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Home U Rising This powerful tool helps you treat other people better — especially when you disagree


Tim Shriver created The Dignity Index to shift how we interact with other people in all facets of life — from public and political conversations to daily engagements with those who are different from us or who hold views we don’t share. In this episode of U Rising, Shriver talks with host Chris Nelson about how the index was developed and then refined here on the U campus and his hope that this simple tool will lead to a cultural change in the way we treat each other.

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Chris Nelson: On Friday, Dr. Tim Shriver gave the keynote speech at the Kindness Summit on our campus. The U hosted this inaugural event with the One Kind Act Day movement started by the Semnani Foundation here in Salt Lake City.

There's no question that we all need to treat each other with more kindness and Tim is a great person to share advice on how we can do that. Tim is a disability rights activist with a long-term role at the Special Olympics and he's the co-founder of UNITE and of the Dignity Index. He's also one of the U’s Impact Scholars.

Tim, welcome to U Rising and welcome back to Utah.

Tim Shriver:  Thanks for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

Chris Nelson: So, let's just jump right into it. How do you explain the divisions that are really tearing our communities and country apart right now?

Tim Shriver: Well, there's a lot of reasons for them and a lot of people have different opinions as to why we find ourselves in the situation we're in. People will say more than 80% of Americans say we're more divided than we've ever been. A third of us have ended a relationship with someone in our own family or a close friend over politics. Almost half of our young people are reporting significant levels of distress and loneliness and despair about the future, about themselves, almost clinically depressed depending on how you define those terms.

Tim Shriver: "The primary skill I believe we need in the 21st century is the capacity to think and feel and understand difference and not be scared of it."

So, it's clear that we're checking out, we're despairing of the future, we are hopeless about each other, we don't believe in institutions, all these things. But the irony is that when you peel back the layers of the onion, things are not as divided as we think. What's happened is that our politics and our social media and our partisan news media are divided.

So they're inflaming a sense of fear. They're inflaming a sense of devotional anger. They're leading us to become almost addictively hostile to each other. But underneath it, when you actually measure our differences on issues, even very contentious issues, we're not that far apart as Republicans and Democrats, as progressives and conservatives. When you look closely, we share many of the same values — the freedom to vote, the freedom of religion, the freedom of expression. A lot of fundamental American values are broadly shared in the country.

When you peel back the layers of the onion, you see quite an extraordinary generation of young people, more creative, more open, more welcoming, more entrepreneurial than almost any generation in history. But you don't hear that version of us. What you hear is, “Those people are dangerous. Those people are trying to ruin our country. Those people have to be stopped.”

So, it's, in a way, a tale of two countries. The country we live in through the lens of our politics and the media? That country is a mess. The country we live in in most of our communities, most of the relationships we have, most of the time in which we meet and talk to other people, actually has a lot to believe in. So, our hope with the Dignity Index is to help people see that when they disagree with someone, they don't have to opt toward hatred. They can actually disagree without being disagreeable. They can disagree with someone's position, with someone's policies, without attacking the other person.

It's a very simple formula, really, but actually tricky and hard to do. But when people do it, they find themselves a little calmer within. When they use more dignity, they feel better about themselves. They tend to be kinder, but most importantly, they actually tend to be able to solve a problem. So instead of just screaming at each other and not getting anything done, when we treat each other with dignity, we listen to each other and we actually find common ground, frequently, that leads to problem solving,

Chris Nelson: And those are folks you call “uniters.”

Tim Shriver: I would love to have that be a party, you know, a club, a new civic organization or just a label that people would be proud to wear. A uniter is not someone who agrees with everyone. A uniter is not someone who's the same as everyone. A uniter is not someone who abandons their principles. A uniter is someone who, with their principles, with their conviction, with their hopes and dreams, meets other people with dignity. That's all.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, you've written, “Uniters do seek unity in treating others with dignity, which gives justice a chance to flourish.”

Tim Shriver: The irony is that the angrier we get, we think we're fighting harder for the principles we have, it doesn't matter which side you're on. You think you're truer, you're pure, you're more committed to the principles you have if you get angrier and more hostile and more vigorous and more demanding of change. Actually, the more hostile you get, the more contempt you show, the less likely you are to have your principles be listened to or heard or understood or adopted by others.

Chris Nelson: So, I want to get to the Dignity Index in just a second, but where'd the idea come from? Was there a pivotal moment where you . . . what's the genesis of this?

