Kevin Williamson’s firing from the Atlantic has become that most annoying of cultural metaphors: the Rorschach test. Those who believe that the episode epitomizes journalism’s bias against conservatives point to the willingness of a prestige publication and a respected editor to embarrass themselves out of deference to progressive feelings. Those who applaud Williamson’s dismissal see in it the just comeuppance of an entire cottage industry of right-wing shock jocks and extremist culture warriors.
It’s probably wise not to overstate the episode’s significance. Periodicals are expected to be ideological, as corporations are not. So the firing of a conservative columnist from a left-of-center magazine won’t register as high on the culture-war scale as did the firings of Brendan Eich (from Mozilla) or James Damore (from Google). The Atlantic will lose few if any subscribers, and Williamson will be fine, perhaps even benefit from the whole thing.
In another sense, though, we need to look beyond the pink slip to something larger and more urgent. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Williamson interprets his firing as symptomatic of progressivism’s intolerance and hypocrisy. The most revealing part of his write-up is a quote from Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, whom Williamson says he confronted with the fact that the magazine cheerfully published the pugilistic Christopher Hitchens, yet found Williamson too divisive. “Hitchens was in the family,” Goldberg says baldly. “You are not.”
Assuming Williamson’s account is accurate, this is a bad look. At a time when many conservatives are trying to steer our tribe away from the paranoia and indecency of Fox News conservatism, this sort of line helps to justify toxic echo chambers and bad faith. In our contemporary culture, hypocrisy in the service of ideology is ignored, sometimes applauded. Williamson was fired from the Atlantic not because he was extreme, but because he was extreme in the wrong direction. As Ross Douthat pointed out in a fine column, pro-choice writers often enjoy a broad latitude from mainstream media outlets that pro-life writers don’t. Who gets to say whether Ruth Marcus’s defense of Down Syndrome-selective abortion is extreme? The Washington Post gets to say, and by publishing her piece, they have concluded that it is not. Pro-life writers are expected to traffic in nuance, care, and open-mindedness, and if they don’t, they are vulnerable to Twitter mobs that (regrettably) wield actual power. The same cannot be said of pro-choice thinkers.
Does this mean that conservatives are marginalized in American life? Not quite. Bias against conservative journalists has not stopped Republicans from winning three out of the last five presidential elections, or the current GOP from attaining twice as many governors as the Democratic Party. You would not guess at this state of affairs by listening to most conservative talk show hosts or reading most right-wing publications. Conservatives no less than progressives can traffic in paranoia and victim complexes, and were these impulses better chastened by the Right’s most influential people and institutions, traditionalists would be much better off.
Yet the Atlantic’s treatment of Williamson is indeed harmful, in a way that Fox’s schlepping for Trump is not. Publications such as the Atlantic and the Washington Post speak of themselves as vital center points in political culture, and those in a position to hold them accountable largely accept this appraisal. Fox influences voters; so does the Atlantic. The difference is that Fox is policed regularly from inside the industry, as the Atlantic is not.
Worst of all is that Williamson’s hire-and-fire is a symptom of a cultural sickness that goes beyond polarization. It’s one thing to have your worldview shaped by confirmation bias. It’s another thing to believe that those with opposing worldviews aren’t worth living and working with. At its core, this story is another installment of the HR-ification of society. Williamson’s abortion views did not make him a risk to the women who work at the Atlantic. They made him a risk to the Atlantic’s HR department. HR departments exist not to help people understand one another or to foster mutual trust, but to enforce conformity, sterilize culture, and avoid lawsuits. The modern American HR office is a symbol of a culture’s defining virtue down.
That is, sadly, an apt description of our public square. We have online shaming pile-ons, de-platforming campaigns, and calls for people to lose their jobs over tweets, because our civic space now resembles a highly efficient HR department that eschews debate as divisive and exchange as traumatizing. Talk about “affirmative consent” in campus hook-ups, for example, contains no trace of authentic virtue or love. It is merely an imposition of corporate HR pseudo-ethics onto daily life, a desire to make sure the institutions themselves won’t end up in court. In the absence of transcendent truth, the best we can hope for is mindless cooperation.
Did it ever occur to Goldberg that a roomful of journalists might benefit from being asked to tolerate a member of their outgroup? Or was the prospect of unsettled employees a bridge too far? We could just as easily pose these questions to college administrators who “disinvite” speakers, or to James Damore’s former bosses at Google. The notion that ideas are a form of violence comes not from clear thinking or neighborly experience but from the HR office, with its canned psychology and legalese. The question is not whether something is true or just, but whether it is good for morale.
The Williamson firing reinforces a dangerous trend—our suspicion that people who disagree about important things cannot coexist, and that we shouldn’t ask them to try. Williamson and other conservative journalists who face media bias can sleep easy tonight, knowing that they’ll live to write another day. Those of us who simply care about the intellectual and spiritual health of our republic aren’t so lucky.