In early October, Tami Pyfer, a former Special Ed teacher, high-level Republican appointee and member of the Tabernacle Choir, logged onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and posted a carefully crafted announcement.
“Are you frustrated by the hate and negativity in our country’s political and public discourse?” the post asked. “You’re not alone.” A new tool called the Dignity Index was now on the case. It was designed to score politicians’ rhetoric on an eight-point scale based on how dignified or contemptuous it was. Voters would find the scores on the Dignity Index’s website, or, more likely, through media coverage, much like they might come across candidates’ NRA or Planned Parenthood scorecards.
And it was already being deployed that very week in Utah, just in time for the midterms.
The response was immediate.
“Just another group that wants to neuter conservatives,” one man commented.
“Great!” a woman replied to his comment. “Maybe there wouldn’t be so many women needing an abortion!”
“Are you normally this stupid, or are you making a special effort today?” the man responded.
The Facebook post lasted all of one week. “The comments were so toxic, I had to shut the page down,” said Pyfer, the Utah Lead of the Dignity Index Demonstration Project. But she was strangely upbeat. “Instagram and Twitter — mostly positive,” she said. “So lots of good stuff!”
This fall, Pyfer and her colleagues at Unite, a national nonprofit organization focused on healing America’s divides, tested the Dignity Index for the first time in Utah — a state known for its relative decency. The goal of Pyfer and Unite’s small team of Democrats and Republicans was to find a way to score the meanness or grace of politicians’ words in hopes of nudging them towards decency and away from vitriol. Despite everything.
It sounds painfully naïve, admittedly. Our media and political system incentivize toxicity, by design. In fundraising emails, on social media, and on cable TV, the easiest way to cut through the noise is to say something outrageous. And when a politician does, they often get showered with attention and donations. “Trying to override our psychology without changing the political environment is like telling people they should have more willpower and stop eating so many cookies, and by the way, here’s a big plate of fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies,” the political scientist Lee Drutman writes in his book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.
Explaining the Index
THE Dignity Index USES an eight-point scale to score POLITICAL rhetoric based on how dignified or contemptuous it iS
And yet, there is one thing virtually all Americans now agree on: the political conversation is rotten to its core. Something needs to change. In a poll conducted by Joel Benenson for Unite in 2019, two-thirds of those surveyed said that a “lack of mutual respect” was the most urgent problem facing the country — more urgent to more people than immigration, addiction or access to affordable health care.
“They’re onto something meaningful and measurable,” says Frank Luntz, the veteran GOP pollster who is familiar with the Index and recently conducted his own polling on the concept.
Luntz found that the word “respect” was more salient to people he surveyed than “dignity,” but he thinks the general concept is intriguing, all the same.
“People need to be held accountable for what they say and how they say it,” Luntz says. “It is long overdue, and no one’s tried this before. It has the potential to be incredibly impactful.”
‘People Stopped Blaming Covid and Started Blaming Each Other’
At the center of this experiment is Pyfer, who, at age 61, is one of those people who radiates joy for no apparent reason.
“She’s always beaming,” says former Utah governor Gary R. Herbert, Pyfer’s good friend and former boss. “She’s annoying.”
Last spring, I met with Pyfer and the Unite team in DC at their request, to share what I’d learned researching human behavior in conflict for my last book. Their idea for a Dignity Index was still taking shape, and I was not sure I’d ever hear from them again. Then, this fall, they put it into practice, and so I flew to Utah to see it in action.
Over breakfast one November morning in downtown Salt Lake City, Pyfer explained herself to me this way: “I love politics,” she said, grinning like a kid on a snow day. “You feel this energy. An average person with an open mind can come in and make a difference, which is, to me, exhilarating. It’s America, right?”
In 1997, she ran for city council in her town of Logan, Utah, and she lost. Four years later, she tried again and won, serving for eight years before getting appointed to the state board of education. All the while, she tried to make government less mysterious. She created a Citizens’ Academy to train regular people on how the bureaucracy works, organizing police ride-alongs and property-tax tutorials for anyone and everyone — including the town’s biggest gadflies.
“I invited people who were always complaining about stuff,” she says, still grinning. “It’s like, ‘I don’t want you to stop complaining. I want you to be better informed, so you complain about the right stuff.’’’