Tim Shriver: Well, there was a pivotal two years. We spent quite a lot of time with Republicans and Democrats, young people, community organizers. We traveled around the country. We went to Texas and Mississippi, to Iowa and California, to Virginia and Maryland. Lots of different places, talking to people, what's going on? And we finally came to this understanding that for a whole host of reasons, this issue of contempt had become out of control. And we found a lot of agreement on that.

When I say that now, people go, “Yeah, it's out of, yeah, did we have too much? Yep, that's us. We are out of control when it comes to contempt.” Our goal then was to isolate that one issue, not try to solve the problem of the Electoral College or try to solve the problem of gerrymandering or rank choice voting or other things that are very important, by the way, but just try to solve this one problem.

And that's what led us to say, “Well, how are we going to solve it if we can't define it? And how are we going to define it if we don't measure it? And how are we going to measure it if we don't have a scale?” So, it was like, well, maybe we should develop a scale that actually lets us define it and measure it, and therefore challenge people to do better. And that's what led to what I would call, kind of a simple thing, the Dignity Index. But it turns out to be extraordinarily powerful for most of us because it helps us to see the world a little bit differently. That's not an insignificant thing.

Chris Nelson: And if you're on this campus, many of us already have this. I'm holding a card here that's got the 1 through 8 scale, but for those who maybe have not heard you've been on campus, just a quick synopsis of this 1-to-8 scale and how it works.

Tim Shriver: Yeah, so what we've done is we created a continuum. On one end of the continuum is treating people with hatred and contempt. When we characterize someone at the lowest level, we will say, “You do not deserve to live. I disagree with you so much. You're an animal, you're subhuman. I don't care whether you survive.” That's a call to violence.

If you ease your way up the scale, you might say, at a 2, “Well, you're an evil person and I'm against you and I might determine to defeat you and destroy you, but I don't need to kill you.” And then you ease your way up to a 3 and a 4. You start to think to yourself, “Well, I'm better than you. You're not good.” And then when you get to the higher levels of the scale, when you start to hit a 5, you start to say, “Well, we don't agree, but you deserve a chance to speak.”

Or maybe even a little bit better, “We don't agree, but maybe we need to look for where we do agree.” And then maybe a little higher: “We don't agree. But the great joy of my life would be finding a way to find common ground” and then maybe a little higher, “We might not agree, but I see in you a piece of myself, and I hope you see in me a piece of yourself. We will find a way to treat each other with dignity no matter what, no exceptions.”

So, the scale lets you judge. And when you say to your friend, “Those people are trying to destroy the country,” all we do is say, okay, that's a 3, in all likelihood depending on what the modifiers are, and you look at it and you go, “Okay, yeah, that's a 3.” And then you immediately see on the scale, but you could have said the same thing with more dignity.

So, what happens is what we call the mirror effect. People start thinking less about wanting to judge Donald Trump or Joe Biden or Spencer Cox or another governor or your senators. They start to think about how they can improve. And when we see people saying, “I want to do better, then we know we're in what I would call movement territory, because when people from the ground up start to own that they want to build a different way of interacting with other people, that can shift the culture.

Chris Nelson: So, you were at Bryant Middle School this morning in the Salt Lake City School District, I think is where that is. What's the difference between what you see at that age group versus grown adults, maybe politicians? Does it give you some hope?

Tim Shriver: Well, look, our young people, I was there, we were meeting not just with students, but with administrators and teachers. The Salt Lake City School District wants to become the first district in the country that is known as a Dignity District, which means they want to teach it in classrooms, they want to teach dignity. They want to use it to help children when they study literature, to study the characters in a short story or in a novel or in a play and study the characters, see how the characters use contempt or violence, see how they use dignity. They want to use it when they're teaching social studies, maybe as they learn civics or as they learn U.S. history or as they learn the structure of democracy. How does a democracy enhance dignity? How does democracy weaken when contempt is used in institutions? So, they want to be the school system that makes dignity a centerpiece of who they are, how they teach, what they teach and who they are.

We asked the kids, what do you think? Younger kids, it almost comes naturally. They think, well, yeah, like, you remember that book, a hundred years ago, “Everything I Needed in Life, I Learned in Kindergarten” — how to take turns, you know, how to be respectful of your neighbor, how to keep your hands clean, you know, all these kinds of things that are lifelong lessons.

So little children, when they're with teachers that they care about and who care about them, can naturally learn to shift from a hostile . . . kids get angry, just like everybody else, but they can easily shift out of it and easily opt for treating others with more dignity.

