trump supporters need safe spaces too

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.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

2 thoughts on “trump supporters need safe spaces too”

  1. Interesting. Makes perfect sense theoretically. Virtually all on-line spaces require strong moderation to avoid being destroyed by trolls, ads, and generalized nastiness, not to mention keeping a space clear so a group can have coherent discussions without being distracted by enemies or derailers. It also reminds me of the “free space” arguments and the reasons for separate spaces for women or minorities. And reminds me of the work on the diffusion of heterodoxy, the need to have a compact space from which to expand.


  2. Olderwoman has it right that the structural perquisites of a home ideological base are general. But to draw on Mill’s comparative “method of difference,” there are some important differences between left campus safe spaces and the general phenomenon. Those differences suggest what “safe spaces” are actually after.

    1. Campus safe spaces get erected as alternatives to the offensive talk or movie in question. In the ideal scenario, the offensive talk or American Sniper showcase gets shut down entirely and replaced with movies about animated bears or coloring books for 21 year olds. This is different than making camp in order to feed the troops before they go out and fight an honest ideological battle.

    2. Campus safe spaces invoke psychological lingo and spin it into social justice victimhood politics in order to assemble an (ostensibly) unassailable scientistic and authoritative claim. They are the formal institutionalization of passive aggression, leveraging the plausible deniability of blameless victimhood in order to disguise institutional aggression.

    These people don’t want a self help group and ideology brewing workshop. If that’s all they wanted, they’d organize at a time orthogonal to alleged instances of offensive speech, and work on their arguments and self esteem. What they want is a cudgel. And they should be denied it.


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