Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
In late March, The Atlantic hired conservative writer and columnist Kevin Williamson. Shortly thereafter, he was fired because of comments he made in 2014 comparing abortion to capital crimes. His tweet, while offensive, did not warrant the vicious eviscerations he received from the left calling for his removal from The Atlantic.
It’s understandable that people would not want a figure they find hurtful to garner national attention, but the reality is that liberty is too important to the fabric of American society to sacrifice it for our own safe spaces. As George Orwell once said, “If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
[Read more: Maybe college students are snowflakes]
One common accusation is that one side of the political spectrum is ostracized more frequently than the other. The left is quick to point out how minorities have been silenced for centuries and how professional and leadership positions are overwhelmingly dominated by white men. The right is just as quick to point out the hypocrisy of the left, with Williamson himself summarizing their critique nicely by writing, “if you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.”
There are examples from all over the political spectrum of political figures and pundits being condemned for saying truly offensive things, from Vice President Mike Pence’s comments about the LGBT community to liberal professor Randa Jarrar’s comments celebrating Barbara Bush’s death.
However, we must be careful not to silence even the most extreme and controversial voices, as long as they advocate for nonviolent forms of resistance and activism. John Stuart Mill wrote about how “to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men” was a danger to freedom and democracy.
I wrote a column one year ago attempting to express this dichotomy, but I failed in conducting a fair analysis. I wrote that there was nothing inherently wrong in censoring speech on campus. I was wrong — there is something inherently wrong with it. It’s wrong to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater because it directly endangers the lives of others, but the burden of proof to show how it endangers lives lies on society. Silencing people prematurely is dangerous to democracy and a threat to freedom and liberty.
Silencing doesn’t always happen via the government, especially today. Often acts of censorship will come from a “heckler’s veto” — where people silence others simply by yelling louder, interrupting or disturbing the venue. Not only does this erode the institutions of rhetoric and debate, it shapes society to present only a single point of view. Such censorship presents the same dangers as government censorship and should be taken just as seriously.
So when it comes to the Kevin Williamson debate, The Atlantic was wrong to fire him — not because he wasn’t offensive, but because being offensive shouldn’t be a barometer for termination. The repercussions of being offensive are people losing respect for such a person, but it cannot be the role of media, society, or the government to monitor and control opinions and attitudes. Governments have done that in the past, and they were called fascist.
Moshe Klein is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.