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Can America Unite in Dignity? This Agnostic Liberal and Religious Conservative Say Yes—and Show Us How

Can America Unite in Dignity? This Agnostic Liberal and Religious Conservative Say Yes—and Show Us How

By Madeleine Jones | Preston Brightwell
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We couldn’t be more different. 

If you ask us to list the things we disagree on, you’d be waiting a while. Yet one thing we’ve both personally experienced—and something that influenced the work we’re doing together right now—is the detrimental effects of contempt on college campuses.

That’s why in 2022, we joined The Dignity Index, which scores speech on a scale of ONE to EIGHT. Each scale point represents a particular mindset towards the other side, ranging from ONE—which sees no dignity at all in the other side—to EIGHT, which sees dignity in everyone. Recognizing contempt and dignity in language helps us solve problems together—in politics, families, workplaces, and communities. After our first training, we felt empowered to hold politicians, pundits, and even friends and family accountable for divisive language.

Over twelve weeks, we scored many speeches and started to internalize the principles of dignity. We realized that we, too, used contempt-laden language. The Dignity Index taught us that contempt spirals into more contempt, while dignity encourages more dignity. This shifted our perspective: Dignity quickly became a foundation, essential for our politics, culture, and relationships.

Despite our differences, we co-founded Students for Dignity, an organization that trains and empowers students to become leaders who change the purpose of public debate from attacking enemies to solving problems. We are an organization that grounds our work in The Dignity Index, and we are committed to one agreement: “We’ll use less contempt and treat each other with dignity.” This commitment transformed our interactions, using disagreements as opportunities to learn. It reinforced the idea that when differences are approached with dignity, they can strengthen us.

Working together on this project has reshaped how we see ourselves as Americans, and how we see our fellow Americans. And in honor of July 4th, we’d like to share four lessons we’ve learned about dignity and its power to unite us.

Lesson No. 1: Leading with dignity opens the door to true understanding.

Early on, as we were still getting to know each other, we were confronted with a decision on whether to include the word “patriotism” in a tagline our colleagues had been using. With the tagline “Dignity: The Foundation of a New Patriotism” up on the projector, we sat across the table from one another in a moment of tense silence. We both later admitted that in that moment, we were mentally prepared for a battle. 

For Madeleine it was, “Uh-oh, I am going to have to explain why this seemingly innocent word might repel some students.” For Preston, it was “Here we go, I am about to hear some woke explanation about why America is horrible and how if you love our country, you’re some crazy far right radical.” 

Yet those thoughts were quickly replaced with a conversation that consisted of prompts like, “Tell me where you see the issue” and “Tell me more about why you think the term should be included.” 

This conversation would be the pattern for dozens more like it between us. It hasn’t always been easy to engage with the intent to understand why the other has come to believe what they do. Yet while we still disagree on a whole list of things, we can truly say we know one another, we understand one another, and we appreciate the insight that our differences give us.

This understanding has not just led to dignified conversation, but a burgeoning friendship. 

Lesson No. 2: Contempt can be intoxicating—but it is the ultimate democracy killer.

If you know us or have seen our work, you know we are constantly talking about the effects of contempt. Let's get reflective for a moment to understand why this is. 

Think of an argument you recently had. Even better, think of one that you walked away from feeling like you had won. Did you “educate a conservative?” Or maybe you “owned a Lib?”  Notice that invigorating adrenaline that floods your mind and body when you feel like you’re fighting for what you believe in against the people you think are ruining the country. 

This is contempt, and it is intoxicating. We know its use can offer things—money, fame, power, validation, and a sense of purpose. But it gets us nowhere if our goals are to find solutions, build relationships, and have discussions about our most pressing issues. These are essential for a healthy democracy, and contempt makes our disagreements intolerable.

When I believe I am superior to you and that my words are more important than yours, this mindset undermines the very essence of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” 

There is no greater threat to democracy than contempt.

Lesson No. 3: There are ways to make sure language doesn’t become contentious.

We are both actively engaged in the work of championing the Dignity Index as a framework for easing division, preventing violence, and solving problems. This venture requires us to put into practice what we preach. 

We know what you’re thinking: C’mon, you’re saying you never get heated or contemptuous looking at political issues all day? There is no way. 

It is not always easy to see the contempt we use, and we are by no means perfect. The Dignity Index is designed to shine a spotlight on contempt. Once you see it, it gets harder to use. The Index also highlights dignity and has this effect of continually encouraging us to move up the scale into the dignity range. As the language we use moves up the Index and becomes more dignified, we also see a rise in humility, curiosity, authenticity and an ability to see the good in each other.

Over the course of our work, we have internalized the Index. It’s always in the back of our minds, calling responses of dignity out of us. This doesn't mean we don’t stand up for what we believe in. But it prompts us to think about our stance and communicate it in a way that stays away from insults, moral character attacks, or labels. 

Now, if a conversation gets heated, we take a deep breath, take a step back, and maybe even walk away for a while, instead of doubling down on contempt.  

Lesson No. 4: Talking about our differences in a dignified, respectful way is crucial if we want to protect what makes America exceptional.

Loving our country means recognizing and learning from our most painful moments to create a better future for all. And we can only do this if we talk about those moments. 

After working on the Dignity Index, we now see that it’s not disagreement that causes our divisions—it’s contempt. A dignity culture doesn’t mean we are looking for a resolution of differences, but a rule of engagement. As Dignity Index co-creators Tim Shriver and Tom Rosshirt like to say: Treating others with dignity does not mean that we drop any of our convictions, but rather add one: Everyone should be treated with dignity, no exceptions.

Contempt is something all of us use. And until each of us sees that we’re a part of the problem, we can’t be part of the solution.  

Contempt is the enemy of free speech because it leaves others feeling they are not free to speak.  Dignity invites us to speak and allows us to be heard. As Tom has written: “Only dignity will protect what makes this country exceptional: The freedom and the public forum that allow us to debate our way toward justice.” That’s why dignity should always be our priority.

Now, It’s Your Turn to Infuse Every Conversation With More Dignity

The lofty nature of this vision we maintain—where our current divisiveness is replaced by a culture of dignity—is not lost on us. Spend five minutes watching the news and it almost seems impossible. Yet after traveling the nation speaking with communities, city councils, college students, and businesses about dignity and contempt, we feel inspired and remain hopeful. We have witnessed a palpable excitement around the concept of dignity. In event after event, people are electrified by the hope for a solution to this divisiveness. 

The Dignity Index provides a framework for the solution, but real change comes from the countless individuals who choose dignity on a daily basis. It is a big endeavor and a large mountain to climb, but we are steadily on our way to a tipping point in our culture where the use of dignity becomes the standard for our interactions.

We are now champions of dignity because we’ve witnessed its power to provide hope regardless of background or perspective. As we’ve introduced the Dignity Index to thousands of people, we’ve seen incredible transformations. 

Young people, initially burdened by cynicism, begin to see themselves as agents of change. They stand a little straighter, filled with a newfound sense of empowerment. It’s a reminder that being a part of the solution is far more hopeful than feeling at the mercy of the problem.

This week we encourage you to consider these lessons, feel empowered by this framework, and join us in finding hope with dignity.

Madeleine Jones is a Dignity Index Field Director and a graduate of the University of Utah. She collaborates with universities and corporations to foster thoughtful discussions and dialogue with dignity.

Preston Brightwell also works for the Dignity Index as a Field Director focusing on applications of the Index to help solve problems. He is a longtime Salt Lake City native where he lives with his wife.

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