opinions are “mainstream” (unless you insist on the Narrow Overton window definition of mainstream).

Here, Almaqah quotes the same Reason article, by Katherine Mangu-Ward, which [Chris] referred to and is linked in Jack’s piece.

@_Almaqah (two combined tweets) – “Kevin’s defenders would’ve been better off just saying ‘yes, punishing abortion w/execution is completely reasonable conservative belief, what of it?” instead of “he was just trolling, of course he doesn’t believe that horrible thing!” I mean, once you concede it’s a terrible thing to believe it, kind of hard to get mad when there are consequences for actually believing in it”

@Fyodor32768 (three combined tweets, bold is what Almaqah responds to) – “I think that conservatives probably believe that say the median viewpoint should be outright illegalization and that Williamson’s execution position is on the right side of the spectrum but not crazy. So by saying that his hanging position puts you outside the spectrum you are saying something about what the “baseline” opinion is that they dislike. Sort of like how a lot of mildly racist conservatives didn’t fully agree with Trump’s more forceful racism but didn’t feel it should be condemned as outside the pale because they though of their own more mild racism as the midpoint for views on minorities.”

@_Almaqah – “Yes, to them punishing abortion by execution is just a policy difference to be debated politely among friends. It’s not like Williamson called for something truly offensive like an 80% estate tax”

Almaqah, relying on the narrow, intolerant view of the Overton Window, again shifts the term from the specific “execution” to the broader term “punishment.” Fyodor does a great summary rebutting him here. Almaqah’s reponse is to belittle the notion of tolerating an individual, who while generally in agreement with most actual mainstream opinions, holds one or two more extreme ideas. This is problematic. If Almaqah’s attitude is to reign, we cannot tolerate individuals having anything other than exactly the same lock step views on every opinion we grant “mainstream” status…we must, upon discovery that one of our “orthodox” fellows, when holding even a single “out of whack” viewpoint, must be shut up and sent out of the camp.

@Herminator – “Kevin Williamson was Never Trump *and* one of the most talented writers of his generation. They still wouldn’t let him work for a a venerable liberal institution. Let that be a lesson.”

@MsBaileyGurl – “The lesson is…don’t advocate for the murder of women. Seems pretty easy for the ‘law and order’ party to get behind.”

@Herminator – “Adovocating for the murder of women who murder others is the issue at hand. This is misdirection.”

@_Almaqah – “”he doesn’t want to murder all women, he just wants to murder women who have abortions” might’ve sounded better in your head”

Almaqah has jumped onto someone else’s sidebar with Mark Hemingway. Not a lot of new takeaways here.

@jtlevy (several tweets combined, the bolded section comes from the tweet that @_Almaqah responds to) – “Roseanne Barr, an ideologically messy kind-of-leftist (Green Party the Peace & Freedom Party pres candidate, Occupy advocate) is beyond the pale because she supports Trump. Kevin Williamson, author of “The Case Against Trump” and a longtime vocal Never Trumper, is beyond the pale for still being the kind of conservative he was before Trump. Even while recognizing the ways that Williamson pushed things farther than other conservatives…I’m uneasy at how those two things sit together…If Trump’s presidency is an emergency and a catastrophe— and I think it is!— then there’s some value in a broad coalitional attitude among his opponents until the emergency is over…I often really disliked Williamson’s pre-Trump trollish writings. But he’s made real contributions since 2016. I wouldn’t vote for him for president or DA or judge. But it’s good to have his voice out there, right now…NB that I’m not making a poor-put-upon-Williamson argument or a free speech one. I’m worried about the strong signal that, really, it’s still politics as usual right now, and that there’s not anything especially important or unusual about the current situation. For the (many) people responding to me “but he advocates executions for abortion”— would it really make a difference to you if he advocated 20-year prison terms? 10 years? Excommunication and damnation? Is there an acceptable pro-life position for an Atlantic writer to hold?”

@_Almaqah – “But I keep reading most prolifers are against punishing women, so why is this the range of prolife opinions presented? Unless you’re saying….”

Almaqah is still relying on shifting the term being discussed and also conflating defense of Williamson’s employment with endorsement of Williamson’s views. This is wrong for all the reasons already discussed.But more interesting about the Overton Window again… Williamson, other than his particular anti-abortion stance, would be a liberal-friendly conservative. Yet he was canned for ONE opinion. Oddly enough, left-wing extremists on abortion, such as Peter Singer , who have published works advocating for AFTER BIRTH “ABORTION”, have been completely tolerated as authors for the Atlantic. Should we claim that after-birth aborton is a mainstream Leftwing attitude? No. Yet, Williamson, who wrote not ONE SINGLE abortion piece for the Atlantic, indeed, only wrote ONE piece for the Atlantic was sent packing for less than a handful of comments he made.

