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Kevin Williamson Is Not a Free Speech Martyr

Just so we’re clear, this is how a hanging works. A gallows is erected, frequently in public. The rope is either long or short. With a long rope, the condemned person drops a certain distance and, at the bottom, her neck is snapped. This is quick and presumably relatively painless – if it works. With a short rope, or a rope not long enough, the person simply dangles by the neck from a loop that constricts her airway and blood vessels. Her hands are bound, so she cannot grasp at the rope. When the instinct to struggle sets in, she flails with her whole body, while she finds herself unable to breathe and while blood is cut off from her head, all of this happening with the force of her own weight cinching the rope more tightly around her neck. Eventually she will pass out, and then die; but first she will likely experience great terror, and probably a fair amount of pain.

The short-rope strangulation is the sort that is used in the common lynching, where the disfavored person is hoisted by the rope as it is pulled over a tree branch. Afterwards, the mob that lynched her will often pose for pictures. The numerous judicial hangings in Iran are accomplished in a similar fashion, but with a rope hoisted by a piece of construction equipment.

Either way, there is the dread that must be experienced by most people as they await and then head to their executions, as the hood and then the noose are placed over their heads, and they stand on the gallows knowing their life is about to end. I find myself empathetic with all but the worst victims of hanging. Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands and tortured more than could be counted; I don’t care that he was hanged. But on the other end of the spectrum, the people who were innocent – the condemned women of Salem, the many black targets of lynching, perhaps Mary Surratt – trouble me greatly.

Which brings me to Kevin Williamson. Williamson has argued, more than once, that women who have abortions should be hanged. Just among my loved ones, there are several women I know who have had abortions, and probably many others. It is nauseating to think about them undergoing this kind of death. Williamson must also know women who’ve had abortions. If he doesn’t know that he knows such women, he has only to do the math. He then needs to imagine some of the women he knows and loves spending their last moments dreading their deaths, and then being strangled by their own weight at the end of a rope. If he has not pondered the worst consequences of his stated policies and beliefs, then he is not intellectually serious.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume he has carefully considered the ramifications of his stated position, and that he is earnestly proposing that women who have abortions should be hanged. Are we required to treat this as a legitimate view deserving of an audience and a debate? Or are we allowed to conclude that Kevin Williamson is a callous fanatic?

Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic and Williamson’s would-be boss, had convinced himself that Williamson’s first utterance of this policy during a Twitter exchange was a kind of provocation or trolling. Williamson’s decision to delete his Twitter account during the hiring process, Goldberg went on, was “a positive development and a sign of growth” (Williamson is 45, but I suppose it’s never too late to grow). Goldberg claims not to have known that Williamson reiterated his position in a podcast. Upon learning this, he grilled Williamson on the matter, and then fired him.

In a memo, Goldberg explained that, “The language [Williamson] 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.”

In a partial defense, Cathy Young concluded that Williamson “explicitly disavows” the hanging of women for abortions by pointing to a speech he gave at Hillsdale College in which he says: “I am generally against capital punishment, I am generally against abortion, I am always against ex-post-facto punishment, and always against lynching, I think.” The careful distinction Williamson makes here between “generally” and “always” suggests that when he says “generally,” he actually means “usually,” rather than “universally.” In which case, the only thing I hear Williamson disavowing is the retroactive application of this penalty. His ‘disavowal’ pointedly refers to “women who have had abortions,” and not “women who have abortions.” This translates to: “I am not going to hang you for getting an abortion in the past, I’m just going to hang every woman in the future who does the exact same thing you did.”) Most women will understand that this is a meaningless distinction as far as morality goes. Williamson wants to hang women for abortions; he’s just going to give them fair warning.

I’ve heard nothing to suggest that this policy is purely instrumental, as opposed to retributive. But what if it were? What are we to make of someone who does not believe that certain women deserve to be hanged, but is willing to hang some of them anyway to stop women like them from committing what he sees as a greater evil?

If I thought Williamson might be making a joke – albeit in terrible taste – I’d be more sympathetic; irony is valuable and nothing should be off-limits. But at some point during a firing process it is probably a good idea to admit it was a joke, even at the expense of spoiling it. If Williamson was joking, he was so committed to the bit that he wouldn’t even acknowledge it to save his new job. No one seems to be using the humor defense on Williamson’s behalf, either. The closest they’ll come is that he was trolling – deliberately provoking his opponents with a statement not necessarily representative of his actual beliefs. Yet Goldberg, who originally defended Williamson on those grounds, now reports that his own private conversations with Williamson have convinced him that Williamson was serious. If these are the only two possibilities, it doesn’t matter which one is true. Either Williamson is serious, in which case he is barbaric and doesn’t belong at the Atlantic, or he is trolling, in which case he is intellectually unserious and doesn’t belong at the Atlantic.

I’m of the view that no one actually believes that abortion is murder, because no one actually believes that an embryo is the equivalent of a human. This can be illustrated using the following thought experiment (which is not my own): A fire breaks out in an in-vitro clinic and you only have time to rescue either an infant or a box containing 100 embryos. Whichever you don’t take with you will perish in the fire. If an embryo is a person, then obviously you will take the embryos, because saving 100 persons is better than saving merely one. But, of course, no one would choose to save the embryos over a living baby, because we understand there is a clear difference between the two. You might try to score points for logical consistency by insisting you would save the embryos, but in the moment, you know better. You know what a person is, and you save the only other person in the room.

On the whole, abortion opponents – including most social conservatives – understand this. So, they will say that abortion is murder, but they also understand that punishing a woman for abortion as if it were murder is reprehensible. They will claim that abortion is murder, but will usually allow exceptions for rape or child rape, on the understanding that it would be heartless to force a rape victim or a child to give birth. If they were logically consistent, they would prohibit these abortions, too. You can’t murder someone because his father is a bad person. But that position ignores the humanity of the mother.

Many of the reactions to this controversy reveal a misunderstanding of the job Williamson and others in his position are employed to do. Despite the language used to describe public commentary, Williamson was hired as a thinker, not a writer; yes, he is supposed to write well, but only as a means of communicating thoughts worth reading. All the praise for Williamson’s writing ability suggests that we’d be equally happy to read a well-written defense of Nazism or slavery, and we all know that is not the case – not in the Atlantic, not in National Review, not in anything. Women who have had abortions – and there are millions of them – are entitled to know that we consider their mass extermination equally out of bounds.  Apparently, that is not yet the case.

So like St. Paul … I will be an apostle to the Gentiles. I am very much looking forward to raising a brand new kind of hell.

This quote, from Williamson’s valediction at National Review, clearly acknowledges that the Atlantic’s readers are not Williamson’s own people – namely, conservatives. Even in context, these words give the impression of a person with a smug attitude towards those who don’t agree with him. It certainly supports the view of Williamson as a self-identified troublemaker who loves tweaking the squares. Of course, that is how you recruit fanboys, not how you win converts, and unless Williamson shares values with the Atlantic crowd beyond an antipathy to Trump – and it seems he does not – it’s hard to see how he intended to convert them. It must have delighted those who do share values with Williamson to imagine him stalking the pages of the Atlantic, throwing rhetorical bombs and generally wrecking the place. Take that, coastal elites.

Still, the defense of Williamson – or, at least, the insistence that it was wrong to fire him – has been strange coming from other conservatives, and from libertarians. The libertarians, who have included Young, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Robby Soave, and Conor Friedersdorf, naturally favor free debate and Williamson’s right to say whatever he wants. But I would expect that view to be balanced by a belief in the Atlantic’s right to print only what it wants, Atlantic Media’s right to hire and fire whomever it wants, and, above all, the right of a woman to do what she wants with her own body without being killed by the state.

Since the only thing at stake here is whether Williamson should be paid to work at the Atlantic, I cannot fathom why so many thought this was worth manning the barricades. Friedersdorf, an Atlantic colleague, claims to be just as appalled by Williamson’s position as other critics, but objects to his firing anyway, as if to say that, yes, hanging women for abortions is revolting, but what really threatens society is the way this guy was treated on social media. (Friedersdorf also believes critics need to grapple with the fact that Williamson is the result of an unplanned pregnancy. I look forward to the new libertarian position that personal responsibility counts for nothing and that we are all just the products of circumstance.)

