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Supreme Court Justice Kagan urges students to debate more, be “less sensitive”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told students in a recent conversation that, as a former Harvard dean, she follows the ongoing debate over campus free speech and has reached several important conclusions: Students should seek out robust debate and disagreement — and then engage with ideological opponents in ways that are both more “civil” and “less sensitive.”

The justice’s comments came during a wide-ranging interview Q&A in late August, hosted by Harvard’s Title IX Office, and can be seen here:

“There are very precious few arguments that can’t be made without demeaning people who hold different views,” Kagan said, urging listeners to “always try to be civil,” and “[pay] attention to how the way you speak is affecting others.”

But those students should also feel empowered — not overcome — when hearing ideas they disagree with.

“I think people should lose their thin skins,” Kagan said. “It actually helps in life to be a little bit less sensitive.”

She also urged students to see the best in others — even if they vehemently disagree.

“If everybody were perfect, everybody would say everything in a way that caused nobody harm, but everybody’s not perfect,” Kagan said. “You have to give people the benefit of the doubt.”

That, she said, is how we make progress.

“Everybody’s trying to do what you’re presumably trying to do, which is the debate ideas in a serious way.”

The conversation turned to free speech on campus after Kagan was asked to reflect on part of an opening statement she made during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010.

“What I've learned most,” she said at the time, “is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom. I've learned that we make progress by listening to each other across every apparent political or ideological divide.”

“It was very heartfelt,” Kagan said, reflecting on those 2010 comments. “I like being in places where there's a lot of robust debate.”

“I think that kind of intellectual diversity is what everybody should want in an educational institution, and indeed, in other institutions as well.”

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