When Pew Research Center recently asked Americans whether the U.S. can solve its problems, more than half of those surveyed said “no.”

“What they’re saying is, ‘The country’s doomed. I don’t think we can solve our problems,’” said bestselling author, longtime chairman of the Special Olympics and educator Tim Shriver.

The poll also found that 75% of Americans either have no confidence or very limited confidence in the wisdom of their fellow Americans, he said.

For Shriver, that’s not an acceptable path forward for America. He is a co-founder of the UNITE initiative, which seeks to promote national unity and solidarity across differences.

“Being a divisive, angry, hostile, opinionated person, and creating a superstructure in that culture that rewards that, is destroying the country and it’s deeply damaging our kids,” said Shriver, who is an Impact Scholar at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

As part of his work as an Impact Scholar, Shriver is working with University of Utah students and faculty to “bring dignity to public discourse and create a tipping point in the culture that starts to make contempt and hatred backfire, and to reward people who treat each other with dignity and compassion and decency, and solve problems and reduce divisions and prevent violence.”

With a nod to the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, “a small number of committed people can change the world. We’ve got a small number of committed people to this concept that our culture is sick and needs help,” he said.

The hope and belief is that “here in Utah we might be able marshal the energy of that small group of committed people to attract hundreds, thousands, millions more to the cause and create a tipping point and look back five or 10 years from now and say, ‘Can you believe we once spoke about each other that way?’” Shriver said.

University of Utah impact scholar Tim Shriver poses for a portrait in the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How did we get here?

As the pace of change stirs fear and anxiety itself, social media fans the flame of those feelings.

“I think our politicians have come to the conclusion that hatred, contempt and negativity are more effective at raising money and mobilizing bases and constituencies. They’ve entered into sort of an unholy alliance with the media because a lot of media finds the same thing. The more hateful the story, the more clicks it gets,” he said.

At the same time, many institutions that moderate those forces, help cross divides and collaborate, are themselves in a weakened condition, such as religious institutions or civic and service organizations like the Rotary or the Lions Club.

“Things like that would have held people together and now there’s less trust in them,” he said.

Fewer people are volunteering for the armed forces, institutions that have traditionally engendered a love of country “or a commitment to the higher ideals of the country even if it wasn’t meeting it,” Shriver said.

What can break the cycle?

The “perfect storm” of forces has contributed to the nation’s “cycle of addiction to contempt,” he said.

Restoring dignity to public discourse and to basic human interactions requires self-reflection and committing to personal change regarding our perceptions of those we consider “other,” he said.

Asked what he means by dignity, Shriver explained, “I see myself in you. I see we have something in common at a deep level. You have something inherent in you that is good and beautiful and capable of contributing to the hopes and dreams and future of the country.”

There are other steps people can take to lower the temperature and insist on more thoughtful public discourse. Shriver said he quit watching cable television news. People can withhold campaign contributions to candidates whose rhetoric threatens the fabric of the nation, he said.

“We’d like to have a debate in the state of Utah, maybe a presidential debate, but make it about dignity, not about your policy position on foreign policy or policy position on the economy or immigration or social issues, whatever they are. Let’s have a debate on how you treat your opponents,” he said.

But before something like that happens, there is hard work to be done on the University of Utah campus and in the larger community, Shriver said.

“It’s an enterprise grounded in the scholarship of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, educators, political science people. It’s a project grounded in activism, people who believe that by marshaling the best science and best ideas and putting them into the hands of activists who have a willingness to put one foot in front of the other and walk the pavement and knock on doors and use social media, that we can put those two things together and create scholarly impact,” he said.

While in Utah this week, Shriver has spent time meeting with business and elected leaders, university leaders, and guest lecturing at the U.’s College of Education.

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His visit to Utah concludes Thursday but he will return to the campus in two weeks because he is also the general commencement speaker for the university’s graduation exercises on May 4.

University of Utah impact scholar Tim Shriver, right, meets with members of Students for Dignity, including Preston Brightwell, left, and Maddie Hair at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Bestselling author and social scientist Arthur Brooks was named a Gardner Policy Institute Impact Scholar last fall.

Impact Scholars agree to visit the U. campus each semester for three to four days to guest lecture, participate in roundtable discussions with state and local officials, and consult with university and community leaders.

Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks now an Impact Scholar at the University of Utah

Brooks is a Harvard professor, a social scientist and columnist at The Atlantic. His book, “Strength From Strength,” which became a New York Times No. 1 bestseller, shows readers how to accept the gifts of the second half of life with grace, joy and deepening purpose.

University of Utah impact scholar Tim Shriver, center, is greeted before speaking in the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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