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In 2018, increasingly alarmed at the polarization and the vitriol characterizing too much of our national discourse, Tim Shriver (Chair of the Special Olympics) and some colleagues founded UNITE “to find ways to help ease divisions in our country.” The group soon began to focus on language as one major means of creating and exacerbating divisions, and by 2021 they were developing what they came to call the Dignity Index, a set of measures for determining the degree of contempt (or its opposite, which they call dignity) in political discourse, especially between or among people who disagree. Convinced that contempt causes division and that dignity eases it, they hypothesized that putting a spotlight on language that conveys contempt or dignity might reduce contempt and help ease the tension and division so evident in public discourse.
UNITE put their Index to work during the 2022 midterm elections in Utah, training scorers to rank political speeches. They found that “voters from opposite ends of the spectrum were able to agree on scores” and came up with three key findings: first, the Index attracted a lot of attention from people who wanted to learn about it and become trained in using it; second, while people tend to come to the Index thinking of it as a way to judge the speech of others, they soon begin applying it to themselves and their own speech; and finally, when people spent time with the Index, they came to recognize contempt as a major problem, and one that they have some agency in helping to solve.
The group went on to launch “Students for Dignity” at the University of Utah and other universities and to develop additional training materials and courses for others who want to learn how to use the Index to bring about change in communication and ultimately to “embrace a dignity culture.” You can read their 2023 report, "The Dignity Index: Utah Pilot Project Technical Summary," here. One passage from the report seems worth quoting in full:
During Dignity Index development, UNITE team members reported something unanticipated: as the expression of dignity rises in conversation, so did curiosity, humility, vulnerability, and the ability to see the good in others and the flaws in oneself. Observations such as these underscore the premise that treating others with dignity and easing divisions and solving problems are the same set of skills. This suggests the Dignity Index could be a helpful tool in easing political division and supporting productive public dialogue.
I was especially interested in the report’s description of what some students had to say about using the Index. One student said: “We started to apply the guide in our own lives. We were reflecting on it, we understood it, and we trained on it and talked about it." This comment that suggests that we teachers of writing might use the Dignity Index in our classes, preparing students to use it and then working with them as they apply it to discursive exchanges they are studying in class, to political speeches, and to their own language use.
As I’ve studied the report and tried to learn more about the development of the Index, I have wondered about the choice of “dignity” as the best term to encompass the kind of open, respectful, care-full language they are advocating. I expect that for many students, “dignity” and “dignified” connote a kind of distanced stuffiness that resists the definition the UNITE team implies. I wonder if they considered and debated other possible terms, such as “respect” (which comes with its own set of connotational problems as well) or “good regard.” I think “respect” might serve as a better antonym for “contempt” for students today. But in the meantime, whatever terms are chosen, an index that has been tested as thoroughly as this one has and that allows us to take a close look at how our own speech and/or writing veers toward contempt or toward dignity warrants our attention. Check out the eight levels on the contempt-dignity continuum here.
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