Conservatives should have a different incentive to let Williamson go. Social conservatives who oppose abortion have generally been insistent, at least publicly and institutionally, that women should never be punished for it, much less put to death; recall their appalled reaction to neophyte anti-abortion advocate Donald Trump proposing penalties during the 2016 campaign. If they want that impression to survive, then Williamson is a terrible symbol for their movement and a terrible spokesman for their brand. But the full-throated protest over his firing has allowed him to become both. Social conservatives grousing that one of their kind is unwelcome in the pages of the Atlantic should be aware of what they are proclaiming their kind to be. A conservative like David Frum fits in well at the Atlantic and his columns have produced no such firestorm. But there’s a fundamental difference between Frum’s heterodox views on immigration and the Iraq War, and Willamson’s view that women who have abortions should not be allowed to continue living.

Williamson’s former colleague at National Review, David French, also a former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sees in the Atlantic a neutral national institution that should, like the universities French once worked with, serve as a center of free inquiry. So long as writers or scholars can first clear an unspecified threshold for intellect and ethics, they should enjoy maximum freedom to say what they want without fear or repercussion:

Of course, most universities in the US are public institutions funded by taxpayers and governed by the First Amendment; the Atlantic is not. French apparently doesn’t consider Williamson’s support for hanging women a failure of either intellect or ethics. And French arbitrarily exempts his own employer from the standards of impartiality he demands of the Atlantic; National Review can enforce an ideological standard, but the Atlantic cannot. But what is the point of NR’s ideological standard? National Review caters to a specific audience; this is in fact the business model of any media outlet. French is insisting that the Atlantic cannot take business concerns – audience preferences or possible audience attrition – into account when staffing and publishing, but must act in the public interest. French must realize that the Atlantic is not supported financially by conservatives. It is supported by the political center and the Left. There seems to be an assumption embedded in this view that the center-Left must offer even-handed analysis while the Right should be free to publish partisan polemics.

Williamson’s defenders, like Friedersdorf, have sometimes painted a picture of his critics trawling his every word looking for something incriminating with which to assassinate him. There was no need for that, though. As a provocateur, Williamson often generated controversy in real time, including with his abortion tweets. For example, he notoriously described a black child thus:

He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high …

Williamson claimed innocence on the inclusion of the historically-loaded fraction. And speaking about economically depressed, predominantly white small towns, he wrote the following:

Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence – and the incomprehensible malice – of poor white America. … The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.

Such statements, whether you would condemn them or not, were not issued in stealth. It’s far more reasonable to suppose that his critics didn’t have to scrounge around for ammunition.  Hanging women for abortion is the kind of thing that some people – women, let’s say – remember.

There’s a strong suggestion in all of this that Williamson’s firing is the triumph of political correctness or liberal intolerance – that civil discourse requires an open mind and a welcoming spirit of inquiry, and that the political Left, which preaches such things, has failed badly in this instance and shown the most blatant hypocrisy. That point of view is, to be blunt, rubbish. It is the cheapest manipulation to invoke tolerance in defense of someone who advocates the gruesome execution of a sizable fraction of our society. How tolerant is hanging, exactly? Of course, Williamson’s defenders could point out that the women in question are taking physical actions, and he is just talking. Those women might justifiably note in return that they have only advocated that he lose his job. He is advocating that they lose their lives. He is arguing that they, let me say it again, be strangled at the end of a rope.

Williamson is free to advocate for anything he chooses. That was true before he was hired by the Atlantic, it was true during his short time there, and it remains true now. No one is calling for his prosecution, which by itself distinguishes Williamson from his critics. But there was an opportunity cost to Williamson’s job at the Atlantic. He was to be given money and an awful lot of page space, and both of those things are finite. Every dollar and column-inch could have gone to someone else, and given our current media market, it’s not possible to believe, knowing what we now know of him, that they could not have gone to someone more deserving. It is perverse to say that, having mistakenly offered money and space to Williamson, the Atlantic was bound to give him both in perpetuity. His hiring was a mistake; his firing is easily defensible. If his family must now pick food from trash cans, perhaps Atlantic Media owes him some financial support, but under no circumstances should our pity extend to his place in the pages of the Atlantic. That’s neither an entitlement nor something he can’t live without.

For all the gusto to produce the definitive contrarian take, no one has yet offered a convincing case that the Atlantic’s readers should put up with Williamson’s cold, murderous contempt for so many of them, in preference to someone else it could be publishing. The readers of Quillette despise an online mob, I’m sure. But Kevin Williamson wasn’t the victim of an online mob. He was the victim, if he can even be called that, of his own extremism. He stated his view, repeated it, defended it, passed up every chance to explain or renounce it, and was then fired for it, and from a job in which an employee’s views are the actual work product. He should never have been hired. But, having been hired, it is far better that he was fired quickly than allowed to continue a career as a thinker, that was given to him without realizing what kind of thinker he is.

Featured Pic: Norma McCorvey (‘Jane Roe’) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989


O. T. Ford is a generalist and an analyst of world affairs. He has a PhD in geography (world culture and politics) from UCLA. You can follow him on Twitter @ot_ford


  1. Aleph says

    Annoying, utterly tasteless, irrelevant stupid piece of junk.

    1) there is no need here to describe torture with ugly and bizarre fascination.

    2) the free speech issue should be considered within the appropriate frame, and in these regards alone. Is it OK for a newspaper to give someone the sack for some reason? Is the alleged reason to sack KW one of them? Apart from his workplace issue, is it possible that KW infriged a regulation? If no, ins’t he protected by the 1st amendement?

    3) never occured to anyone KW might be sickingly joking? In France, we had a famous man saying that since the socialists were for same sex-marriage, he would love them to have it, so that they stop reproducing and become extinct. Does he qualify for some kind of mass-extinction apology?

    Probably the worst angry thing read on Quillette. Please read Benjamin Constant on poltics and civil intolerance.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      Aleph’s three points are weak, weaker and weakest. I’ll just address 1):

      Anti-abortion advocates love to show pictures of aborted fetuses to support their position, and that is OK, if somewhat tasteless. Gruesome or shocking details CAN move public opinion.

      Given all that, why shouldn’t opponents of capital punishment, or opponents of police use of military tactics, etc. also employ shock and revulsion as tactics to win arguments? It’s not like this whole article was full of graphic detail.

      • Aleph says

        Thank you for insisting that we have here a piece using emotional upseting tricks as opposed to reason. It’s not the habit on Quillette. It’s not good for public debate between grown ups trying to reach understanding.

        Moreover, ends do not justify means, and it’s not beacuse A did this that you can felle entitled to do it as well. That’s narrow-minded and devoid of empathy and ethics.

    • This could well be irrelevant, stupid junk; I’m a biased judge. However:

      1) If hanging is torture, then perhaps Williamson shouldn’t propose it as a criminal penalty. If something -is- to be a criminal penalty, we should understand it for what it is.

      2) Kevin Williamson is, indeed, protected by the First Amendment. That part of the US Constitution protects him from government restraint on his speech, as it should. It does not force the Atlantic to employ him.

      3) The way you can tell that it -did- occur to someone — namely me — that Williamson might be joking is the fact that I explicitly discuss this possibility in the article.

  2. Aleph,
    1) Serious examination of KW’s ideas means looking at what the ideas impact in reality. Killing people by hanging is the position. Is it possible that you find KW’s actual ideas ugly?
    2) Yes. Yes. No. No.
    3) It’s possible, but KW has repeatedly refused to call it as such. Take KW at his word. Take his word seriously.

    Now if KW was ‘joking’, then perhaps he’d like to make a ‘serious’ case for his position at some point. Because I don’t think the media market is paying for ‘jokes’ of this caliber these days.

    • Pizza Pete says

      “Taking his word seriously” and generating outrage is easier and more satisfying than interpreting what he said as a rhetorical device and engaging with his ideas. But that doesn’t mean that the former is better to do than the latter.

    • Aleph says

      “3) It’s possible, but KW has repeatedly refused to call it as such. Take KW at his word. Take his word seriously.”

      My point was in deed: if he had been joking, and would have said the exact same thing, your reaction would have been different because you judge intentions, not statements or facts.

      I listen to the album Kill ’em all by Metallica and would love to hug drummer Lars Ulrich. Therefore, I would not try to protest the use of the words “kill ’em all” alone. I would protest more specific and dangerous a statement.


      I should have added that people protesting him were welcome to do so, and protesting his ideas is the good thing to do. However, smearing a man and exercing pressure on his employer to have him fired is not debatting, its killing debate, except if the guy holds a teaching position and propagated his thesis while paid by taxpayers’ money.

      I agree with what Sebastian wrote below.

  3. “…the people who were innocent – the condemned women of Salem.”

    And what of the condemned men of Salem? Especially Giles Corey who was crushed to death over three days. I know the majority of people executed for witchcraft were women, but a substantial number of men were among the victims.

