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The power of dignity: Tim Shriver forges new path through the walls that divide us

U Impact Scholar and Special Olympics chairman outlines the Dignity Index to College of Education.

Imagine a world where it’s normal and unremarkable for people to disagree without insults, threats and outrage spilling into their conversation. That is no longer the world we inhabit, where outrage and contempt have become the norm, but Tim Shriver has a solution.

In a word, dignity.

“It’s almost liberating to think you could be in a room where contempt was not a potential response to you,” the chairman of the Special Olympics said on Oct. 19 at a campus event titled “The Walls We Cannot See,” exploring ways to cut through the invective and vitriol that characterizes much of what passes for political discourse these days.

Shriver is the son of Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, herself the sister of Democratic leaders John F., Ted and Robert F. Kennedy. He has led the latter organization since the mid-1990s.

As an antidote to the rise of contempt, Shriver has co-founded a new group called UNITE, which has produced what it calls the Dignity Index as a tool to restore civility and calm to our politics.

PHOTO CREDIT: Harriet Richardson

Frankie Santos Laanan, dean of the U College of Education, introduced Tim Shriver.

People are hungering for ideas that unite and this is one that works, according to Frankie Santos Laanan, dean of the College of Education, which hosted Shriver’s appearance.

“The index is an eight-point scale for measuring how people speak to each other when they disagree, highlighting the language of contempt or dignity of these interactions,” Santos Laanan said in his introduction for Shriver. “Grounded in the research of behavioral sciences, communication, politics and social science. The Dignity Index is changing the public’s views on the need for more respectful political and public discourse.”

Trained as an educator, Shriver has been a tireless advocate for those with disabilities for decades, particularly the athletes who compete in the track meets Special Olympics stages around the world. The Gardner Policy Institute selected Shriver, who delivered the keynote at the U’s 2023 commencement, as one of its three Impact Scholars this year.

Shriver began his talk with an anecdote from 1963 about his mom, then the sister of a sitting president, inviting children with intellectual disabilities, who were excluded from summer camps, for swimming sessions at the family’s suburban Maryland home. While a small gesture, “Camp Shriver” planted the seeds for the Special Olympics, founded a few years later.

“A wildly distorted cultural norm that rewards contempt and hate”

While much progress has been made in building a more inclusive society in the half-century since the nation has become deeply polarized along ideological lines.

“We have a new viral, toxic, almost lethal issue that almost no one has named,” he said. “We have a cultural addiction to contempt. It is not a function of disagreement. We do not have a disagreement problem in this country. We have a contempt problem. They are not the same. It is not a sin to disagree. It is human to disagree, I venture. It is not necessary to disagree with hatred.”

A reason outrage has become so prevalent is that it works for those selling it. It is rewarded with clicks, votes and donations, Shriver said.

“We are paying for an outrage-industrial complex designed to make you hate your fellow individual. It’s the business model. It’s addictive,” Shriver said. “We’ve got a little bit of a perfect storm. We have the algorithms. We have the constant, almost inescapable outrage of social media. … We’ve got a media structure that monetizes the stories of contempt and outrage into devotional anger.”

Shriver heaped praise on Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, whom he sees as a refreshing throwback to an era when political figures routinely engaged their opponents without vilifying them.

Shriver specifically called out Cox’s “disagree better” initiative that defined his recent chairmanship of the National Governors Association. The initiative’s efforts yielded mixed results, but they earned Cox a national reputation as a bridge builder, as opposed to the bridge burners and merchants of outrage who now seem to own the political limelight.

He also called out two recent U graduates Madeleine Jones and Preston Brightwell who have signed on with UNITE as field organizers for the Students Dignity campaign.

To carry this idea of “disagreeing better” forward, Shriver outlined UNITE’s Dignity Index and challenged the audience members to evaluate themselves along its eight levels and think of ways they can level up.

At the bottom is level 1, the attitude that the people you oppose “are not even human. It’s our moral duty to destroy them before they destroy us.”

On the outer side of the dignity spectrum at level 8 is the belief that every person holds inherent worth and should be treated with dignity “no matter what.”

Shriver argued most Americans fall in around level 2 or 3, well inside “us-versus-them” territory.

“Whether you choose contempt or not is your choice,” he said. “I’m telling you, you shouldn’t. But I am saying that bringing contempt out of the shadow allows us at least to address whether it’s justified.”

UNITE offers several tips to build skills for dignified disagreement. To learn more, visit the website.

  • Be curious, not furious
  • Regulate, then debate in other words; take a deep breath before speaking
  • Listen to hear, not to respond
  • Challenge ideas, don’t attack people
  • Acknowledge knowledge
  • Build up rather than tear down

For more information, see the Gardner Policy Institute’s Utah pilot project summary.