Feb 5, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Axios Finish Line: The dignity mirror effect

Illustration of a dove sitting on a microphone

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

If you're tired of insult-slinging and debates that go in circles, you're not alone.

  • A stunning 85% of Americans — of all ages and viewpoints — say the tone and nature of political debate has gotten worse over the last several years, according to Pew Research Center.

What's happening: The rising power and prominence of the nation's loudest, meanest voices obscures what most of us personally experience: Most people are sane and generous — and too busy to tweet.

Now, an organization of activists, professors and consultants is appealing to that majority by leaning into a disappearing quality — treating others with dignity.

  • UNITE, a group founded by Special Olympics chair Timothy Shriver is getting buzz with its "Dignity Index," which scores tweets, cable news segments, debates and speeches on a scale of 1 to 8.
  • For example, speech that earns a score of 1 is calling for violence against those who disagree with you. Speech that earns a perfect 8 puts yourself in the other person's shoes.

Here are some recent examples of political speech — on social media and on TV — that were scored by a bipartisan group of panelists using the index.

🥊 "The D.C. elites who facilitated this mess do not care about you, and they do not work for you. They work for themselves. They seek to accumulate power at your expense, to pursue an agenda that is harmful to the American people." —Gov. Ron DeSantis in a video on X on Jan. 21.

  • The average score was 3, which embodies the sentiment, "Those people hate us and want to hurt us."

🔎 Zoom in: To elevate a message to the dignity end of the scale, you would leave out any mention of motives or character and stick to the other side's statements and actions, panelists said.

Here are a couple that scored higher:

📱 "The call from the White House was not necessary but still appreciated. We can disagree without demonizing." —former Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Jan. 17 in response to White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients apologizing for the DNC's snarky remarks when Hutchinson suspended his presidential bid.

  • Most panelists scored Hutchinson's tweet a 6, which says, "We have more in common than we think."

💡 "I met probably 50 Trump people waiting in line. Every single one of them thoughtful, hospitable, friendly — all of them so frustrated that they feel nobody's listening to them except Donald Trump." —Rep. Dean Phillips, (D-Minn.) on Jan. 23, speaking on CNN about attending a Trump rally.

  • The average score was 6, characterized by "can see the good in the other side."

How it works: "It's not our disagreements that cause division," says Tom Rosshirt, chief strategist at UNITE and lead author of the index. "It's contempt that causes division."

  • "The trouble with politics today is that the benefits of contempt outweigh the costs," he says. "You can use it to raise money; you can use it to get on television."
  • "We know that treating people with contempt in our family will cause our family to fall apart. What we don't yet know is that treating each other with contempt will tear our country apart."

Zoom in: UNITE rolled out the Index in Utah ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and invited a panel of Utahns to get together and score political speech.

  • The intrigue: Even when panelists didn't support the same candidates, they often did agree on how those candidates' words should be scored.
  • And those who used the index reported a "mirror effect." Scoring others' speech with dignity in mind pushed them to consider their own speech.

Susie Estrada, a graduate student in education at the University of Utah and one of the scorers in the pilot program, said she started noticing contempt in her own internal monologue — the way she was speaking to herself.

  • "It's not easy to offer up dignity, especially when we're all unlearning past behaviors," she says.

Steven Lehnhof, another Utah student and scorer, who says he's a left-leaning moderate but lives in a conservative part of Utah, tells Axios he uses the index when speaking to friends and even his fiancée, whose views are sometimes more conservative than his own.

  • "Once you have someone in a room and you have to acknowledge their worth, that's when the conversation flows positively," he says.
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