    • Also, 38 states have laws that make the killing of a fetus, for example in a motor vehicle accident, either murder or manslaughter. Massachusetts and California are amongst the 38 states.

      Mr Ford should have taken that into consideration as well.

      That being said, Williamson is a misanthropic snob who fancies himself to be our contemporary HL Menken. Any publisher should be free to fire such a person for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.

  4. Pizza Pete says

    There’s a lot to unpack here, as the kids say.

    First, the decisions made in the intro and what the desired effect is: a pro-life response could similarly go through step by step what’s involved in a mid-trimester abortion. I’m not sure that that gets us any closer getting at the issue thoughtfully, but yay for turning up the volume.

    Second, Kevin Williamson wants to hang your loved ones? Also not a fan of the dramatic rhetorical turn of making it about you. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not interested in performative identity politics, but this gets awfully close.

    Third, setting up the straw man. “If he has not pondered the worst consequences of his stated policies and beliefs, then he is not intellectually serious. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume he has carefully considered the ramifications of his stated position…” Williamson isn’t arguing for a policy of hanging women. His belief is that abortion is murder. Actual murder. If you’re familiar with his writing he comes back to it again and again. He was born and adopted edging up to Roe v. Wade and has stated repeatedly that he prefers his life to being dismembered in utero.

    Fourth, you actually ascribe what Williamson’s point is to Williamson but then negate it: “I’m of the view that no one actually believes that abortion is murder, because no one actually believes that an embryo is the equivalent of a human.” No. Wrong. This is what Williamson actually believes and he wants others to think through the moral implications of this. Not meeting him on his terms is disingenuous. As someone myself who is tepidly pro-choice, I don’t ultimately agree with equating abortion to murder. But the fact that we allow dismemberment of 23 week fetuses but rush 24 week neonates to the NICU is a morally queasy and uncomfortable fact. And Williamson’s critique, that pro-lifers say they believe life begins at conception and don’t follow through as morally forcefully as they should, that abortion is murderous and not merely distasteful, is an argument that bears consideration even if you’re against it.

    Fifth, as a counterpoint to your thought experiment let’s try something with less technological artifice. Say you could prevent one six-month old from being poisoned to death versus 100 pregnant women with 8 month gestations being poisoned and having their fetuses die but not die themselves. Is your decision to save the six month old? Is it as easy a decision?

    Sixth, this: ” They… will usually allow exceptions for rape or child rape, on the understanding that it would be heartless to force a rape victim or a child to give birth. If they were logically consistent, they would prohibit these abortions, too. ” No, this is not true. Many pro-life advocates feel that rape or incest shouldn’t allow one to have an abortion.

    Seventh, ah, the inevitable comparison if not to Hitler then Nazis.

    Eighth: again if you’re argument is as strong as you think it is why resort to this construct of pretending not to understand someone’s argument to find maximal offense in it? It’s bad faith. Williamson is a libertarian who is deeply distrustful of the government doing anything, much less hanging women. His point is: consider whether a fetus is a life. If you believe it is abortion is murderous, and we are morally obligated to act differently than we are. “Hang ’em” is a rhetorical device to prompt the reader to think things through. So what we’re really maligning Williamson for is not what he thinks, but a device that he uses.

    I could go on, but I’ll just sum up that this project of trying to shrink the Overton is doomed to failure. Williamson is a brilliant writer and an interesting thinker albeit with some rough and unpleasant edges. As someone who has read everything he’s written for NR over the past few years, the nastiest things he’s had to say are about working class whites. But none of this should disqualify him from working for the Atlantic, and there’s a very good case that Williamson is less objectionable than and morally preferable to a Ta-Nehisi Coates whose racialist musings align best with Richard Spencer. Williamson is a person you want in the conversation and at the end of the day the Atlantic is poorer for its decision.

    • Sebastian says


      You summed it up beautifully here. This piece has to be one of the worst I have read on Quillette, and one of the most tone-deaf pieces I’ve read in years. Your dissection of it was wonderfully done.

    • Bill says

      The author goes to great lengths to vilify Williamson due to his use of the rhetorical “hang-em” and likely would have done the same if Williamson had said “shoot them” or “give them the electric chari” or “lethal injection.” A nice graphic description of the “torture” of the death sentence mechanism would have been substituted in. As you point out the “no body believes … it’s murder” presents the whole point of the author. The “I disagree with Williamson so i’ll throw every slanderous label at him I can and justify it by microscopically examining every rhetorical device of speech.”

      Apply that to the Left. So you do NOT buy into the spin/excuse of the Media and you DO believe HRC views 49% of the American populace as deplorable? You do believe HRC’s statement that married women simply vote for whomever their husbands told them to vote for? You do believe the view of Antifa that conservatives should be assaulted and battered at any opportunity they attempt to speak? My how vile you are! Do you goose-step around campus and always wear a brown shirt?

      (In the above, “you” is third person and not directed at Ford or Pizza Pete — you know, rhetorical speak, lest someone decide to use this same twisted logic of this piece against me!)

  5. Even as someone on the pro-life side, I’m sympathetic to most of this piece. Williamson’s views on hanging women for having abortions are beyond the pale, and it’s an embarrassment that he’s now the pro-life poster child of the day.

    Williamson’s case is one example of many of why the stock appeal to free speech to justify publication of whatever doesn’t work, though I’d consider him to be one of the less extreme cases when compared to someone like Richard Spencer. Almost no one (I assume) would be willing to approve, say, a campus speaker who advocated trying to increase the number of school shootings per year, or re-enacting the Holocaust, no matter how well-spoken he might be.* But if someone isn’t willing to countenance one of those extreme scenarios, then he cannot really believe in freedom of speech as an absolute good, and thus has to actually do the work of defending individual provocateurs on a case-by-case basis. A society committed to free speech should err on the side of leniency, and there may be gray areas, but that’s hardly a prescription for “anything goes.”

    I also can’t quite understand why it’s seen as so absolutely imperative that newspapers try to have a “fair and balanced” panel of columnists. It’s good for the staff writers to not live in a monochrome homogeneity of one ideology, but is it really necessary to have an ideological quota? Newspapers and magazines, in general, have a point of view. There’s nothing problematic about a publication choosing to primarily hire people who represent that point of view, within certain degrees of freedom.

    A somewhat off-topic addendum – the thought-experiment passage of this article was the only section that was inexcusably bad. You are aware, aren’t you, that pro-lifers have addressed this and similar arguments before? I certainly wouldn’t infer it from your passing over possible replies in silence. If you’re going to accuse ~40% of the U.S. population of manifest intellectual dishonesty, perhaps you should acknowledge what they actually say to avoid the same charge against yourself. The parallel argument can easily be made by replacing frozen embryos with octogenarians in permanent comas. Practically everyone would still save the baby. No one would infer that old and comatose people aren’t human.

    * As a caveat, I am not suggesting that Williamson or even Spencer are on the same level with someone who advocated a second Holocaust; I’m just using a limiting case as a thought experiment.

    • Pizza Pete says

      Would you consider the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ enthusiastic racialism closer to Richard Spencer?

    • Sebastian says

      Spencer, I think it’s fascinating that you have set yourself up as the gatekeeper of free speech advocates. I want to address your lovely use of the No True Scotsman. So, if I say I am an advocate of free speech as an absolute good, then I have to support people advocating a second holocaust?

      Well, I’ll tell you this much: I will defend the rights of any provocateur to speak his or her mind, no matter how disgusting or dangerous I find the content. Barring speech which violates the “clear and present danger” doctrine, I would support the rights of any extremist to speak. The cure for speech we do not like is not censorship or “no-platforming” (i.e. the system of protesting and threatening an announced public speaking event until it is cancelled…think the various instances of this on college campuses). The cure is more speech, better speech.

      So, yes, I will defend Williamson here. I will also defend the Atlantic, and Williamson’s critics, and those who are protesting the Atlantic, and everyone else with an opinion. No one has acted inappropriately here, in my mind. Though I find Williamson’s views disgusting, he has every right to hold and espouse them. The Atlantic, in turn, has every right not to let him use their magazine for that purpose.

    • Jessie says

      On the free speech argument: I’m not sure where you got the idea that most free speech advocates would be unwilling to approve speakers advocating various atrocities on a public campus. At any rate, the law certainly would not give them the right to do so. The law requires content neutrality, so if a recognized student group invited such a speaker the school could not withhold approval based on his viewpoint. (And advocating violence in a general way is not going to fall within the very narrow definition of incitement.) Would a school wish to prohibit such a speaker? Most likely, and I’m sure school officials would search for pretextual ways to do so.