You get to the high school kids, they said today, “Well, you know, we think it's a good idea to treat people with dignity, but it's not cool.” And so what they were saying was, look, what makes you popular a lot of times is, like, can you ridicule other people? Can you make fun of them? Can you be snarky? Can you be cutting and biting to other people? But the kids were there and they said, “Look, you know what? That is what gets you popular sometimes in high school but doesn't have to. Doesn’t have to. We can change it.” And they left, I mean, kids came up to me, “You come back at the end of next year, we're going to show you we've changed.”

Chris Nelson: Self-awareness, right? Self-awareness is always helpful.

Tim Shriver: Isn't it that simple, right? Easy to say, hard to do.

Chris Nelson:  Yeah, and I'm just reflecting on my day and I’m thinking. . .

Tim Shriver: Okay, how'd you do?

Chris Nelson: I was between a 4 and a 5, I'll be honest. I need to get more into those upper . . .

Tim Shriver: Okay, so without prying, can you share what led you to a 4 moment today?

Chris Nelson: So, on the Dignity Index, I'll read it: “We're better than those people. They don't really belong. They're not one of us.”

Tim Shriver: And that's a 4.

Chris Nelson: That’s a 4, yeah, as opposed to a 5, which is, the other side has a right to be here and a right to be heard. It's their country too. It was not quite as political. This was just more roles at the University of Utah, like I'm right, you're wrong. If you just do what I say, everything will be fine. And so that's my world.

Tim Shriver: No, no, that's the world. So that's such a good example. So, I don't know what the specific example was, was there some policy . . .

Chris Nelson: I’d like to keep being employed so I don’t want to share!

Tim Shriver: I know. I don't want to cost you your job! But it's a good example because that's where most people live. They go to work and they think to themselves, that other department or my supervisor or the person who works for me or the person who works across the hall from me, they're doing it wrong. Now, if the issue is where I think we should go right, the other guy thinks we should go left, you got a difference of opinion. “They’re idiots” is not likely to solve it, but it's a good shorthand for how you feel.

Chris Nelson: It makes me feel better.

Tim Shriver: Right? But that's the problem. It makes you feel better, but it doesn't solve the problem. That's what we've got in our culture. People feel better when they tune into partisan media because the people on partisan media will tell you you're right, they're foolish, they're idiots. They're trying to destroy the country. And you think, yeah, feel better, feel better, feel better. Destroy the country, destroy the country, destroy the country.

When you think to yourself, even in your place of business, they want to do it this way, I want to do it a different way. If we could just coach ourselves into, “Let me take a deep breath and let me see if I can ask. Let me just see if I can text the guy who I'm having this thing with and say, I realize you don't want to do it this way. Could you tell me more about your point of view?”

You may be prepared already to slam him, but you've asked, you've opened the door for a communication. Now already, I promise you, the person who receives that text is going to be reduced in terms of their antagonism to you. “Oh my God. He asked me what I think, well, now that you asked . . .” This is what people say, this is what they say. “Well, I didn't think you were going to ask, but now that you've asked, let me tell you what I think . . .”

Now, what you get back may not change your mind, but it will start a dialogue. So, you're now in a whole new territory. You're out of, “He's an idiot” into a dialogue. I'm not promising you're going to agree, but you're going to have a better chance of understanding the other person and ultimately a better chance of coming up with a better solution. So, it's just helping us ease out of that knee jerk hostile reaction, which makes us feel good, almost guarantees we won't solve the problem, and into a more open and curious reaction that challenges us to get out of our comfort zone, but it increases the chances that we'll get to someplace better. Does that make sense?

Chris Nelson: It does. It also strikes me to get out of our own echo chamber. In my professional world, I'm surrounded by communication, marketing people. I know how they think. We think the same. I go speak to a faculty member or somebody else — that's challenging. And if I broaden that, you know, we talk a lot about diversity of thought, diversity of socioeconomics in Utah, and it feels like this plays into that, the importance of that, as well.

Tim Shriver: It really does. And you mentioned communications professionals. If there's one thing that we notice when we listen to people on these issues is many people think there are whole businesses that are dominated by a mindset that's antagonistic to them. So, to state the obvious, many conservatives feel like the media, Hollywood, communications people, they're all liberal. Many people who are liberal think religious people, faith-based leaders, they're all conservative, they're all this, they're all that.

So, we have this mentality and it's partially true because the echo chamber effect, that you get into businesses and all of a sudden you're surrounded by people that think the same way you do. You're limiting. Those maybe are not great examples, but business people, everybody thinks they're a certain type of person. The more people in those professions can broaden the engagement strategies they have, the professional recruitment strategies, so they hear from other walks of life, the better they're going to be because the communicator is going to be better at communicating if he or she knows and understands their audience and the multiple perspectives that are out there.

