Shalise Obray: Dignity is the key to healing our political division

The Dignity Index measures language according to whether it promotes dignity or contempt.

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My mom won’t discuss politics. She won’t even stay in the room while you talk about politics with someone else. She can almost sense when a conversation was headed in that direction, and she is gone.

So many people in my life have bowed out of government involvement because they know that problem solving doesn’t begin with anger or disgust. Why would we abandon everything we learned from our mothers about relationship building the moment we step into any kind of political arena, even if that arena is a private conversation? It’s a struggle to support a civic system that doesn’t offer any civility.

But what if we could create the kind of politics that didn’t make you want to change the channel, kill the radio or delete your profile from social media? What if we could participate in public life and still be nice humans? What if we could bring dignity back?

The Dignity Index, run by the national non-profit UNITE, recently completed its pilot test in Utah. The Index is an eight-point scale for scoring dignity and contempt in public speech. And while it can’t give you a score for candidates themselves, or for whole campaigns, the Dignity Index can give us valuable non-partisan perspective on the language that candidates use when stress levels and stakes are high. In those moments they can choose words that reflect dignity, or words that reflect politics as usual, which are often contemptuous.

Why is dignity so important? According to the Index website, “When we treat the other side with dignity, we make it easier to solve problems. When we treat others with contempt, we make it impossible to solve problems – because contempt takes away our ability to talk to each other.”

Speaking with dignity focuses on the issues, our position, actions that have worked and those that haven’t, and especially - listening. Tami Pyfer, Utah project lead for The Dignity Index explains, “differences and disagreements don’t cause division; contempt causes division.”

Dignity brings us closer together and closer to our common purpose, contempt makes it impossible for us to see each other, to speak to one another, or to work together. Contempt divides us so much that it is, in fact, the precursor to all violence.

Candidates who can offer dignity to everyone show us that they are effective communicators, coalition builders, and problem solvers, the kind of people we need to lead us.

Because the Dignity Index doesn’t score candidates or campaigns, it’s not a social credit system like the one adopted in China. No one will be enforcing penalties for poor numbers. The index simply functions as a way to highlight candidate choices for voters and encourage a more purposeful dialogue. More importantly, it can help shine a light on our own speech, prompting us to choose the language of dignity in all our interactions.

It might seem like there’s no way back from the stark polarization of our current political climate. It’s true that making a difference will take time, education and effort, but the beauty of a democracy is that we can effect change with our vote and with our support. We can push politics toward dignity by refusing contempt in our own speech and rejecting it in what we watch, listen to and what we post on social media. We can recognize and share examples of dignity in others and teach our young people how to differ and even disagree in healthy, productive ways.

I’m choosing the healing power of dignity. I’m going to think about it, talk about it and vote for it. I’m going to practice sharing my thoughts without labeling others or lumping them into stereotypes. I’m going to become the kind of listener who can be respectful even when I disagree.

Come back to political involvement or tip toe in for the first time. Be part of a movement that has the power to influence America for good.

I think my mom is really going to love this.

Shalise Obray

Shalise Obray is a part-time writer and receptionist and a full-time mom who lives in Syracuse, Utah.