      But don’t assume those who advocate for free speech do not mean exactly what they say. Most understand that any liberty right will come with irresponsible and harmful uses of that liberty. That such bad use is inevitable is why such broad categorical protection is given to only a few fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, which we have deemed to be of monumental importance. But the case of Williamson is not one of legal free speech; it’s an issue of the bounds of culturally-acceptable opinions, or of media norms, or of editorial control over writers’ opinions expressed outside of the employer’s own pages, or of internet mobs targeting individuals on the basis of select utterings.

      On the diverse voices of columnists, I think the difference is what the newspaper is aiming to be. Some newspapers exist as a vehicle for a specific perspective. They will publish the range of opinions within that perspective. Others, such as the Atlantic, bill themselves as a broader range of perspectives across the spectrum. It is in the context of its self-selected diversity-of-opinions standard that the decision to fire Williamson is being judged.

  6. Sebastian says

    This seems like a very long-winded, emotional-appeal-filled, way of saying nothing. Williamson had every right to say what he did. The people who called his firing had every right to do so. The Atlantic had every right to fire him. People who are calling out the Atlantic for firing him have every right to do that, as well.

    So, tell me, where is there a problem?

    Sure, Williamson’s rhetoric was extreme, but what he said is really beside the point. Not a single actor in this situation has had their rights trampled upon or curtailed. This entire fiasco is really just a bunch of people tilting at windmills.

    One side wants to scream that Williamson should never hold another job again as long as he lives because he hurt their feelings. Remember, he said he would hang women who commit abortion if he had his way. He doesn’t have his way. He won’t ever have his way. So, really, all his extreme point of view amounts to is a rather distasteful way of saying he considers abortion to be murder. That is hardly an extremist view, no matter how he phrased it.

    The other side wants to scream that the editors of The Atlantic should be burned in effigy for being hypocrites. They rant and rail that the editors promised an intellectually diverse staff and then fired Williamson for being intellectually divergent from their standard. While that may be hypocritical of them, it overly simplifies the fact that the Atlantic is a business and needs to make money, something that Williamson’s rhetoric put at risk.

    All I am seeing in this debate is one side or the other lambasting the opposing viewpoints while getting righteously indigent when their own viewpoints are similar held up to scrutiny. Remember, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. None of the primary actors in this situation have done anything wrong, none of them have had their freedom of speech threatened, and none of them should feel the need to justify their stance or actions further.

    • Pizza Pete says

      “So, tell me, where is there a problem?”

      The problem is that Williamson was chased out by a social media lynch mob not that specific rights were violated.

      • Sebastian says

        So, the problem is that people used their rights to protest something he did while exercising his own rights? Again, what’s the problem?

        • ThereAreDozensOfUs says

          I think the problem Williamson supporters have is more the impetus behind his firing. Whilst it is 100% accurate to say that the guardian didn’t act illegally (and you certainly made a good case that they didn’t even act immorally – even changing my mind on some aspects) the issue that some people having is that he was fired by the editor to save face. The Atlantic merely didn’t want to be associated with a dissenting viewpoint and ditched him. The editor knew full well his stance, and was fine enough with it that he even hired him, but the second there was a sniff that that his tenure might prove compromising he was shown the door. I think the cowardice of the act sticks in peoples teeth, more than anything.

          • ThereAreDozensOfUs says

            *The Atlantic – not the Guardian. Don’t know where that came from.

        • Bill says

          I’d wonder if this skirts the tortious interference area of law. I’m certain Williamson had an employment contract at the time of the job offer. He likely made life choices (move, quit prior job, who knows) based upon that contract. The outside actors then interfered in the execution of that contract. The problem with the lynch mob is you can’t sue all the members to recover the damages. That is what this was, a lynch mob.

          Would you be equally ok with people using their rights to protest say….to pressure banks to NOT conduct business with Planned Parenthood the way they are firearms sellers? What would your reaction be if major, national banks came out publicly with policies stating that they would no longer do business with corporations who played any role in abortion?

          Once you acquiesce to the concept of a mob lynching of someone whom holds views you find “deplorable” you must recognize that you are not, in fact, a believer and advocate of free speech. So, now that we have shown you aren’t for free speech, you clearly should have no issue if President Trump were to pull the FCC licenses for the “news” stations and to change libel laws so that the Federal Gov’t could sue into oblivion all the print media, or raid them and demand they identify all their “anonymous sources” or use FISA warrants like Obama did to uncover who’s leaking.

          No freedom of speech means no freedom of press. Please sit down and stop yelling ‘FASCIST’ as a slur since you have demonstrated you agree with Fascist policies.

          • Sebastian says

            Bill, I don’t know if you are replying to me or to not, since you did not mention a name. I assume it is me you meant that comment for, but if not then please correct me.

            That said, I have to utterly reject the premise you are building part of your argument on. You state that you have shown that I am not an advocate of free speech, which is merely pseudo-intellectual twaddle. You built a slippery slope argument on a strawman foundation. Your argument falls apart from the get-go.

            I have no problems with people protesting banks who hold the accounts for the NRA or firearms sellers, even though I do support both of those groups. I would have no problems with people protesting banks who hold the accounts for Planned Parenthood, either. The same can be said for any organization, cause, political party, religious organization, or the like. Protesting is a cornerstone of free speech.

            In the end, it comes down to a cost/benefit analysis on the part of the person/group being protested against. Is it better to acquiesce to the demands of the protesters, or would fighting, or even ignoring, them be a more palatable option? They are free actors and, provided they operate within the confines of the laws for their industry, are free to act as they deem fit. Remember, operating within the confines of the laws and regulations of an industry is key here, something your argument overlooks.

            Take your firearms sellers analogy, for example. I support firearms sellers, though I don’t own a gun. I support the rights of people to purchase a firearm if they want one, even though I do not ever want to own a gyn. I even support people protesting banks who do business with firearms sellers. Though I don’t agree with their protest, I agree that they have the right to protest. Now, if a bank were to give in to them and no longer do business with firearms retailers or the NRA, I would make sure I did not do business with that bank. That is how freedom of speech, and support of freedom of speech, works. You are free to speak, protest, and do business with whomever you wish. I, in turn, am free to call out your speech, counter-protest against you, and cease to do business with you if I don’t care for your speech.

            Now, as for the FCC example you pulled out…well, since that was built on the faulty premise that I am not a supporter of free speech, we can reject it out of hand. Clearly, there would be a serious issue with the FCC (independently or at the direction of the president) pulling licences for airing legal content. Why you thought I would support that, or why you even brought that up, I don’t know. Remember, acting within the confines of the laws and regulations of the industry is key here.

            Look, it is quite simple. It is very possible to support free speech without supporting the content of that speech. It is easy to fight for a person’s rights to protest even while you think the subject of their protest is ludicrous. Remember the old adage, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

          • Bill says

            It wouldn’t let me reply to Sebastian below — my use of “you” was intended as third person not you directly and I apologize for the confusion; however, your explanation below is flawed.

            “That is how freedom of speech, and support of freedom of speech, works. You are free to speak, protest, and do business with whomever you wish. I, in turn, am free to call out your speech, counter-protest against you, and cease to do business with you if I don’t care for your speech.” — tell that to the numerous Christian bakers and flowershops put out of business due to fines and lawsuits. You are, in fact, NOT free to cease to do business with others in all cases which was the point I was attempting to illustrate. Anyone who is “free speech” should believe as you do, that you can pick and choose who you do business with (bi directional). It’s the libertarian/classic liberal definition of Free Speech. I agree with it as well. I am pro-choice (not the same as pro-abortion) but I have no issue with protests of abortion clinics nor do I have problems with women choosing abortion. The problem arises when a corporate entity, versus individual, is in play. Banks can refuse to serve gun sellers. Ok, I can stop using that bank…. Why is that different than a Bank refusing to serve minority owned businesses? What about a cake baker refusing to service a gay wedding? Or maybe a jewish deli refusing to cater a Neo-Nazi meeting? A minority owned catering service refusing to provide service (and servers) at a KKK rally? A church refusing to allow a pagan group to use its facility on Halloween for a celebration?

            All the above SHOULD be permitted refusals if free speech existed, but it doesn’t as we allow more and more protected groups. The problem is simply that those not in the protected groups are now vocalizing the bias in the selection of who is protected and who is not. In the current atmosphere, a vast majority of the protected groups are on the left and few (if any) on the right. So the perspective is that it is perfectly ok to discriminate based upon politics and free-speech is reserved for the Left where, for example Randa Jarrar’s tweet about Barbara Bush is accepted/cheered/would never be used to disinvite her, while Reverend Kevin Johnson was disinvited from speaking at his alma-mater’s graduation because he penned an op-ed critical of then President Obama.