This exuberance carried Pyfer along until the summer of 2020, when she was serving as Gov. Herbert’s education policy adviser in the darkest days of the pandemic, trying to manage the reopening of in-person schooling. “We’d wake up every day thinking, ‘What’s the least bad decision I can make and still make everyone unhappy?’” she remembers.
In the past, Pyfer had always renewed her spirit through song. She sang in the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, the renowned 360-member troupe formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Before her kids were in kindergarten, she’d taught them to sing in harmony. But in the pandemic, there was no choir, no singing.
Then, when it seemed like things could not get any worse, the months of anxiety and frustration spiked a sort of secondary infection in the public. People started treating each other with contempt and disgust. Even in Utah, neighbors turned on one another publicly and viciously, people Pyfer was sure would not normally do so. “People stopped blaming Covid,” she recalls, “and started blaming each other.”
That summer, as protests erupted like heat rashes around the state, Pyfer dreaded coming into the office. She forced herself to keep reading constituent emails, message after message calling teachers lazy or parents selfish, accusing her of ruining people’s lives by moving too slowly — or too fast. “It was heartbreaking,” she says.
Her own family was not immune from the contagion. Pyfer is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and although she doesn’t often talk about her faith publicly, Mormons are among the most reliably conservative groups in America. Pyfer regularly donates to Utah’s Republican politicians. She supports gun rights (alongside safety reforms) and has a concealed firearm permit. But she did not support Donald Trump for President, and her husband, who is significantly to the right of her, did.
Meanwhile, their five grown children span the spectrum, aligned with five different political parties, including the Libertarian and the Independent American parties. Their once spicy dinner-table debates became existential clashes. She developed different talk tracks, depending on who was present. She found herself sharing certain memes and cartoons with her left-leaning daughter, for example — but not her libertarian son. “That wasn’t very healthy,” she says now.
As it happened, not long before the pandemic, Pyfer had seen Tim Shriver, chair of the Special Olympics, give a talk in Salt Lake City. Shriver is the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s sister. Shriver, who has spent decades building the field of social and emotional learning, was shifting his focus from children to adults, he explained, through an organization he’d co-founded called Unite. He talked about the need to teach adults the skills we have learned to teach kids — how to manage anger, how to show empathy, how to collaborate. As a teacher, a politician and a parent, Pyfer understood his message viscerally. “It was the thing I was waiting for,” she says. She started volunteering for Unite in her free time.
In August of 2020, at one of the governor’s regular press conferences, Pyfer stood up and made a last-ditch plea for grace. “We all still care about our students, and we still all need each other,” she said. “Let’s model the problem-solving behavior we want to see from our own children… We are certain that they are watching us.”
Pyfer submitted her letter of resignation the next month. An average American could no longer get things done, not anymore. So she decided to fight the secondary infection full-time, working for Unite alongside Shriver and his co-founder Tom Rosshirt, a columnist and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore.
That fall, her kids announced there would be no politics at the Thanksgiving table. She felt relieved and, simultaneously, bereaved. Politics had been a family ritual, part of who they were. “I mean, the kids campaigned for me. They knocked on doors and put out yard signs,” she says. “And so there’s that whole part of you that is now shut off.”
That Thanksgiving, everyone obeyed the edict. Nobody mentioned politics. Like millions of Americans, Pyfer kept her opinions to herself, which felt false. But she had a plan, all the same. She didn’t know how to fix our political schism, but she had a pretty good idea of how to start. “I taught special education, and a lot of what we teach has to do with behavior change,” Pyfer said. “If a kid’s off task, and you want a change, you label it, find a way to measure it, and do an intervention.”
‘It’s Hurting Us Deeply’
In the United States,support for partisan violence is now approaching levels recorded in Northern Ireland at the height of its troubles. Threats against members of Congress have increased tenfold in just the past five years. The country has entered a state that experts call stochastic terrorism, according to Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That means there is so much vitriol and fear in the air that it is highly predictable that someone, somewhere will violently attack a target of that hatred.
Usually, as we’ve seen, the attacker is an unstable person who has been marinating in alarming storylines of blame and fear and feels driven, finally, to take action. That could mean breaking into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home with zip ties and rubber gloves andattacking her husband with a hammer; it could mean showing up at Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house with a pistol, a knife and a tactical chest rig. Or it could mean arranging drive-by shootings at Democratic officials’ houses after you lose your race, as a GOP candidate was charged this week with doing in New Mexico.
