Last week in my higher education class we covered debates about free speech on college campuses, including a discussion of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” We read last year’s infamous Atlantic essay by Lukianoff and Haidt along with critical reactions, and put the debate in historical context with a discussion of Gould’s work on campus speech codes and the weakness of legal precedents in the face of contradictory organizational imperatives. We also talked about Fabio Rojas’ book on the emergence of Black Studies (which we read earlier in the term), and particularly the argument that Black Studies departments offered a kind of safe space for challenging the racial status quo.
I was thinking about all of this when I read an excellent piece in the New York Times about r/The_Donald, the home for Donald Trump supporters on Reddit.* One quote, from one of the subreddit’s moderators, particularly struck me:
The group is governed by anonymous volunteer moderators, who impose rules that include “Don’t post people planning to assassinate Trump” and “New Centipedes must assimilate.” Enforcement is harsh, said another moderator, who identified himself as a 23-year-old law student and who posts under the name “ciswhitemaelstrom.”
“What I’m interested in is letting Donald Trump supporters speak among themselves,” he said in a phone interview, speaking on the condition that he not be named because of the potential for retribution. “That will help them consolidate a stronger position.”
First, let’s just start with the name: ciswhitemaelstrom. It’s so perfect!
But second, and more on point, what this argument boils down to is that Trump supporters need somewhere on the internet to organize, a place to refine their arguments where they aren’t worried about whether or not anyone else reading is going to take their comments out of context or misinterpret what they say. In other words, a “safe space.”
* Thanks to Zeynep Tufekci for the pointer to the NYT article, and for writing an equally informative piece on how Trump and his supporters use Twitter.