          • Sebastian says


            I agree with you that there is a difference between “should” and “can.” I, too, feel that any business should have the right to decide who to take on as a customer and who not to. But, as I pointed out, today they must do so within the confines of the laws and regulations governing their business.

            What you said a post or two back about banks and gun sellers/Planned Parenthood represents a perfect example of the practical vs. theoretical. On a practical standpoint, there are numerous laws in place which restrict businesses (banks included) from being able to deny service to a person or group based on political ideology. However, on a theoretical level, if a bank could deny gun sellers then they should have the right to deny Planned Parenthood, and I would support that right regardless of the ideology of the denied customer.

            In a symbolic sense, spending and receiving money is speech. If I choose to shop at Target (for example), then I am implying my agreement with (or, at least, passive acceptance of) their corporate policies and actions. Who I choose to do business with is tantamount to acceptance of their speech or policies. I don’t see why it should be the other way around for businesses, as you said.

            I think it’s interesting you bring up the Randa Jarrar incident (as I just learned about it about an hour ago). I think it behooves Fresno State to (as much as they can, legally) distance themselves from her and her style of speech. It doesn’t reflect well on them, their ability to choose rational faculty, or their ability to be entrusted with the education of future generations. How much they can distance themselves, really, is hard to say. As a state actor (since it is a public university), they are bound my stricter first amendment protections than a private employer would be. But, to say that she is only cheered and celebrated for what she said is a misrepresentation of the event. There has been quick and severe backlash against her, and she may soon find her employment situation with Fresno State altered. “Tenure” does not mean protection from everything.

            Free speech is a foundational right of civilization. Without it, little else matters. However, being free to speak does not mean one is free of consequences. Williamson discovered there were consequences to his speech, and Jarrar may soon be on the receiving end of the same consequences.

  7. I’m loathe to toss around the word ‘martyr’ flippantly, but Williamson’s crime is that he was honest and blunt about what politics boils down to. Obviously supporting the death penalty is polarizing, but just about every major columnists and mainstream politician wants the same sort of thing as Williamson but normally with lesser punishments for lesser ‘crimes’, they just aren’t brave enough or intellectually honest enough to say it. Hanging may seem disproportionate to abortion/homicide, but so does imprisoning somebody over smoking weed, putting them out of business for not making a wedding cake, or siccing the IRS and the police on them for not participating in universal healthcare. At least if you accept the pro-life position that abortion is homocide you can get somewhere within the realm of Williamson’s view with some intellectual and moral consistency, but both mainstream parties have whole arrays of laws and policies they want to pass, and that they dream of enforcing with the police and criminal justice system. It was interesting to see Williamson’s views characterized as beyond the pale, when if Sanders and his followers were honest for a moment they’d have to confess that they wanted to fine and jail people who didn’t go along with medicare. All of politics is a debate about state coercion and violence, and Williamson had the gall to be frank about it in a way CNN and Fox wouldn’t dare.

    I also can’t help but think that the author is taking the commonality of abortion as a point in it’s defense from criminal repercussions, but I think that lacks perspective as it used to not be common (when it was illegal), and if it was made illegal again it would return to being less common. It’s not like the Williamson movement would be able to limit abortion and then go prosecute everyone who had one; the constitution doesn’t allow that, so the author’s friends would be safe as long as they don’t break the law after it’s passed, which would be very difficult to do accidentally.

  8. JoG says

    Fine to say you think abortion is murder. Not fine to incite people to hang women who abort. Crowded theatre, shouting fire etc.

    • Pizza Pete says

      At some point shouting fire became conflated with ‘shouting fire’ i.e. saying something objectionable.

      This aligns with necessary first clause of: ‘Your free speech is violence, my violence is free speech.’

    • “Crowded theatre, shouting fire etc.” is the most overused anti-speech metaphor ever. The SCOTUS decision where it originated was overturned 40 years ago. For good reason as it was a red herring to justify the suppression of political speech (ruling upheld a law allowing the government to jail a socialist agitating against US involvement in WW1). Just FYI. Might want to find a different “I think words I don’t like should be censored” metaphor.

      • JoG says

        The words used don’t bother me personally, and I certainly don’t think words I don’t like (can’t actually think of any, offhand) should be censored. But presumably there has to be a line drawn somewhere. Incitement to violence seems a reasonable place to draw it, even if the metaphor I used consists of words you don’t like.

  9. I have seen this thought experiment replicated many times now. The author admitted as much by stating it was taken from elsewhere. Despite the ease with which it is copy-pasted, it never seems to be accompanied by the equally prevalent (and effortless) rebuttal.

    Let’s replace the 100 embryos in the example with one elderly man. Your choice is now to save one little boy, or one elderly man. Most, I’d venture, would still save the young boy, but it doesn’t actually matter. You can replace the elderly man with two children and save them because two is more than one. Surely we make value judgments about the comparative value of lives when faced with difficult decisions. Maybe if the one child was YOUR child you’d choose to save him even if there were 10 children in the other room. Organ transplant lists, police, firefighters, paramedics, doctors, etc. all are forced to make value judgments about who they can help with limited capacity. I presume the author wouldn’t accept such a choice in any of these scenarios as an admission that those you can’t save are not lives. Choosing not to save the embryos is NOT an admission that they aren’t lives or don’t have value.

    Abortion (except in cases where the mother’s health is in jeopardy) is not represented fairly by this thought experiment. There is no competing life that will be lost at the cost of saving the fetus. Further, the “fire” in this case doesn’t just suddenly “break out”. A more appropriate thought experiment to represent abortion would be “There’s one perfectly healthy baby in a room that is not on fire. Should you start a fire and kill it?”

    • Alex Russell says

      Except an early Embryo is not a perfectly healthy baby, and an early term fetus is a very sickly potential child that may live with heroic medical intervention.

      Women are people. People should have a strong legal right to what happens to their own bodies. Embryos, in my opinion, are not people at all. At some point the fetus does become enough of a person that the law should protect it, but certainly not in the first trimester. Before the embryo / fetus does become a person the woman should have complete control over her body and the pregnancy.

      This is why I am strongly pro-choice.

      I am generally very strongly in favour of free speech, but I draw the line at speech that promotes violence against people. I have no problem with the Atlantic firing Williamson over his inflammatory comments. I would have to study what he has said in more detail to decide if I believe he deserves to be censored. I’m pretty sure in countries with weaker free speech laws, for example Canada which has hate speech laws with these sections:

      Section 318 prescribes imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years for anyone who advocates genocide. The Code defines genocide as the destruction of an “identifiable group.” The Code defines an “identifiable group” as “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability.”

      Section 319 prescribes penalties from a fine to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years for anyone who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace

      might actually charge him with a crime. I’m not sure if he is promoting a lynching or simple making abortion a capital crime. If he is promoting lynching I’d censor him, otherwise it is offensive speech that should be tolerated.

      • When, precisely, does the embryo/fetus become a person? Once you’ve chosen a point, can you explain what changed between that point and one day before to cause the non-life to become a life?

        • Alex Russell says

          when does a fetus become a person? A very good question that is a very grey area. Laws cannot be grey so a time has to be chosen. The criteria should be the developing fetus is not yet a person, and is not viable outside the mother’s body. By not yet a person, i mean the brain is not yet developed enough to considered a person.

          • I would characterize it as your opinion that it is a very grey area, but that’s by no means self-evident. The mainstream pro-life view is that life begins at conception. There is nothing grey about that. It’s at that moment that a new set of completely individual DNA has been created.

            You mention two parts to your criteria for life, brain development and viability. As far as development, though, I still don’t understand how you are defining that. You essentially state that a fetus isn’t a person because it’s not developed enough to be a person. I would call that begging the question. Specifically, the question remains, what is “developed enough”?

            As far as viability, this leads to interesting conclusions. Viability is to a great deal dependent on location, not to mention time and technology. The medical equipment required to keep a fetus alive outside the womb might be available in some hospitals but not others. Would a woman who lives in a city that has such equipment be permitted to obtain an abortion by traveling to another city/state, but not permitted were she to remain where she lives? Can a life become not a life simply by traveling to another location? What would be a life today would not have been considered a life years ago with less technology. Life to me is an intrinsic property, and therefore would be required to have a definition that stays constant no matter the external circumstances.

