The circumstances of The Atlantic’s recent firing of columnist Kevin Williamson make clear that victimhood culture is rapidly spreading beyond university campuses.
Williamson was fired for comments about abortion — comments made in tweets and a podcast before The Atlantic ever hired him. His position, that abortion is murder, is certainly a mainstream position shared by millions of Americans. What is not mainstream is his view that women who have abortions should be subject to the same legal penalties as other murderers — possibly including the death penalty. This is an unpopular opinion that even many pro-lifers find offensive. Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, in explaining why he fired Williamson, called it “callous and violent.”
But to focus too much on the statement itself, and whether or not it’s extreme or offensive, is to miss the point of what’s happening. Williamson isn’t the first columnist to be targeted in this way. Bari Weiss at the New York Times and Megan McArdle at the Washington Post have also faced the wrath of online social justice mobs. And the abortion comments weren’t the only thing of Williamson’s that the mobs were objecting to. It’s just what stuck. As Tom Nichols notes, this is not just a one-time exception.
Or as Rod Dreher writes, “Kevin Williamson’s fate is a bellwether. This is not going to end well, if it ends at all.” Dreher’s point is that the new morality that we’ve so far seen mainly on university campuses won’t stay there. “These norms, he says, “shape the way those rising in the ranks at institutions see the world, and, in turn, shape the world.”
And what are those norms? It’s not the case that Atlantic writers can’t make extreme statements that might offend others. As various people have pointed out since the Williamson firing, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written callously about the police and firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”
Another Atlantic writer, Jessica Valenti, has written that there should be no legal restrictions at all on abortions — not even late term abortions — a position that is also extreme, and which even many pro-choicers would view as a call for legalized murder.
Why is it Williamson, then, whose presence will somehow endanger the staff?
It appears Goldberg's concern that Kevin Williamson's abortion opinions would offend female staffers significantly motivated the firing. Possibly in a "workplace harassment" sense, which seems, uh, worrisome. https://t.co/Q4Iqajl0PQ pic.twitter.com/e1dTnFb9ww
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) April 5, 2018
As Jason Manning and I point out in our book The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the hypersensitivity that is characteristic of victimhood culture is unevenly applied. We must take great care not to offend anyone thought to belong to a victim group. Offending them might even be violence. But we can offend others at will. For example, the concept of microaggressions has become popular on university campuses recently, but not everyone can be the victim of a microaggression:
Most slights or insults, whether real or imagined, are never labeled microaggressions. Recognizing only some of them as such privileges some victims over others. Opponents of affirmative action might be as offended as its supporters upon hearing someone disagree with them, but it is “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and not “I believe employers should make ethnic diversity a goal in hiring decisions” that the University of California (2014) calls a microaggression. Likewise the examples suggest that only women or various minorities, such as blacks, Asians, Latinos, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, can be victims of microaggression, though it is surely possible for men to experience slights based on their sex or for whites to experience slights based on their ethnicity. Even some minority groups, such as Mormons or evangelical Christians, are notably absent from the lists of possible victims…. Whether an act is a microaggression depends not only on how it is perceived, but on who perceives themselves as being wronged by whom. (9-10)
As this logic spreads from the universities to mainstream publications like The Atlantic, conservatives come to be seen as toxic. If the idea is that offensive speech can be violent, their very presence is dangerous. But this seldom applies to leftists. They have the right to offend, as well as the right not to be offended. Of course, the new culture of victimhood is not yet dominant even at the universities, and we’re only just beginning to see it elsewhere. But as at the universities, adherents of the new culture can still triumph when those who are in power respond to their outrage.
Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg is certainly not an adherent of victimhood culture. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Goldberg was defending his hire of Williamson and arguing for a vision of The Atlantic that would allow for people to disagree and to offend. Jonathan Haidt was ready to start buying gift subscriptions:
Here is the most exciting vision for a magazine of ideas that I have ever seen, from @JeffreyGoldberg, about @TheAtlantic. Diversity is good, purity rules are not. I'll start buying gift subscriptions today. https://t.co/DcnUjV0iM1 pic.twitter.com/KAElnAeCUz
— Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) March 31, 2018
And Goldberg holds views that many of those calling for Williamson’s firing would likely find just as “callous and violent” as Goldberg now finds Williamson’s views. Here Glenn Greenwald points to some of his transgressions:
As a war hawk and strong supporter of Israel, Goldberg could easily be the target of a leftist mob himself. Perhaps he will be. And ultimately, this might be what leads Goldberg and others to push back.
As Michael Brendan Doughtery asks, if The Atlantic and others begin outsourcing their HR work online mobs, “who can stand?”
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