When Republican Sen. Mike Lee and his U.S. Senate opponent Evan McMullin met for a debate in October, they may not have been aware a group of University of Utah students was listening intently, waiting to see whether each candidate treated his opponent with dignity or contempt.
As it turned out, both Lee and McMullin came out with a few gold stars and a few red flags, according to the scores assigned them by the students, who were part of a pilot project in Utah sponsored by the Dignity Index, an organization founded by Tim Shriver.
Shriver, who is also chairman of Special Olympics, was in Salt Lake City on Thursday to talk about the Utah pilot program, alongside Tami Pyfer, project lead, University of Utah professor Jesse Graham and Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Institute, which hosted the event.
The students and professors involved in the Dignity Index monitored the language used in political ads, debates and emails for the Lee-McMullin race, as well as Utah’s congressional races, and then ranked the language on a scale from 1 to 8, with one being the most contemptuous and 8 being the most dignified.
Graham said they hired students from across the ideological spectrum to make sure the ratings weren’t politically biased. When students across the spectrum agreed on a rating, they knew they had it right, he said. Hiring ideologically diverse students was also a way for project organizers to preempt criticism that the project could be used as a partisan tool to condemn one side but not the other.
Besides being lead on the project, Pyfer, former education adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert, is also vice president of UNITE, a national organization started by Shriver to try to help people bridge political divides.
It isn’t just in our political discourse that we see divisiveness and contempt, she said, but also in our own families.
“My family has not escaped some of the division that’s happened in the country,” Pyfer said. “And when you think about what the country is experiencing, it’s happening in families. It’s happening in communities.”
She said half of her family is to her political right and the other half is to her left, and she chooses what to send to her kids based on their political preferences.
“What this index has done for me is it’s shown that I have been guilty in my own way … of dividing my own family,” she said. “I would like to point to it being my libertarian son’s fault, or my Democrat daughter’s fault, but it wasn’t. It was really me. And I keep thinking if we can change the whole country’s hearts and minds, that’s fantastic, but changing my heart and my mind and my perspective is even more effective, and that’s how I can make a difference.”
The difficulty with trying to get people to give up contempt is that it feels good in the moment, said Graham.
“There’s something really addictive about it. It feels good in the moment to see somebody strike a contemptuous blow against the other side,” he said. “But it’s like empty calories for the soul. It feels good in the moment, but it’s really bad for your long-term well-being. Whereas dignity, in the moment, at least at first, it feels like work. It’s hard to do, but it’s nourishing.”
Using the work Graham and others at the University of Utah piloted, Shriver said he hopes to take the project nationwide. He said he decided to pilot the Dignity Index in Utah in part because of Pyfer’s ability to marshal resources in the state, but also because of its uniqueness.
“This is a state where innovation is welcome,” he said.
The former governor, who was in the audience Thursday, mentioned the use of political terms like “war room,” and said lawmakers engage in negative campaigning because it works.
“If we reward bad behavior, we get more bad behavior,” he said. “We need to get the public to say we won’t tolerate it.”
Herbert’s sentiments were echoed by Utah state Sen. Evan Vickers, who said “small powerful groups” of voters are having an outsized influence on politics today.
“The reality is that those factions are becoming powerful enough that they drive who gets elected, and I find a lot of my colleagues succumbing to the fact that I’ve got to play to that base,” he said.
Shriver said his goal is to mobilize “passionate pragmatists” to counterbalance the power of voters on the extreme edges of both parties.
“I think the public is beginning to wake up to its own responsibility,” he said. “I think people are waking up to the idea that contempt is an existential threat to the country.”
“Our premise here is that dignity actually helps people solve problems,” while “contempt is a problem creator,” he said.