Speech is not violence. There is a difference. But the two are not unrelated. They interact. This feedback loop, between what gets said by some and what gets done by others, is well-documented. A 2020 study found a link between violent attacks on refugees in Germany and the consumption of anti-refugee posts on social media in those same locations. When Facebook or Internet outages occurred in a given town, anti-refugee violence dropped in those places, too, even after controlling for other variables.
“One of the hardest things to get people to understand is that violence usually emerges when there’s a threat — or a perception of a threat,” says Curtis Toler, a former gang leader who now works to prevent street violence for Chicago CRED, which stands for Create Real Economic Destiny. Most of the time, whether it’s domestic abuse, drive-by shootings or an insurgency, violence is a reaction to danger, real or imagined. And contemptuous speech is usually what creates or amplifies that perceived threat.
These days, most street-gang violence gets provoked via contemptuous speech on social media, Toler says, with posts or rap songs that degrade murdered victims on one side of the conflict, triggering feelings of humiliation and threat. Those feelings light up the brain the same way as physical wounds, researchers have found. Humans are wired to want that kind of pain to stop. And so, when otherwise troubled people are repeatedly whipped up into that state, by cable news pundits, politicians or podcasters, they can do awful things, things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a popular radio station repeatedly called for the extermination of the Tutsi minority (a red-alert “1” on the Dignity Index scale: “a combination of feeling the other side is less than human and calling for or approving violence”). But those messages could only be heard in villages with radio reception. That meant that there were natural control groups all over Rwanda — places where people did not hear those dehumanizing messages. In a landmark 2014 study, researcher David Yanagizawa-Drott analyzed the violence across Rwanda and found that killings increased wherever radio reception improved. In all, about one in every ten acts of violence could be linked to the messages from this radio station. Some 50,000 Rwandans may have been killed as a result of these radio broadcasts.
Words matter because emotions matter. Grievances drive actions, especially desperate ones. “Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a wound to its dignity and a wound to its body,” says mediator Donna Hicks, author of the book Dignity and an adviser to the Dignity Index team. In conflict zones all over the world, Hicks has found that the biggest obstacles to peace are perceived violations to dignity (which she defines as “our inherent value and vulnerability as human beings”).
Reducing violence, then, requires lowering the ambient threat level. “And the threat doesn’t always have to be physical,” Toler adds. “The threat can be the threat of something being lost, whatever that is — my manhood, my territory, whatever.” In a gang context, this means working relentlessly to convince influential gang members to stop disrespecting and threatening each other online — and to quickly condemn or remove any such messages when they get posted by others.
In politics, it means persuading the loudest, most influential people in the country to stop demonizing their opponents; to cease insisting that millions of Americans they don’t know hate children, Black people, white people, democracy or the country, for example.
But right now, the system rewards going on the attack. To take just one example, in 2019, during Trump’s first impeachment hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) abandoned her previous respectful criticism of Trump and instead embraced theatrics, interruptions and deliberately breaking the rules. Next, her team signed up for the small-donor platform, WinRed, and went on to raise more in one week than she had over the course of the rest of her congressional career, which began in 2014, according to a New York Times analysis of campaign finance records.
So how do you persuade the legions of conflict entrepreneurs on YouTube, cable news or in Congress to stop using this kind of lurid language — which boosts ratings, drives donations and supercharges their most loyal followers? How do you incentivize dignity in a society that glorifies contempt?
Unite’s theory is that you start by naming the problem and articulating its cost — and then, eventually, the public will start to demand something different. “The odds are against us,” Shriver admits. “But people are starving for a break from the hatred in our country. It’s hurting us deeply. It’s hurting our relationships and our families.” The Dignity Index, he says, is meant to wake us up. To help us notice contempt, which has become so routine it can pass for reasonable. And to help us search for dignity, which has become rare and passé.
If more voters or funders start caring about dignity, the theory goes, then politicians will follow.
“Politicians are very responsive to what voters want and what they won’t tolerate,” says Rosshirt, the former speechwriter and the lead author of the Dignity Index. “If suddenly there’s pushback and you think this will get you fewer dollars and fewer viewers, then people recalibrate. So that’s what we’re looking to do. We think that by popularizing a conversation about the cost of contempt, it’s gonna make contempt backfire.”
‘We Were Trying Really Hard to Check Our Biases’
On the evening of Oct. 6, in a studio at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in Provo, Utah, incumbent member of Congress John Curtis (R-UT) squared off against Democratic challenger Glenn Wright at Brigham Young University. The debate was advertised, televised and analyzed in all the usual ways, plus one entirely new way.