Chris Nelson: And those shared experiences. So, what people may not realize is that your organization piloted the Dignity Index here in Utah with the help of University of Utah students during the midterm elections in 2022. Tell us about that pilot and how did it go?

Tim Shriver: So, we came here with our original cut of this index, which we did a lot of research on, but we hadn't ever used. So, we recruited about a dozen students. We had the terrific support from Jesse Graham, who is a faculty member. And we tested. We had a 10-point scale and we found it actually didn't work. And so both statistically and from the point of view of intelligibility, the first phase of the pilot caused us to revise it. So, we went from a 10-point scale to an eight-point scale, and then we started testing again. I say all this so that people know that we didn't just throw this together. This wasn't just, you know, Tim writing down his opinion of how to be a nice person or that kind of thing. After we did that, we then conducted a series of tests as to whether people who were conservative and progressive could score speech the same.

In other words, was this free of bias? Because a lot of people will hear this and say, “Oh, well, Tim Shriver just scored Donald Trump a 3. That’s because he’s a liberal. Or Tim Shriver just scored Joe Biden a 7. Oh, that’s because he loves Joe Biden. It's not a 7, Joe Biden, he should have been scored . . .”  So, we wanted to guard against that, the bias factor, which is so prevalent in our culture. So, we tested the index here to determine whether, regardless of your political perspective as a scorer, could you score it the same as someone who is different? And after several weeks, actually months, we got it. We got the thing right. We got it so that no matter where you came from politically, you, if you were well trained in the use of the index, you'd score it the same way as somebody who came from a completely different perspective.

So our belief is that the testing here created what we would call an objective measure, and it has what the scientists tell us is the inter-rater reliability between different raters, they grade the same piece of content the same way. So that gives us confidence when we go around the country asking other young people to join us and offering to measure and test speech. It gives us confidence that we're not coming with a bias of one perspective or another, but we're coming with insight simply on this issue — how much contempt, how much dignity.

Chris Nelson: So, one of the reasons you're back in Salt Lake this week is for the Kindness Summit, and this is an interesting project by Khosrow Semnani, who I know this has been a cause near and dear to his heart. And as we were looking at this, the Kindness Summit, dignity, it's almost kindness and dignity, I would not normally associate as synonyms but in this case it almost is. I know we're interviewing before you give that speech, but can you give us a little bit of a preview?

Tim Shriver: Well, the preview here, I think, is that kindness is often considered a behavior or an emotion. Be kind. Your parents will say this to you or your teachers will say, or somebody else who's a scold might say to you, “Be kind, Timothy, stop.” So, they're usually inviting us to change an emotion in some way. You're tempted to be mean, you're tempted to be curt, you're tempted to be indifferent, why don't you try to be kind? What the Dignity Index is is actually a method for deepening your capacity to be kind to yourself, like, we invite people when they're in a conflict to regulate first, take a deep breath. The reason you want to regulate and take a deep breath and get out of your reactive mind, the part of your brain that's quick to respond with an aggressive or a fight or flight response, is because you can tap into the part of you that's kinder, is the simplest way of putting it.

So, regulate when you're in a debate, breathe or take a pause in a conflict, become curious about others. It's a practice. And when you start to do this regularly, kindness almost emerges spontaneously. You don't have to force yourself to be kind, you just look at someone else and you think to yourself, well, that guy, he doesn't, he looks like he's coming from a different part of the world than me. How are you doing? As opposed to, that guy looks strange and weird, let me move on. So, our vision here is that at its core, when kindness is inspired by a sense of one's own dignity and the dignity of others, it's spontaneous, it's natural, it's a practice. It's not a forced behavior. And I think what the foundation is trying to do is get us into the habit of being, not force you to be kind, but get in the habit of being kind. And that's what we hope the Dignity Index helps people do in conflict.

Chris Nelson: So, Tim, we’ve talked about the work we did in 2022. What's happening today? How is this going now?

Tim Shriver: So, what happened in 2022 was we were blown away by the response of the students. We were blown away by media, the coverage, the interest, by the hidden demand for something like the Dignity Index. So, we're now in campuses all around the country. We've got young people from Utah, from the U, who are taking this message to places like Drake and the University of Pennsylvania and Morehouse and the University of Wisconsin and schools all over the country because students in those places, USC and other places, they want to learn how to get involved in the Dignity movement.

So, we've got Students for Dignity growing now around the country. We've got governors in different parts of the country, Governor Stitt in Oklahoma, but several other governors, who are interested in supporting and following Governor Cox here in the state of Utah in learning how to disagree better and adopting the Dignity Index as part of the way in which they commit to elevating their political discourse.

