“It won’t be that bad,” he said. “The Atlantic isn’t The New York Times. It isn’t the high church for liberals.”

Following political outrage that The Atlantic hired former National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced that the outlet would end its foray into ideological diversity. The decision came after reporters surfaced a tweet by Williamson wherein the writer suggested hanging as a punishment for abortion. Although Goldberg initially defended the columnist, a podcast found by “Media Matters” revealed that Williamson believed remarks which “[run] contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.” Thus, a generation defined by intellectual flaccidity silenced an otherwise prolific wordsmith.

The thought of instituting capital punishment for abortions is admittedly horrific — the mere suggestion demonized Williamson, who sought to clarify his position in the Wall Street Journal. The death penalty was criticized by Utah lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session who were dismayed by its fiscal implications; regardless, moral considerations supersede the financial burdens of such a punishment. The details of Williamson’s beliefs are insignificant to the scope of this article, which asks readers to consider the value of provocative speech. Writers and editors from The Atlantic and The New York Times have since defended Williamson, demonstrating the importance of deconstructing the leftist narrative. Let us begin with the University of Utah.

Despite a firm “Memorandum of Understanding” between the university and the Ute Indian Tribe, faculty and students have demanded that the ‘Utes’ moniker be removed. The Salt Lake Tribune published a story in late 2013 expressing that “a student group called the Indigenous Students and Allies for Change (ISAC) has started a petition asking the university to end the use of the Native American ties. The petition includes photos of people in Native American attire at university events and claims such acts perpetuate discrimination toward Native Americans.” The group was lead by former associate instructor Samantha Eldridge.

Supposedly, the group felt that “The drum and feather are religious and cultural symbols sacred to all tribes, and Native American students should not be subjected to its denigration or mockery.” A quick search of the university’s agreement yields no mention of mockery — only sincere appreciate and promises to promote educational programs. The irony is abounding, as members of ISAC likely drove on several memorial roadways covered in trash to complain that the state’s flagship university has entered into a mutual agreement predicated on respect with the Ute Indian Tribe. One wonders whether any buildings or institutions should be named after minorities fearing students might spit their gum on the floor or smoke on the campus.

Other indications of intellectual sensitivity have arisen when the university altered the centuries-old athletic fight song from “Utah Man” to “Utah Man/Fan,” as if the distinction is that significant. Tradition is understandably eroded faster within systems of higher education; nonetheless, these acts constitute the progressive march toward a more subdued union. After Young Americans for Freedom announced that Ben Shapiro would speak at the BEH Auditorium, several student groups including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan (MEChA) demanded that his platform be rescinded.

Several prominent organizers of the rally accused Shapiro of being a white nationalist and a fascist — of course, every conservative is a fascist nowadays — despite his Jewish faith. The university took the necessary precautions to ensure that the event went well, despite several arrests and accusations of an ANTIFA plot to bring AK-47s. SDS has since moved on and begun a campaign against Israel, demanding that the university divests from several prominent companies. One wonders if Jewish students feel particularly safe on campus given the campaign that has discovered a solution to centuries of unrest between Israelis and Palestinians.

These stories highlight only a few instances of the ridiculous sensitivity characteristic of many University of Utah students. However, disconnected Williamson might appear from these tales. Consider how The Atlantic bowed to pressure from Twitter users. As The Federalist noted, the esteemed black racialist Ta-Nehisi Coates never supported the idea of removing Williamson from the publication “because [Coates] said within the past month that Kevin Williamson was his favorite conservative writer.” Managing a fundamentally intellectual magazine requires writers who are “prodigious and prolific, provocative and acidic, and write with verve and honesty … all of which can be said of Kevin Williamson.”

Editors have irrevocable control of the publishing process, meaning that Goldberg could have instructed the columnist to sanitize certain sections of his pieces. Forcing Williamson out sent an entirely different message. In his Wall Street Journal article, he explains that “[t]he problem was a six-word, four-year-old tweet on abortion and capital punishment and a discussion of that tweet in a subsequent podcast … Such provocations can sometimes clarify the terms of a debate, but in this case, I obscured the more meaningful questions about abortion and sparked the sort of hysteria I’d meant to point out and mock.” The rearmost section of that statement is of utmost importance to this discussion.

Williamson admittedly used poor judgment when he posted that tweet, but the idea behind his comment was to define the domain of discussion — otherwise known as the “Overton window.” As Shapiro explains, the term refers to “… the range of acceptable public discourse. Typically, those of us in the political world accept that the Overton window extends beyond positions with which we agree.” Shapiro continues by highlighting The Atlantic’s Coates specifically, stating “there’s little doubt that his views fall within the range of acceptable discourse.”

Shrinking the Overton Window is characteristic of leftists across the nation, including those at Reed College who demanded an end to studying any classical Western humanities because the authors were white. Shapiro jeers that the domain of reasonable discourse has been whittled down to the views of Coates and Bernie Sanders who champion the beliefs of many younger intellectuals. Despite his crude remarks, at least Williamson is rather consistent — why should conservatives outlaw abortion if it is not homicide? Urging capital punishment for abortions is cruel and clearly misguided, but it quickly gets to the heart of the issue without trigger warnings, safe spaces and misattributing comments as hate speech. 

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

@TheChrony

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