          • Bill says

            Alex, this is the reason why Roe v Wade is bad law. Roe v Wade should ABSOLUTELY be overturned. Not because “abortion should be illegal” but specifically because the decision is vague. It basically said the government could not intervene (abortion legal)…EXCEPT…and gave this vague 3rd trimester stuff. The Justice’s did not provide any test or definition of when there is a transition from fetus to child and the medical procedure shifts from abortion to euthanasia/murder. Ironically, this vagueness is at the core of the 2015 decision in Johnson v US authored by Scalia, and in the decision this week in Sessions v Dimaya (which all the Media seems to care about is Gorsuch voted w/ the 4 liberal justices who ironically backed Scalia’s 2015 decision).

          • Bill says

            But that isn’t the criteria for declaring time of death and issuing a death certificate. There is no brain activity test, only cardiac activity.

      • Gregory Lorriman says

        “Women are people. People should have a strong legal right to what happens to their own bodies. Embryos, in my opinion, are not people at all.”

        Which is an atheistic presumption. In any other matter the law would give the benefit of the doubt to life, discounting such enormous presumptions.

        Meanwhile, the fetus is clearly not the woman’s body; rather it is a genetically distinct human body, whether meaningfully alive or not. The argument falls at two hurdles.

        • Claire Van Signle says

          It cannot live outside the mother. It must use her body to survive, there are no other options, so the host must have some say over what trauma she puts her body though. The fetus is part of the woman’s body in that respect and it must be a choice to use your body for the benefit of another.
          “In any other matter the law would give the benefit of the doubt to life, discounting such enormous presumptions. “, well, not in matters of body autonomy. For instance, you cannot make a person give over their organs after death, no matter how many lives they might save. You cannot force a parent to give a compatible kidney to their own child if they are unwilling.

      • JoG says

        “I’m not sure if he is promoting a lynching or simple making abortion a capital crime. If he is promoting lynching I’d censor him, otherwise it is offensive speech that should be tolerated.”

        Spot on.

        • I think the context of Kevin’s opinion is made unmistakably clear. He is advocating for a change to the criminal code that would classify abortion as a crime (murder), and therefore women that commit such a crime would be subject to capital punishment, same as any other pre-meditated and deliberate murder. This would only apply to women who get an abortion after the law change, not ex-post-facto, as the article literally states.

          There is no reasonable way to interpret the twitter exchange, the podcast, or any of the other remarks as Kevin inciting violence in the form of vigilante justice mobs who would go around lynching women whether or not the law says abortion is a crime.

  10. Caligula says

    “Williamson was hired as a thinker, not a writer; yes, he is supposed to write well, but only as a means of communicating thoughts worth reading.”

    Thinking is a private, wholly subjective act (thus, “Die Gedanken sind frei”). No one gets hired as “a thinker,” as the thinking is important only to the extent it is expressed in a form an audience can comprehend.

    Thus the distinction made here between “writer” and “thinker” is meaningless. Is it really necessary to say that Williamson was hired to express his thoughts (perhaps his emotions also?) in writing? One does not hire a writer to scriblle nonsense or hand-copy existing text; one hires a writer to write.

    If all one knew of Williamson was this essay, one might think he writes exclusively (or almost so) on abortion, whereas that it not at all the case.

    Atlantic could (if it wished) simply have said that it will not publish Williamson’s views on abortion (for example), and Williamson could then have decided whether or not he still wished to work for the magazine.

    Instead what we saw was an offer made to Williamson and then rescinded in response to the baying of a (figurative) SJW lynch-mob.

    The Atlantic Magazine has a long and storied history, and remains a relatively big-budget, high-visibility publication. Nonetheless, anyone who has read it recently can see that it has descended into offering little more than poorly written yet exquisitely PC content, presumably for the enjoyment of those who wish to gaze into the reflecting pool to see their existing political opinions reflected back to them.

    Yes, there is still the occasional exception, a well-written piece that offers more than political cant. But there remains far more risibly bad “writing” that contains little more than assertions of politically orthodox opinion (and, of course, outrage at anyone who fails to conform to these).

    Atlantic Magazine would have benefitted by adding Williamson to its staff, not only because he’d bring some much-needed ideological diversity (entirely aside from abortion) but because he is and remains an excellent writer.

    And no one, absolutely no one, disputes that Atlantic Magazine has no legal obligation to hire or publish Williamson (or anyone else). BUT, by choosing to remain mired in poorly written political orthodoxy, Atlantic Magazine has lost far more here than has Williamson.

  11. markbul says

    No – people really do believe that abortion is murder. A fetus is not a tumor – it is a unique genetic individual. That is a biological fact.

    Here’s a thought experiment for you: a woman is nine months pregnant – she’s due in one day. That thing inside here has all the same organs as you do. It has a brain. It hears and responds to its mother’s voice. It thinks and dreams. She walks into a Planned Parenthood office and says ‘I want an abortion.’ Do they do the abortion? Does she have ‘the right to choose? Don’t respond to me. Just answer the question for yourself. And no, the rarity of the even is not relevant. Is that abortion murder, or is it not?

    • alex russell says

      At nine months I agree that the baby is a baby. Where do you draw the line? I think that the law should allow women to choose abortion without any restrictions in the first trimester as the fetus is not yet a person, while the woman is a person who has sovereignty over her body.

    • V 2.0 says

      At that point the baby could just be removed from her uterus and be able to survive on it’s own perhaps to be adopted. An abortion would pretty much be the same as birth by C section.

  12. dirk says

    The essential thing is the soul. Augustine had already ideas about that, after so many months a male fetus had a soul, after so many a female (for some reason, not the same). Nobody talks about that anymore, but I think, it’s worth considering

    • Hutch says

      Nobody talks about it anymore because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for it

      I’m prochoice but consider the act of abortion technically a murder. Intentionally killing another human being will always be the definition of murder. Defining the actual point at which a human being can be considered in existence is a moving target thanks to science. A unique human being (albeit temporarily limited in ability) is created as soon as the two primary sex cells merge.

      • dirk says

        I know a few more cases for which no scientific evidence whatsoever exists; the UN universal human rights bill, the inalienable right on the pursuit of happiness and the equality of all human beings.

        • Sebastian says


          The difference between the UN resolutions on human rights and Augustine’s pontifications about the growth of a soul within a fetus are significant. One is a near-universally accepted philosophical standpoint on the nature of rights granted to human beings by dint of being alive (i.e. no slavery, innocent until proven guilty). The other is a religious position for which there is no true foundation outside one’s personal religious point of view.

          We can prove that there are detrimental effects on people when they are enslaved. We can show numerous historical records from around the world detailing what happens when justice is perverted and an accused is considered guilty from the start. Yet, we cannot prove the existence of a soul.

          Now, if you want to take issue with certain parts of the UN list of human rights, that’s another debate entirely. However, to conflate human rights with Augustine’s musings on a soul is disingenuous.

          • dirk says

            Not so derogatory on Saint Augustine, the fact that he did not assume (or put) a soul in a foetus of 20 or 30 days (this must have been known to scientists and veterinary people at the time, from aborted women, or e.g. from sheep) means that even in that distant, very strict time, an early foetus was not yet considered a human being. We know about DNA, so we know about the potentials of a foetus of just 1 day old. But, potentials are not the whole thing, an oak-seed is not yet a tree. Anyhow, an ethical question, because there is no strict border: another debate in your words. Eskimos consider a baby only as human, after it has been given a name (they never had the luxury, as we have, to keep all children (fits and misfits) alive.

    • Claire Van Signle says

      No, the only thing worth considering is the opinion of the woman who is using her body for the benefit of someone else.

      • dirk says

        Oh but Claire, is that not a little bit selfish? I think, very few pregnant women will see their foetus or baby as someone else.

  13. Deafening Tone says

    Dear OT Ford,

    Who said these quotes?

    “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

    “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

    This person may have had some qualms with your piece.

    • Claire Van Signle says

      Except his free speech wasn’t violated. He can still say whatever he likes, the Atlantic don’t have to publish it. That is their right.

      • Deafening Tone says

        The argument is not that the Atlantic violated free speech, but that the arguments put forward by the author imply that a right free speech can legitimately be violated on principle based on his own convictions.

  14. Dan Meisels says

    I don’t think this article is at the right level of analysis. Sure Kevin is not a free speech martyr. This is not a free speech issue. The issue here as I see it is of the overton window the Atlantics editorial staff is allowed to operate in. They have always had a left leaning, and even an extreme left leaning (as in the case for reparations) Yet they are unwilling to give voice to an extreme right opinion. That is their choice but I think their content is the weaker for it.

