The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

On the Dragging of Kevin Williamson

The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf dissents from The Atlantic's treatment of Kevin Williamson


The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has penned a lengthy "dissent" from Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg's decision to fire Kevin Williamson only a few weeks after hiring him. The piece is long, but it makes many important points about tolerance and discourse in a divided time.

A brief taste:

I vehemently reject every plausible interpretation of Williamson's position. . . [W]hat I dissent from today concerns matters that transcend the abortion debate, or anything I might believe as a conflicted civil libertarian who deeply respects the emotions that it evokes among the "pro-life" and "pro-choice."

More specifically, I dissent from the way that Williamson was dragged, regardless of his position. That dragging would be a small matter in isolation, but it is of a piece with burgeoning, shortsighted modes of discourse that are corroding what few remaining ties bind the American center. Should that center fail to hold, anarchy will be loosed.

And I dissent from the termination that followed—a matter for which responsibility must fall on The Atlantic, not on Williamson's critics, even those critics who most egregiously distorted his words or their prominence in his journalism.

What about the mode of Williamson's dragging alarmed me?

Word of Williamson's hiring was greeted by some as if by mercenary opposition researchers determined to isolate the most outlying and offensive thoughts that he ever uttered, no matter how marginal to his years of journalistic work; to gleefully amplify them, sometimes in highly distorting ways, in a manner designed to stoke maximum upset and revulsion; and to frame them as if they said everything one needed to know about his character. To render him toxic was their purpose.

That mode was poison when reserved for cabinet nominees; it is poison when applied to journalistic hires; and it will be poison if, next week or year, it comes for you. . .

I worry that the firing was a failure of "the spirit of generosity," a value that The Atlantic has long touted as a core value. I know that it raised thorny, unresolved questions about what exactly is verboten at the magazine. I fear that it will make it harder for the publication to contribute to the sort of public sphere where the right and the left mutually benefit from fraught engagement. And I expect that many of my colleagues will bear the burden of being dragged in ways that opportunists on the right and the left will now take to be effective.

Finally, I worry that the dragging and the firing were failures of tolerance.

That virtue is unfashionable these days. And I believe that those who minimize, dismiss, or reject it underestimate its value and the potential consequences of its atrophy, even as many who value tolerance have lost the words or the stomach to defend it.

I have not.