Featured Philosopher: Vanessa Wills


Vanessa Wills is a political philosopher, ethicist, educator, and activist in Washington, DC.

She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. Dr. Wills received her Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2002.

Her areas of specialization are moral, social, and political philosophy, nineteenth century German philosophy, and the philosophy of race. Her research is importantly informed by her study of Karl Marx’s work, and focuses on the ways in which economic and social arrangements can inhibit or promote the realization of values such as freedom, equality, and human development. Her current major project is a monograph on Marx’s ethical thought.

Philosophy as a Virtuous Irritation:

Can There Be Ruthless Criticism in Safe Spaces?

Vanessa Wills

“Now philosophy has become worldly, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

—Karl Marx, 1843 letter to Karl Ruge[i]

“I was attached to this city by the god […] as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. […] I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.”

–Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s Apology[ii]

That there exists a millennia-old model of the philosopher as social irritant will surprise perhaps no one who has spent very much time around us. Philosophy, the love of knowing, could as easily be described as a love of poking and prodding, a special delight in overturning even or especially the most dearly-held beliefs. This annoys people.

Of late, there has been much talk about, and pushback against, the call for “safe spaces” on university campuses. Such spaces, whether physical, virtual, or even metaphorical, are meant to provide respite from the aggression that students, particularly those who are already marginalized and oppressed, experience in the world at large or in the university environment in particular. Students agitating for safe spaces have been called “silly” by no less notable a figure than Salman Rushdie[iii]. The Atlantic has devoted significant virtual ink to warnings against the supposedly deleteriously “coddling” effect of such practices[iv]. Most recently, a University of Chicago dean issued a charming welcome letter to Class of 2020 students, informing them that their new school would not “condone the creation of intellectual ’safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”[v].

If no belief is safe from the philosopher, and if causing intellectual unease and irritation is itself a core task of philosophy, then it might seem to follow that philosophers should lead the way in opposing any modulation of potentially irritating speech or behavior and, therefore, in opposing the creation of “safe spaces.” But that is too quick. After all, students’ demands for safe spaces are, themselves, “irritating.”

It is in large part because these demands irritate—specifically, because they challenge, question, and undermine assumptions about the norms of discourse—that they have received such stern rebuke from so many corners. Yet by and large, the disdainful responses to student demands for safe spaces overlook one very important fact: that in an important sense, safe spaces already exist. Historically, the university, and for that matter, the newsroom, the printing house, the television studio, and the town square have long been perfectly “safe spaces” for certain people, practices, and ideas, but not for others.

When, for example, students dress up as racist caricatures and then are defended by their authority figures, they are being provided with a space that is safe for their racism and disrespectful disregard (a point Brittney Cooper has made in the pages of Salon[vi]). When a perpetrator of sexual assault is given only three months in jail for brutally raping a woman on the campus of his elite university, the legal system is acting in such a way as to help make the college campus a safe space for rapists to attack women. When states pass laws criminalizing gun bans on campuses, they institutionalize campuses as safe spaces for the constant implicit threat of violence, and as ever more unsafe spaces for those who are the likely targets of violence.

What is at stake now is not really whether there will be safe spaces on university campuses, because of course there will be. The question is whether there will be a just renegotiation of what and whom is made safe there. Philosopher Kate Manne wrote of trigger warnings that they can be implemented for the purpose of “enabling everyone’s rational engagement”[vii]. Something similar can be said of the call for “safe spaces”; it is an attempt to allow more members of the academic community to participate in shaping the norms and boundaries of a discourse that grows broader and richer for this expanded involvement.

Given the irritating nature of the philosophical enterprise, it is not too surprising that there are numerous cases of philosophers—particularly philosophers of color—who have found themselves at the center of battles over which people and what ideas will enjoy the safety of the university. Famously, this was the experience of Angela Davis when the University of California’s Board of Regents removed her from her UCLA philosophy post in 1970 because of her membership in the Communist Party and her criticism of the violent police response to campus protestors[viii]. That she went on to have an illustrious career elsewhere in the same UC system was in part the result of years of agitation and social change that occurred on- and off-campus.

More recently, philosopher George Yancy experienced massive racist blowback against an open letter he’d penned in the New York Times, urging white Americans to “listen with love” to the voices of Black people. Yancy reports, “immediately after the publication of ‘Dear White America,’ I began to receive vile and vitriolic white racist comments sent to my university email address, and verbal messages sent to my answering machine. I even received snail mail that was filled with hatred”[ix].

The aim of these harassers was to destroy any felt safety Yancy might have had in expressing his ideas and indeed in simply existing as a Black academic philosopher, whether in the virtual spaces of his newspaper column and his professional e-mail and voicemail accounts, or in the physical space of his mailbox, or in his own body, which was subjected to violent threat.

To irritate—to poke, to prod, to question, to overturn—is one of the most important tasks of philosophy. At a time when people of color in particular are routinely treated to lurid reminders of their vulnerability, social disposability, and lack of protection, it is a mistake to regard students’ demand for safe spaces as anything other than a virtuous irritation of the status quo. It is not a “retreat” from controversy or a demand to be “coddled.” It is an attempt at direct confrontation with those conditions that produce the unsafety of marginalized and oppressed populations.

This is not by itself to say that pressing the “safe spaces” demand is the absolutely correct tactic for campus social justice movements, or that trigger warnings are best pedagogical practice. But philosophy as social gadfly has a special duty to contribute productively to that discussion. It must not hide behind its idealized practice of ruthless criticism as a way of contributing to the silencing of marginalized voices that protest their social vulnerability. In doing so, it abdicates its essentially radical and irritating task.

[i] Marx, Karl. “1843 Letter to Ruge” Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher < https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm >

[ii] Cooper, John M., and D. S. Hutchinson. “Plato: complete works.” (1997), p.28.

[iii] Page, Clarence. “Salman Rushdie has a problem with ‘safe spaces’ sheltered from Donald Trump,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2016 < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-trump-emory-salman-rushdie-political-correctness-page-perspec-0406-jm-20160405-story.html >

[iv] Haidt, Jonathan and Greg Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015. < http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ >

[v] Rhodes, Dawn and Leonor Vivanco. “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016 < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-university-of-chicago-safe-spaces-letter-met-20160825-story.html >

[vi] Cooper, Brittney. “Stop mocking ‘safe spaces’: What the Mizzou & Yale backlash is really about,” Salon.com, November 18, 2015 < http://www.salon.com/2015/11/18/what_the_mizzou_yale_backlash_is_really_about_the_right_of_white_people_to_engage_in_racial_recklessness/ >

[vii] Manne, Kate. “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” The New York Times, September 19, 2015 < http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html>

[viii] Slutsky, Beth. Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California. University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

[ix] Evans, Brad and George Yancy. “The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher,” The New York Times, April 18, 2016 < http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/the-perils-of-being-a-black-philosopher/ >


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