    On a personal note, this is the first time I have ever thought that a Quillette article kind of missed the point, and I am pretty happy about it. I was getting sick of always agreeing with everything that was published here. I like hearing a good argument I don’t agree with. I read the Atlantic for years because they made good arguments I often did not agree with, but I have taken a break since they got rid of comments. The comments on their more controversial pieces were often more illuminating than the pieces themselves were.

  15. At last someone that makes sense. Quillette is turning into a heartless tribe. Morality has its flaws. But there’s no point to reason unless you have a bit of heart behind it or else you risk turning into a robot. Considering why most women abort and the history behind, uttering what Williamson said is nothing short of narcissistic and hateful.

  16. Andrew Tidgwell says

    “I’m of the view that no one actually believes that abortion is murder, because no one actually believes that an embryo is the equivalent of a human.”

    Ahh yes, the classic “those who disagree with me don’t actually believe what they say” tactic. Also your thought experiment is a joke, which would you save: two old people on life support about to die, or one 2-year-old? Does that mean the elderly aren’t human? Also 100 embryos outside the womb are already condemned to death and non-growth.

    I suppose it was only a matter of time before Quillette published a substandard article, both in the quality of thinking and writing, still too bad.

  17. Gregory Lorriman says

    This article isn’t worthy of Quillette. It lacks rigour and is highly presumptuous, even using intellectual devices (the author’s ‘thought experiment’) to justify gross presumption.

    “If he has not pondered the worst consequences of his stated policies and beliefs, then he is not intellectually serious.”

    ..having just bludgeoned us with emotional blackmail. hmmm.

    ““I am not going to hang you for getting an abortion in the past, I’m just going to hang every woman in the future who does the exact same thing you did.”) Most women will understand that this is a meaningless distinction as far as morality goes. ”

    Rather it’s part of “The Rule of Law” that you don’t apply new penalties retrospectively. Nor is he claiming to make a moral distinction.

    “Either Williamson is serious, in which case he is barbaric and doesn’t belong at the Atlantic, or he is trolling, in which case he is intellectually unserious and doesn’t belong at the Atlantic.”

    Oh dear, there he goes again. Maybe we should call this the “fallacy by appeal to intellectualism”, and in this case with unintended irony.

    This is again a shallow emotional argument. A punishment may seem ‘barbaric’ to a soft Westerner, and yet be just. A cold-blooded murderer deserves to die. But many of Ford’s persuasion would consider execution barbaric. Yet others wouldn’t, and see the withholding of capital punishment as unjust. And yet others that abortion is itself not only barbaric, but a form of murder.

    “I’m of the view that no one actually believes that abortion is murder, because no one actually believes that an embryo is the equivalent of a human.”

    …using a thought experiment that doesn’t work. For a true believer in life in an embryo, they wouldn’t necessarily take the baby as he asserts; and if they did, it would be for subtleties confounding the simplicity of the thought experiment.

    In anycase, the real issue is the presumption that no one really believes that embryos have life. Since the whole point of the anti-abortion brigade is just that claim that they do indeed believe. He is trying to tell people what they ‘really’ believe. hmmmmmm.

    A more intellectually honest debate would be one where the presumption that the intent of abortion is murderous is examined.

    It could be argued that since for some women their belief in the non-meaningful life status of the embryo means that there is no murderous intent, while for others, mostly one would expect of religious persons, that it is indeed a form of murder. So hang the Catholics.

    But O.T.Ford is clearly prejudiced, with presumably atheistic assumptions when he should be agnostic, and not examining the issue with the proper intellectual rigour in order to hang, draw and quarter Williamson.

  18. Zoe says

    I had to stop reading after the erroneous statement that no one believes abortion is murder. I do. Millions do. If Williamson is aware that abortion is murder (as I am) and he believes in capital punishment (I do not), then it logically follows that he would favor capital punishment for abortion. His suggestion of hanging is strange (I suspect it’s a effort to get attention by being outrageous), given it’s not used in any western country I know of, but his idea of execution is not. As a Catholic I don’t believe that either capital punishment or abortion is justified. However, it is not rational to argue that Williamson’s position should not be afforded the protections of free speech. Many believe in capital punishment. Many know abortion is murder. Those two overlap obviously believe execution should be the punishment for abortion, a form of murder. As I believe this is wrong, I very much appreciate knowing who believes it so I can explain to them why they are wrong, even though I, like them, know that abortion is murder. Opinions, especially those we abhor, should be spoken so that we may rebut them. People who keep their opinions bottled up because they aren’t permitted to express them, still hold those opinions. It’s just that the rest of us remain ignorant of the fact. And given that the media is largely controlled by those holding the opinions of a small minority of elite individuals, it’s quite possible that the opinions of the majority may end up being silenced and unknown to all of those who do not share those opinions.

  19. Oss Ickle says

    This is a highly prolix way of saying, “I don’t agree with KW.”

    So you’re saying, “No, I don’t agree that women who abort should be treated to the same penalties as other murderers.” ?

    Okay, noted.

  20. V 2.0 says

    The real issue is where a publication should draw the line on serving as a platform for awful/stupid ideas. Would Quillette publish a piece seriously advocating killing police officers or arguing that the earth is flat? No one should be censored, which is why we need to make sure that Twitter which, like a pen, is a tool and should have to editorial policy, does not silence the nutters.

  21. Sean Wood says

    O.T. Ford’s position is that it is not a legitimate point of view to believe that abortion is murder, that nobody actually does believe that abortion is murder, and that therefore Williamson is a person who “does not believe that certain women deserve to be hanged, but is willing to hang some of them anyway.” (This apparently follows from his observation that many pro-life people hold inconsistent views on the subject.) He puts those believing that abortion is murder in the same category as those who defend “Nazism or slavery.”

    For good measure O.T. Ford doesn’t refrain from adding ad hominem appeals, such as that a reference to a rough boy from the slums shows that Williamson is racist, and that a person who says that our country would be better off without a “vicious, selfish [sub]culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles,” demonstrates his own moral turpitude. O.T. Ford’s hatred and incredulity can barely be contained.

    I agree with O.T. Ford that the picture he paints is of a person who is reprehensible. What other opinion could one hold of someone who “does not believe that certain women deserve to be hanged, but is willing to hang some of them anyway.” I agree that such a person should not be writing for a reputable journal.

    This is a perfect example of the intolerant mindset that seems to have taken over our college campuses. It involves an utter inability to see the opponent’s point of view, combined with the insistence that that point of view deserves no hearing, just as defenders of Nazism or slavery deserve no hearing. Does he not realize that as recently as 1967 abortion was classified as a felony in 49 states and the District of Columbia? Does he not realize that from the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates, who died in 370 BC, up until the 1960s, the Hippocratic Oath taken by western physicians included the line “Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion”? One would think that these facts would bring home to him the sincerity and depth of feeling there is on the other side. How does one reason with such people?

  22. Sean Wood says

    Another thing that might be able to shed some light on O.T. Ford’s evaluation of Williamson was described by Jonathan Heidt in his book The Righteous Mind. It was a study showing that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.

    When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations – Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity – I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

    In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

    The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.

    If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness.

    • Cheester says

      Great post, Sean. My personal experience supports the findings of the study about liberals’ and conservatives’ abilities to understand the other side’s arguments. It reminds me of something interesting that Dinesh D’Souza said, which was roughly that in order to be a competent debater (and thinker, for that matter), you should be able to reproduce your opponent’s argument in a way that your opponent is satisfied with. I notice that liberals tend to have an impossible time of this, while conservatives can actually articulate the thinking behind liberal ideas. Obviously, everything I’ve said here is anecdotal, but it was a powerful realization that took place for me as I was exposed to well-articulated conservative ideas from actual conservatives. I found out that all the liberals who had shaped my thinking had not once honestly and rigorously presented a conservative argument, and in retrospect, it seems likely that they simply weren’t able to. As I watch debates and commentary about political/social/moral issues, it is almost unfailingly one side that seems incapable of comprehending the other’s arguments, let alone respond to them. Once again, this is just my personal experience, and keep in mind that I was liberal for practically my whole life until I was exposed to intelligent conservatives.

      W/r/t abortion: no liberal, pro-choice people seem able to objectively define a biological function or development that separates a life from non-life, and seem to think that the convenience and comfort of the mother trumps the value of the child’s life. They also tend to act like not getting pregnant when you’re in no shape to raise a child is impossibly difficult, when all you really have to do is not be an idiot and maybe value something more than your own immediate pleasure. If someone could please present a compelling argument for a pro-choice stance, I would love to see it. And don’t use the example of rape victims to push abortion, because the vast, vast majority of mothers who abort their children are not rape victims.