Several of those comments made with the idea of consistency. That is, he’s actually opposed to the death penalty, but if we are to have a death penalty, he would see it as consistent to apply the penalty to mothers who kill their unborn.

@xan_desanctis – “No one raises an eyebrow when a columnist defends the eugenic extermination of unborn children with Down syndrome. But a pro-life columnist is fired for expressing his views in a controversial way. Unbelievable.”

@_Almaqah – “Another prolife writer saying ‘execution for abortion’ is a normal prolife position. Strange”

@xan_desanctis – “Hm, except that I never said it was a normal prolife position. Would love it if you could find even one example of me saying this.”

@_Almaqah – “You said KW was fired simply for being prolife and expressing those views controversially. He repeatedly advocated hanging as punishment for abortion. Is that w/in range of acceptable prolife positions?”>

@xan_desanctis – “I did not say he was fired simply for being prolife. I’ve never defended his comments, called them prolife, or shared his view, which is what you’ve wrongly accused me of doing. How ’bout you take it back now.”

@_Almaqah – “you wrote “a pro-life columnist is fired for expressing his views in a controversial way” … He was fired for advocating execution. Again, is that w/in acceptable range of prolife opinions? If not, what’s the issue?”

<a href=” – “I can oppose Kevin’s firing without sharing/defending his view on executing post-abortive women or believing that his view is prolife — which, again, are two things you’ve wrongly accused me of doing.”

@_Almaqah – “you can also oppose his firing (which I didn’t support) while accurately stating what he was fired for – repeatedly advocating hanging as punishment for abortion, not “expressing his views in a controversial way””

(a deleted tweet by @xan_desanctis, which, according to an image posted by @_Almaqah was a snarky jab about expecting an apology for his misrepresentation of her comments)

@_Almaqah – “I should’ve been more accurate since ‘normal’ implies the average opinion, which I don’t believe is true. I’ll amend and say you appear to find execution as punishment within the acceptable range of prolife opinions, although on the further end”

More of the same from Almaqah. No need to explicate. I enjoy, though, that Alexandra pushed back, and all Almaqah could do was mischaracterize her comments.

@JackFromAtlanta – “This whole exercise is ridiculous. Obviously most conservatives don’t hold his view, but think it’s within the acceptable range.”

@_Almaqah – “that’s all I’ve been saying, why can’t they just admit that”

JackFromAtlanta nails the Overton Window aspect of this. Here, Almaqah shows an image of an article by Bre Payton. Kevin Williamson Fired From the Atlantic for Opposing Abortion:

@_Almaqah – “He repeatedly said he supports hanging as punishment for abortion. We can now say this is a standard prolife view, according to many prolife conservative writers, who I presume are the experts on this”

@UrbanAchievr (two tweets combined, bold tweet is what Almaqah responds to) – “Pro-life conservatives are falling into a trap. I wonder if they care. “I am pro-life and Kevin Williamson doesn’t speak for me when he says women who have abortions should be hanged.”…How hard is that to say? You’re really going to let the left define his argument as standard pro-life conservative?”

@_Almaqah – “There’s no trap, just trying to understand what’s on the table. If people say being fired for advocating executions as punishment for abortion is the same as being fired for being prolife, I will take them at their word”

Evidently marching orders at the Federalist was to use irresponsible journalism in their headlining. If you actually read her article, she thoroughly discusses the actual reason he was fired. Verdict: False Headline, but nothing with which to draw the conclusions that Almaqah insists.

@oliverdarcy (referring to an article in USA Today: Kevin Williamson is wrong. Hanging women who have an abortion is not pro-life – “—@KirstenPowers points out that wanting to punish women for having an abortion (not to mention death by hanging) does not fall within mainstream conservatism and is one of the few positions Trump was forced to reverse …”

@_Almaqah – “she’s wrong – it’s not the average opinion but it’s clearly within the range of acceptable conservative thought, judging by KW’s many defenders in rw media”

Kirsten Powers makes an odd argument but ultimately supports the notion about this not being a “mainstream” stance, and Oliver Darcy bolsters this. Almaqah has begun to soften his stance.

Again, the essential difference here is how we define “mainstream”. It seems to me that you think “mainstream” means “anything people are willing to permit spoken” and therefore because conservatives are willing to allow Kevin Williamson to speak they consider him mainstream. I’ve always understood “mainstream” as “a large percentage of such-and-such a group generally hold to such-and-such a belief”.


