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):

@_Almaqah

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 http://amzn.to/1osWYDC Niskanen http://tinyurl.com/gpu3rzw 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” Continue reading

When An Apology Proves You’ll Say Anything: Ed Schultz’s Amazing Mea Culpa

"Hey Ed! Your masks are showing!

After MSNBC had announced that it was suspending Ed Schultz for a week without pay for calling conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham a “slut” on his syndicated radio show, its boorish left-wing star delivered an on-air apology. Schultz certainly seemed sincere and contrite, saying solemnly that his “vile and inappropriate language” was wrong and uncalled for.  “I am deeply sorry, and I apologize,” he said. “I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness…It doesn’t matter what the circumstances were. It doesn’t matter that it was on radio and I was ad-libbing. None of that matters. None of that matters. What matters is what I said was terribly vile and not of the standards that I or any other person should adhere to…..And I have been in this business since 1978, and I have made a lot of mistakes. This is the lowest of low for me. I stand before you tonight in front of this camera in this studio in an environment that I absolutely love. I love working here. I love communicating with all of you on the radio and the communication that I have with you when I go out and do town hall meetings and meet the people that actually watch. I stand before you tonight to take full responsibility for what I said and how I said it, and I am deeply sorry.

“My wife is a wonderful woman,” Ed continued, getting emotional. “We have a wonderful family. And with six kids and eight grandkids, I try to set an example. In this moment, I have failed. And I want you to know that I talked to my sons especially about character and about dignity and about the truth. And I tell you the truth tonight that I am deeply sorry and I tell them every day that they have to live up to standards if they want to be a successful human being in life. And I have let them down. I have never been in this position before to the point where it has affected so many people. And I know that I have let a lot of people down…. Continue reading

A Faint Cheer For MSNBC, and A Search for Civility Standards

MSNBC class act Ed Schultz

When I learned that MSNBC’s human hate-machine Ed Schultz had called conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham a “right wing slut” on his syndicated radio show, I wondered if the cable network would take any action. It did, suspending Schultz for one week while issuing a statement that “Remarks of this nature are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”  It’s good that MSNBC has some standards of discourse, however low, though having some one like Schultz on the air dispensing his crude, angry, frequently mistaken and dishonest rants is pretty intolerable as it is. But what does it mean by “of this nature”?

MSNBC’s action does distinguish it from HBO, which took no action at all against Bill Maher when he called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat.” What are we to take from this disparate treatment? That at HBO “dumb twat” is acceptable and will be tolerated?  Apparently so. Is the difference because HBO is a premium channel, and MSNBC is not? That’s a strange definition of “premium”: “HBO, where political commentators can call women twats!” Would “slut” have gotten Maher in trouble? Should Ed have called Ingraham a “twat” instead? Continue reading

Ethical Quote of the Month: President Barack Obama

“You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless.  Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems.  Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.  In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

“For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.  None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.

“So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy.  We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

“But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.  As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.  Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together….

“…If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.  Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents.  And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy (it did not), but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud…”

—- U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking at the memorial event, “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America,” at the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson, Ariz., eloquently and sensitively rejecting partisan and media efforts to exploit the Tucson shootings for political gain, and calling for a unified quest for an end to rancor and violence.

Blood Libel Ethics and the U.S. News Media’s Integrity Dead End

First you make a baseless, inflammatory accusation–the Big Lie. Then you attack your victim for how she responds to it.

The news media’s self-destructive obsession with discrediting Sarah Palin has reached its ethical nadir, and with it any reasonable hope that U.S. journalism, as currently practiced, will be returning to credibility and respectability within the foreseeable future. Continue reading

Ethics Final For Barack Obama

Is President Obama the fair, ethical, unifying, anti-partisan president of all the people that he promised to be in 2008, or is he a Machiavellian, undercover Chicago pol, willing and ready to use divisiveness and deceit to enhance his power, silence critics and advance his agenda? During the past two years, there has been ample evidence supporting both descriptions, but his address in Arizona Wednesday could settle the issue. If the President emulates his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, using the massacre in Arizona as a political wedge the way Clinton used the Oklahoma City bombing—if he adopts the philosophy of former Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emmanuel that one should never waste a crisis—then we will know the dispiriting truth about Barack Obama. Continue reading

Partisan Opportunism: The Media and the Arizona Massacre:

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Federal judge, and 18 others yesterday has exposed media bias and unfairness at its despicable worst. That so many reporters, commentators and bloggers learned of  Arizona parking lot carnage and immediately thought, “Wow, what a chance this is to pin everything on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party!” speaks volumes about the ethics and integrity of America’s journalists. The Daily Beast, for example, began a column this way:

“No motives have emerged from today’s senseless shooting in Tucson, but Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has a long history of being targeted by the Tea Party—sometimes in violent terms.”

Is there a shred, an inkling, a hint or a clue anywhere that the man who did the shooting had anything whatsoever to do with the Tea Party? No. Is there anything at all linking Tea Party rhetoric to his motives for the shooting? No. So how can this paragraph be explained? Easy. The Daily Beast doesn’t like the Tea Party movement, and saw this horrific shooting as an opportunity to discredit it. Continue reading

Joe Scarborough, Sarah Palin, and “No Labels”

Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman and as host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, the token conservative on MSNBC, is a participant in the launching of “No Labels” on December 13 at Columbia University in New York. He will be joined by such political glitterati as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Sen. Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.), former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn), Los Angeles’s Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sen. Deb Stabenow (D-Mich.) and others.
“No Labels” is a primarily centrist-Democrat call for civility in politics, that according to its “Declaration,” written by Mark McKinnon (a former media advisor to George W. Bush in 2000 and Sen. John McCain in 2008, who appears to be a paid consultant rather than a participant), is dedicated to countering partisan deadlock with reason and cooperation.

“We are not labels, we are people,” the screed says.”We believe hyper-partisanship is destroying our politics and paralyzing our ability to govern… We may disagree on issues, but we do so with civility and mutual respect….We have a crisis of governance – a crisis that compels us to work together to move America forward… We must put our labels aside, and put the issues and what’s best for the nation first.”

In preparation for the “No Labels” debut, Scarborough wrote a column for Politico, in which he warned Republicans to stop Sarah Palin before it was too late. In it, he variously described Palin as “anti-intellectual,” “maniacal,” “a reality star,” and “ignorant.” Would it be fair to label  “Morning Joe” as “a hypocrite”?

Continue reading

On Civility

Civility is a core ethical virtue but a tricky one, both to define and to maintain. Peter Wehner has written a superb (and short!) essay on the topic at the Commentary Magazine site, applying it especially to political discourse.

” We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments, ” Wehner writes. Continue reading