  23. Emblem14 says

    This is ONLY a story because Williamson was fired in response to a SJW-tinged social media outcry for his scalp. If he had been fired without the prompting of such an outcry, say, for creative differences, or had not been hired at all, there would be no controversy. As some others have said, the details of his particular views, whether he was “serious”, whether he has a “right” to his views, are irrelevant. There are respectable arguments why he should be given a certain platform, and respectable arguments why he shouldn’t, based on different priority rankings of competing values.

    As a Jew, I can make a good argument for why I ought to tolerate an openly holocaust-denying co-worker if they are capable of some other valuable contributions. I can also make a good argument for why I shouldn’t have to tolerate that, regardless of other considerations. It depends on my priorities. To really argue the point, the argument must be over the “correct” prioritization of values, which is so personal as to be irresolvable.

    This is about the larger meta-phenomenon of flash-in-the-pan social media frenzies being weaponized by ideological partisans to police acceptable mainstream discourse, and the problem of mainstream gatekeepers rewarding, and therefore incentivising, the Twitter Mob as a good tactical option for influencing public opinion, media narratives, the overton window etc. That – the sublimation of higher standards of discussion to the whims of mob passions – is what’s poisoning the well and doing long term damage to our society’s ability to collectively address complexities and nuances i.e. reality, intelligently.

  24. Jesse Kotel says

    “Even in context, these words give the impression of a person with a smug attitude towards those who don’t agree with him. It certainly supports the view of Williamson as a self-identified troublemaker who loves tweaking the squares”

    I find it hilarious someone can write these two sentences back to back and not drown in the irony. Especially in the context of the rest of this piece

  25. Daniel Tebbe says

    In all the brouhaha over Williamson’s comments, an important principle is not being discussed: is abortion the unethical taking of a human life? Are people who have had abortions (and this should include both the women and their doctors) responsible for the murder of a human being?

    An important event of the 20th century was the Nuremberg war trials, where people were tried and convicted of doing something that, though lawful, was immoral and unethical. What does that mean for us now? Well, I’m not sure, but let’s talk this through, at least.

    Twitter seems to have a magical ability to turn normal people into idiots, or at least it goads them into saying things they don’t really mean, so let’s condemn Williamson for using Twitter in the first place, and take his tweet with some salt. Is it possible his point was that there should be legal consequences for abortions? Isn’t that a more interesting point?

    The whole idea of the possibility of legal consequences for abortion is the foundational issue. After that, we just are deciding on where the line should be.

  26. Josh says

    As someone who nearly always comes down on the “free speech” side of these debates, I feel genuinely torn about this one.

    On one hand, millions of women get abortions every year. The vast majority of these are early-term abortions. Many of these women are in vulnerable positions, and being forced to carry a pregnancy to term would leave them even more vulnerable. He is targeting large swaths of the population and prescribing an extreme punishment for something that is currently legal. His friends, relatives, and coworkers all know that if he called the shots, many of them would be in prison or dead. There is an element of threat and intimidation to this. I can understand why people would perceive a direct threat from Williamson’s words.

    On the other hand, Kevin Williamson looks at the status quo and believes that millions of unborn babies are being murdered right now, legally. He is the result of an unplanned pregnancy, so he feels personally targeted by abortion just as women feel personally targeted when he calls for punishing abortion. The only difference is that millions of abortions per year is the reality — the status quo — whereas murder charges for abortion are just words on his Twitter page.

    What we are left with is a stalemate where both sides experience a psychological reality that their opponent is advocating for their death. Both sides experience a visceral threat to their life. It is difficult or impossible to have any kind of civil dialogue under these circumstances. One of The Atlantic’s core values is civil dialogue, so in some sense Williamson’s presence there could have threatened its very mission.

    Firing Williamson might have been a necessary move for The Atlantic to preserve its mission and prevent an outright revolt among its writers. But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether we considered him a free speech martyr. T.J. Ford and others want us to judge this firing a just response to an inherently odious view. But the only way to get there is to accept Ford’s claim that no one (including Williamson) really considers an embryo or fetus a human being. This is an extremely strong claim. It’s one thing to say you are right and that everyone else is wrong. It’s another thing entirely to claim that other people’s beliefs are not even genuine.

    This is especially true of the abortion debate, in which there is precious little certainty to be had. It seems absurd to say that a one day old embryo (which by the way could divide into identical twins at any moment, turning one individual into two) is exactly the same as a fully formed human being. On the other hand, it seems absurd to say that a trip through the birth canal is a presto change-o moment that transforms a lifeless lump of cells into a human being. This is a genuinely difficult question. We end up having to define arbitrary legal and moral distinctions on top of a biological process that is inherently gradual.

    Williamson’s view is extreme, but elective late-term abortion is also extreme. Seven out of 198 nations allow elective abortions past 20 weeks; the Washington Post fact-checked this last year and was surprised to discover it is actually true ( According to the Guttmacher Institute, there are seven states in the US that allow elective late-term abortion with no restrictions. This is the context in which Williamson is writing. I am just not seeing the perspective that reasonable people can support elective abortion past 20 weeks, but reasonable people absolutely cannot believe that abortion should be prosecuted as murder.

  27. Aaron says

    At first when the hanging was being described I kept thinking about the infant being aborted; having his or her head gripped in a clamp and severed, it’s body pulled out in pieces. How much fear and suffering does the infant experience? I think hanging is a fair punishment for such monstrous action.

  28. Was Kevin Williamson going to argue for hanging folk engaged in abortion in the pages of The Atlantic? If not, what does it matter regarding him writing for The Atlantic?

    If he should have been sacked for an opinion offered elsewhere, then that would be an argument for him not holding any job as an opinion writer. Which is not exactly compatible with a culture of free speech.

    This without considering the opinions of, say, philosopher Peter Singer on when it might be OK to kill babies as a counterpoint.

  29. Man i so love pro-abortion activists and their idiocy. If it’s not bringing up rape and incest as justification for all abortion even though abortions for those events are maybe at the high end 3% and maybe at the low end less than 1%, it’s garbage like the above building on fire “thought experiment”. Yes, that’s right, all that’s being aborted are “embryos” abortion doctors never ever cut and rip apart babies and take them out pieces at a time, no, no, that never happens, all abortions are just “embryos”. What a load of crap.

    All this Kevin Williamson stuff is just liberal hype-hysteria. The man had an opinion, so what. Is he running for office, does he have the ability to actually enact the hangings he dreams of? No, then why are you whining?

  30. Hermes says

    As others have said, this is a poor piece; irrational, prejudiced and badly-argued. Not worthy of this magazine.

    I’m drawn to this line in particular:

    “I’m of the view that no one actually believes that abortion is murder, because no one actually believes that an embryo is the equivalent of a human.”

    If that really is your view, you are simply wrong; and catastrophically so. I live in Ireland, where there is currently a national debate going on around whether to abolish the 8th amendment to the constitution, which prohibits abortion. It is, as you would expected, heated on both sides. But I know personally many people who passionately believe that ‘abortion is murder.’ They don’t ‘believe that an embryo is the equivalent of a human’, as the author puts it. They acknowledge that a human embyro is indeed a human – as any doctor would confirm – and they believe that killing it wrong for that reason. Agree or disagree, it is the passionately held belief of millions of people, and the author’s silly sixth-form thought experiment will not change that.

    Incidentally, the people I know who hold this belief most strongly are women. In the US, womens’ views of abortion are less liberal than mens’. Men versus women is not an adequate framework for discussing an issue this serious.

  31. Neville in Melbourne says

    After some hesitation:

    1. The article is below the usually high standard of others published by Quillette. Therefore the editor had a purpose in mind by publishing it.

    2. As far as I know, from reasonable familiarity with his writing and podcasts, Kevin Williamson seems to be a libertarian, an ethical and religious one. Specifically, he is opposed to capital punishment – again as far as I can tell, from several thousand miles distance.

    3. The quote in its original context is a plain-speak version of the logical consequence of an argument about the rights to life and liberty of human individuals. If one can proclaim “Meat is Murder” and thereby extend what we benignly mean by a “living being” with rights and liberties, a similar logic can be brought to bear in the case of a human embryo.

    4. KW likes blunt conclusions especially when they are drawn from first principles. They help you think, and to find contradictions in thought and accepted practice. I’d bet Jeffrey Goldberg thought so too; but he underestimated the pressure, economic and otherwise, of a Salem-like lynch mob. Ecco pendulum.

  32. Oscar says

    I agree with Ford’s evaluation. KW does not deserve a line in any serious publication. His freedom of speech is guaranteed in twitter or any other similar social net.

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