Culture Friday: The condition of free speech

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is April 13th. Thank you for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.  It’s Culture Friday and time to welcome John Stonestreet. John is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John, good morning. 


John, I have resisted talking about the Kevin Williamson controversy. There are sometimes media stories that I find interesting, but may not be to others. So I resisted bringing it up. But this story has demonstrated some staying power, and I think there are cultural implications.

If you do not know Kevin Williamson, here’s a brief bit of background.

Williamson is a gifted and very provocative conservative writer. He worked for National Review, until, that is, he received a job offer from The Atlantic.

That’s great. Conservative writer gets to engage the broader liberal culture. And good for The Atlantic, showing itself to be more broad-minded maybe than it’s been in the past.

Well, no sooner had Williamson been extended the job offer than the Atlantic fired him. He hadn’t written a single word. Williamson was fired because of something he’d said in the past about abortion. And it’s this: He openly advocated for executing women who have abortions.

Now, that’s way outside the mainstream of the pro-life movement — of course. Pro-life activists do not support that. Never have.

But that’s the controversy in a nutshell.

So John, I turn to you, and I’ve got two very specific questions. And I do want to talk about the abortion issues raised here, but not first.

The first one I want to talk purely and simply about the spirit of free speech.

Of course, the Atlantic has every right to create its editorial product any way it sees fit. The First Amendment protects against governmental censorship, not private acts of editorial control.

But I’m getting the sense that free speech is not a value anymore. Is that a takeaway from this Kevin Williamson controversy.

STONESTREET: Well, again, I think it’s important to note that as the — as a private entity, the Atlantic has the freedom to put out whatever speech that they want and they don’t have to express all speech. Like, we don’t think the Atlantic, for example, has their hands tied in terms of making sure they have an alt-right spokesman or someone who’s for white supremacy or anything like that. But you asked about the spirit of free speech and I think this is an example that there’s a lot of issues going on here. Part of the spirit of free speech is to have real debates, real arguments, real disagreements before preempting on them. And I think that’s the real story here about the Kevin Williamson controversy, but it’s not just in this story. You can see it across the culture. I thought, for example, we saw it in full display this week with Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress and this whole Facebook story.

Free speech was part of it, but I was struck by how many professed “shock, shock” that our privacy is at risk here.

STONESTREET: Yeah, I mean, I can’t remember if it was the Onion or the Babylon Bee who had a meme on that — a country that spent the last 10 years sharing every detail of their life on Facebook shocked to find they have no privacy. I mean, there’s part of this that I think we want to make people the Boogie Man when what has taken place says way more about us. I’ve been saying this, really, since the election. The big story, the Russians meddled in our election. Look, foreign entities shouldn’t meddle in our elections. That’s part of being a sovereign nation. But how did they choose to do it? By creating memes and distributing them on social media. That says way more about us than it does about the Russians.

I mean, I think we should be offended that the Russians thought that they could sway our election through social media fake news and things like that. This story, to me, smacks really close to that which is, we’re really mad at Mark Zuckerberg, but we signed up for it. In fact, there was one exchange where one Congressman — and there’s another story to this, the Congressfolks who were grilling Zuckerberg didn’t really understand, really, what they’re talking about when it comes to social media or Facebook or anything like that. Many of them didn’t. Many of them did. But it’s like, are you willing to guarantee this? And Zuckerberg’s like, well, we already do. Are you ready to say this? Well, we already do. And there’s a real sense where, yes, Facebook misbehaved… But at the end of the day what you have is a Congress who will come down and say we have to have some sort of regulation on Facebook and Facebook will still be one of the most, if not the most powerful, shaping culture force on the planet especially in the West. This is a clear example when it comes to our habits, how we do family, how we get our information, many of us how we get our theology, where we get our politics and our news, where culture is upstream from law and government and politics. Facebook’s upstream from it all. Facebook has changed how we do life together in a very powerful way. So here you have Zuckerberg being grilled by these political leaders, he’s more powerful than all of them combined in his ability to shape culture and particularly through this medium of Facebook. I think this is something we should be aware of is that we — if we are willingly putting ourselves into these compromising positions because we’ve gotta use this platform, it says something about how powerful Facebook is in shaping culture, more powerful than any regulation that’s going to come out of these hearings.

All right. Well, let me come back to Kevin Williamson, and his position on abortion. It’s hardly helpful to the pro-life cause, and it sort of confirms the caricature of pro-lifers among those who favor abortion rights.

And I get the hypocrisy argument. You had Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post writing about how if prenatal testing on her last pregnancy had indicated Down Syndrome, she would’ve aborted. That’s basically eugenics, and yet Williamson’s too extreme? And if that weren’t enough, Marcus wrote a column saying how shocked she was to learn Williamson’s position. Just utterly without self-awareness.

But you wouldn’t defend Williamson’s position on abortion as constructive or helpful, would you?

STONESTREET: I’m not. I think it’s an extreme position. I agree with Ross Douthat who I think wrote brilliantly on this in Sunday’s Post, but, look, I don’t want to dismiss the hypocrisy argument because I think that’s at the heart of the initial question is kind of the spirit of free speech and the spirit of robust debate. The fact that the Atlantic doesn’t think there is an extreme position to the left when it comes to abortion or, for that matter, gun rights or whatever, but thinks there is an extreme position to the right is preempting real conversation and real debate.

Now, all that said, no, Williamson’s is extreme. And I think you said it well earlier. This is not something that anyone that I personally know of in the pro-life party or who holds the pro-life position actually believes. And I think that it’s unhelpful to the movement, I think it feeds the sort of caricature and easy dismissal of pro-lifers, the sort, by the way, we saw this past week by John Oliver going after pregnancy care centers. This sort of stuff just kind of blends, too.

Look, you could add up all the pro-lifers in America and that position is less than 1 percent of what it believes. You line up all the pro-choicers in America and that sort of eugenics position, my guess, is way more than 1 percent because at least in America the entire argument for abortion has been based on our sexual autonomy and there are no limits to that. And that’s why you get Marcus writing a column being completely tone deaf by saying that Williamson’s position is too extreme. In other words, killing the woman, I can’t believe that. Killing the baby for any reason, just because it has Down Syndrome or because it’s a boy instead of a girl or whatever, well, no we’ve got to have that. Yeah, there’s a tone deafness here that reveals where the middle of this debate is.

John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, thank you.


Follow John Stonestreet (@JBStonestreet) and Nick Eicher (@NickEicher) on Twitter.

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) In this Tuesday, April 10, 2018, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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