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Earlier this month, The Atlantic announced that they would be hiring former National Review writer Kevin Williamson as an op-ed contributor. This was supposed to be a balanced hire, to bring diverging views to the publication. This has been a hot trend recently, with venerable media organizations hiring conservative Never Trumpers as some way of hepping their liberal audience to different opinions and viewpoints. You know, because we are too stupid to go to another website and find them ourselves, I guess.


Williamson's hiring, however, hit a particularly raw nerve -- on account of the fact that he had previously tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, compared trans people to voodoo dolls, argued for naming rape victims in the press, and compared a black child to both a "primate" and a “three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg.” Nice!

In an open letter to Williamson published on Friday, Bret Stephens of The New York Times apologized to him for all the mean people out there who have "assassinated" him just because he said a few misguided things.

I’m sorry to have to write you, for two reasons. Sorry, first, that you have to endure having your character assailed and assassinated by people who rarely if ever read you and likely never met you. Sorry also that your hiring as a writer for The Atlantic has set off another censorious furor in media circles when surely there are more important subjects on this earth.

Oh, the poor baby. It must be so weird to write your opinion on the internet for a living, and then have people dislike you because of the things you write! And also for them to respond to those things, instead of how nice they imagine you might be to your pet cat. How is that even fair? Why can't women just be more chill about being told it would be nice to hang them? Why do they refuse to even consider his viewpoint? Probably because of their selfish interest in not being murdered.

These assassins, Stephens notes, are probably not even interested in Williamson's clever word play.

Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage. How many of the people now demanding your firing read your unforgettable description of Steve Mnuchin’s “Scrooge McDuck-style sphincter-clenching,” or of Anthony Scaramucci’s “batty and profane interview in which he reimagined Steve Bannon as a kind of autoerotic yogi”?

Yeah, no. I can honestly say that I haven't. I'm not really bothered by that. I can also say that I've read better, and from people less into violence against women. Which, you know, would be what hanging them for having abortions would be.

According to Stephens, this statement should not even count, because it was just a tweet about hanging a third of the women in America and not an entire book.

Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something? Not according to your critics. We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible. I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet. When you write a whole book on the need to execute the tens of millions of American women who’ve had abortions, then I’ll worry.

Look, there are a few things I know for sure in this world. One of them is that once I know that someone would like to hang women who have abortions, then I don't actually need to hear a single other thing out of their mouth. I don't have to meet them, I do not have to read more of their writing. I'm good! There are so many other people in the world I can listen to and read. Millions, actually. I could easily walk down my street and have several delightful encounters with people who do not think women should be hanged for having abortions. Were I to encounter one who did believe that, I would walk away.

This is not simply because I believe his opinion is wrong. It is because I believe that opinion is indicative of his character as a human being. It crosses a line. It's not just having a different opinion on whether leggings are pants or what food products count as sandwiches or which New Kid On The Block was the dreamiest. It is both cruel and stupid.

Stephens wonders if what he said should even be all that controversial, on account of the fact that pro-choice writers exist even though their views are offensive to anti-choicers.

It also holds true whether or not a given opinion is offensive. Offensive to tens of millions of intelligent and morally sincere Americans is the idea that abortion ought to be legal at all, much less in the second or third trimester. If those Americans can make their peace with pro-choice writers like me, the least liberals can do is not make war on pro-life writers like you.

You know what's not "pro-life?" Hanging women who have abortions. Were someone on the same side as me politically to start going on about hanging people, I would inch away from that person slowly and then never talk to them again. That may not be the case for Bret Stephens! Maybe I could go up to him and say "We should execute at least one-third of the men named Bret in the country" and he would say "Interesting! I may just subscribe to your newsletter. There's no way I'd take such a statement as a personal offense or threat of any kind!"

Because, according to Stephens to do so would mean to "foreclose on the possibility of learning something useful from someone smart."

Worse, they foreclose the possibility of learning something useful from someone smart. Learning does not require agreement. There’s a reason this section of the newspaper is labeled “Opinion,” not “Affirmation,” “Reinforcement,” or “Emotional Crutch.” Liberals used to know that. What happened?

There are certain debates that are useful and good and from which both parties can benefit. Then there are others from which one party will get absolutely nothing outside of time wasted and last nerves pounded on, while the other party gets the satisfaction of seeing their views legitimized and taken seriously enough to debate. That's why no one "debates" Holocaust deniers. That's why no one "debates" flat earthers or those who believe in lizard people. None of those people, however, tend to get columns in major publications for the purpose of exposing people to other viewpoints.

This is not about needing every opinion columnist to agree with us. This is about the fact that we'd like to live in a world in which "Hey, what if we killed a third of the women in this country?" were as much of a discrediting statement as "the world is flat and filled with sentient lizards wearing human skin," and -- when you are a woman -- it kind of hurts that this is not the case.

[The New York Times]

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse

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