We've got an AI team from the University of California at Berkeley that's helping us build an AI tool that we hope someday will be able to allow us to score massive amounts of data in almost real time, that would enable us to do even more there. And we've got the K-12 work here in Salt Lake City, but we hope in other school districts. We've just met with school board members from all over the country and we've got lots of requests for kindergarten through 12th grade educators who want to bring dignity as a way of reducing conflict on campus, reducing bullying, promoting time commitment to learning.

So, I'm very unapologetically grateful to the University of Utah, to President Randall for his early, early, early conviction and support for our work, to the students here, who have been our first adopters, and who have now become, maybe I dare say, our missionaries of a slightly different mission than . . .

Chris Nelson: You've really gotten to know this community. That was good. That was a good line!

Tim Shriver: I’ve spent time here. It's very exciting. I mean, you know, it's still early days, but I think we can have an impact on the country. And I think it's going to be because of the energy and enthusiasm and faith and commitment that so many people in Utah have shown.

Chris Nelson: And, of course, you know the University of Utah is host to a presidential debate in partnership with The Commission on Presidential Debates. I'm wondering if we need to print these Dignity Index cards.

Tim Shriver: Well, I would love to have a dignity debate. You know, you have foreign policy debates, sometimes there's an economics debate. Sometimes there's a debate about and they ask everybody questions about education or they ask everybody questions about all different kinds of issues. Why not have an hour where all we do is talk to our presidential contenders about their own dignity, how they learned about dignity, how they practice it, how they think the government embodies it, how to avoid contempt, how they've learned about these things, who they've learned from. I mean, I think that would be a shockingly fascinating debate. Not the same old, tired, you did this, you did that, you did this, you did that. You're the worst. You're the worst. No, you're the worst. No, you're even worse than the worst.

So anyway, I hope someday we have that. I'm not sure it's going to be this year, but . . .

Chris Nelson: Well, we'll host it. You make it happen. We will make the space available.

Tim Shriver: I would be very happy.

Chris Nelson: And for listeners, if you want to learn more, you can go to That's

Tim Shriver: And I should, because I'm so hopeless on this stuff, but follow us on social media Dignity Index. Follow me, Tim Shriver on X [@TimShriver] and Instagram and these other places. We're trying to build a community of people who are learning from each other, sharing quotes, sharing information, sharing ideas as to how to make this movement grow. We'd welcome the participation of all of you, but don't bring your contempt to my social media. That's my only request. It's not a condition, but it's a request. No twos and ones and threes, please.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. Let me close with the question I've been asking a lot of our guests. We talk a lot about the value of higher ed. This is a local conversation, it's a state conversation, it's a national conversation. And again, everything you're talking about can be, I've seen so many ways, to apply that in the classroom and the way we advocate for ourselves. But you've been working with us for about a year. You were the commencement speaker last year.

Tim Shriver gave the 2023 commencement address.

Tim Shriver: You've heard enough from me, I know!

Chris Nelson: Well, this campus has gotten to know you a little bit. But what's your takeaway? Are you optimistic about higher ed? How can higher ed contribute and help this cause?

Tim Shriver: I'm wildly optimistic, probably almost naively optimistic, about higher ed. I think that we've sometimes missed in the debate about higher ed the core value of education and the core value of education is the capacity to see and think from multiple perspectives, right? I grow up thinking that water comes from . . . I'm three years old. I think it comes from the tap. I get educated, I learn it comes from the atmosphere and I learn it comes from rivers and streams, and then I learn how to clean it, and then I learn more about where it's protected, and then I learn more about how it gets carbonation in the earth. All of a sudden, water starts to sparkle with whole worlds of insight that come simply from understanding water. That's what education does. And the primary goal, the primary skill I believe we need in the 21st century is the capacity to think and feel and understand difference and not be scared of it.

Humanity has always done best when we see difference and we meet it with curiosity and understanding as opposed to with fear and violence. I think higher education, is at its core, an effort to help people see the ways, the multiple ways, history, science, mathematics, social studies, literature, poetry, to be able to see the world from many different perspectives. And when we start to see and understand the world from different perspectives, we become more curious, more understanding and more capable of being an agent of inclusion.

I think we make it as a planet if we learn how to include people, even when they're quite different. I don't think we make it if we don't.

So, I don't mean you have to have a higher education degree to be an inclusive person. That's certainly not the case. But I do think higher education can be a pillar of ensuring that future generations will become more welcoming and more open and treat people with more dignity than this one.

Chris Nelson: Dr. Tim Shriver, thank you for joining us.

Tim Shriver: Thanks for having me.

Chris Nelson: That's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.