14 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2018: #2: “Williamson No Longer Of The Atlantic’”

  1. Thanks!

    1) I don’t know if the context helps, but in the original thread, this looked like a stand-alone comment, but it was meant as a response to Chris.

    2) I think it still should be mentioned that Williamson is apparently AGAINST capital punishment, and merely made the point that if we are to be consistent in a stance regarding abortion and capital punishment IS part of the culture, then executing those who have abortions would necessarily follow.

    Extreme as that is, it only makes the reaction to Williamson all that much more extreme itself.

    • 1) If you check, you’ll see that I made a couple of edits to make that clear. I was originally confused because I thought “you” meant ME.
      2.) I didn’t know that, but it shouldn’t matter. It was clear, or should have been, that he was saying that if we are going to have capital punishment for murder, surely the murder of the weakest an most vulnerable by their own mothers is especially worthy of it. And he chose the most jarring way to make that point, intentionally.

      • And he chose the most jarring way to make that point, intentionally.

        Exactly. That’s his style, no more no less. He’s a master of the pithy generalization: “Benign environmentalists are opposed to pollution, as all sensible people are; malign environmentalists are opposed to energy and most of what it enables.” (I’ve seen ones that come up (down?) to abortioner-hanging standards, but can’t find them anywhere. – not “mainstream” enough probably.) And this is the man who wrote the slam-after-slam The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, after all. The Atlantic was not wise to fire him; he will not want for employment.

  2. The term “mainstream media” bothers me for the same reason, particularly when it means “left-wing broadcasting and newsprint companies”, since the left-wing media doesn’t seem quite as mainstream as it used to be.

    • It seemed to me, not to mean “media with mainstream political opinions guiding it”, but rather “media garnering most viewership”. In either case, your analysis that it isn’t quite as mainstream as it used to be is true, but left-wing media does still garner most viewership and therefore is still “mainstream” in that definition.

  3. This might just be that my window is closer to center on this issue than a lot of conservatives… But looking at the Overton Window there and reading these comments made me think… “Women should be hanged (or otherwise killed) for having an abortion” is obviously not a particularly popular right wing position…. But a whole lot of these people seemed to think that it was still on the table somewhere between the radicals…. That’s not actually true… Is it? I has HAS to be seen as an extreme position, right?

    • Of course it is extreme and seen as extreme, it’s just that conservatives aren’t going to be sent into vapors when someone holds the view. They are even less likely to be sent into vapors when the person holding the view is generally mainstream on all other topics.

      It’s apparently a phenomenal thing to not shut someone out over one oddball opinion.

      And it isn’t out of the ordinary to cry foul when someone is fired for an oddball position when they are mainstream on everything else and haven’t even published that opinion for the person they were fire by.

      Both sides have stupid overreactions, but this is leftist overreaction all day long.

      • First of all, very thorough comment, and congrats on the comment of the day designation. It’s well-deserved.

        I don’t have time to get into all the details of what you wrote at the moment, but I am curious as to where you would draw the lines of which “oddball opinions” should be tolerable by a mainstream publication.

        To take a recent example, is “I’m glad Barbara Bush is dead” an oddball opinion that a publication should tolerate from an otherwise mainstream writer? Granted, Randa Jarrar is already extreme in other ways…but let’s say she weren’t, and let’s say she wrote for a mainstream publication like The Atlantic. Would they be ethically obligated to keep her on? Would they be wrong to fire her?

        • Whatever the employer knows about the soon to be employee and accepts as part of the baggage they agree to tolerate. (Which the Atlantic did in Williamson’s case and then fired him anyway)

          Whatever comes to light that an employer did not know about, apply the Abner Doubleday principle if it is a true conflict with employment.

          Whatever an employee does AFTER hiring that is negative affects the employer, such as what Jarrar did, is up to the employer. After such a firing, whatever future employer might hire her, would decide if that’s baggage they want or not.

        • Did Jarrar start being an asshole before or after she was hired by the Atlantic, and was it generally well known that she was an asshole? If the Atlantic knew she was an asshole, and then when she demonstrated that she was an asshole, do they have any grounds to act surprised or outraged? Legally… Sure, they can fire her for being an asshole (Literally, The Atlantic is HQ’d in Massachusetts, which is an at-will state). Ethically? They got what they knew they were taking on.

        • Jarrar should not be fired for what she said about the Bush family. Nor for her extreme radical views on other topics, until and unless she crossed a line her employer will not stand for.

          She should be fired for the stunt with the phone number, which was irresponsible, selfish, and childish.

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