Meanwhile, in an alternate universe not far away, Madeleine Jones was in her apartment scanning the very same debate for examples of contempt — and dignity. Jones is one of the Dignity Index coders, members of a politically and racially diverse group of 22 undergrad and graduate students at the University of Utah hired and trained by Rosshirt and a team of researchers at the university.
She leans left, but she worked alongside coders with different beliefs. “I think the diversity was one of the strongest things about this group,” she said. “We were trying really hard to check our biases. We’d ask, ‘Do you think this is a personal bias?’ We never coded alone.” Late that night, Jones’ team identified the most and least dignified passages from the debate, the highs and lows, so to speak, and sent them to another team of coders to score.
Preston Brightwell, 28, who leans right, was on the team that scored those passages. He coded each one and then joined the other three coders in his group to discuss their scores. Under the rules of the Dignity Index, they had to reach a consensus in order to release a score — and they always did. It was surprisingly easy most of the time, Brightwell said. The ten hours of training they’d all had, scoring speeches by all manner of historical figures from Mahatma Gandhito John McCain to Heinrich Himmler, had left them with a pretty good sense of how to apply the scale.
By the end of that training, the coders were able to read a given text and give it the same numerical score about 90 percent of the time, a relatively high level of reliability, despite their political diversity. “You start to see that in the language just pop out at you,” Brightwell said. “A distinct tell of a ‘3’ is a moral character attack. A ‘4’ is an attack on competence.”
That night marked the first real-world test of the Dignity Index, which would be used to score 120 snippets of speech over the next month — ranging from debates to tweets to campaign ads in five congressional elections. (A more detailed description of the methodology is available here.) Notably, each candidate scored this fall had moments of dignity and contempt, sometimes in the same breath. None of the 120 passages hit bottom (scoring a 1 or even a 2), but nor did a single one merit an 8. The debates, interestingly, earned higher scores than everything else — maybe because the candidates were meeting face to face. The more removed the candidates were from one another, the more contemptuous the language became.
In an op-ed, for example, Republican Rep. Blake Moore lamented “out-of-control government spending and crippling regulations” and called for a “return to a pre-2020 American government that puts people ahead of bureaucratic red tape.” That passage merited a low to middling score of 4 (language that “mocks and attacks the other side’s background, their beliefs, their commitment, their competence, their performance”).
Moore’s Democratic opponent Rick Jones earned an even lower score for this claim, posted on his website: “Something is fundamentally wrong when self-proclaimed billionaire Donald Trump can in one year spend 350 times as much paying prostitute porn stars as he does paying federal income taxes.” (That scored a 3: “attacks the other side’s moral character, not just their capabilities or competence.”)
The nastiest language by far came in the form of third-party ads. One mailer by the conservative, anti-tax organization Club for Growth earned a 3 for attacking Senate candidate Evan McMullin this way: “’Racist,’ ‘Un-American,’ ‘Bigot,’ That’s what Evan McMullin said about you…your neighbors…your family. Evan McMullin is just another twitter-trolling hyper-partisan political bully trying to divide us.”
The morning after the debate, those first Dignity Index findings were released online, along with a string of other compiled scores based on Tweets, statements and op-eds from other candidates. Marty Carpenter, a veteran political consultant who had previously led communications for Gov. Herbert, was handling media requests. An initial launch announcement a few days before had merited six local stories, but he was not expecting much more. “To get political reporters to pay attention to this for more than one story at the busiest time of the year? That seemed like a tall order.”
Can You Recognize Contempt?
Back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Shriver was just waiting for blowback. “You’re bracing yourself for incoming hate from the right and the left,” he remembers. Pyfer was at her home, just outside of Salt Lake City, equal parts excited and terrified. She couldn’t believe they were finally going public, after all these months of planning. She wondered if anyone would notice.
As it turned out, local reporters could not get enough of the Dignity Index. As of mid-January, the Dignity Index has been featured in Utah radio, TV or print outlets over 50 times. Carpenter found himself juggling more requests than the Unite team could handle. Each time Unite released new scores, there was a new wave of coverage.
Politicians were less excited. Democrat Darlene McDonald, who ran an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Republican incumbent Rep. Burgess Owens, received eight scores over the course of her campaign, ranging from a low of 3 to a high of 7.
In one case, McDonald received a 4 for calling Owens “cowardly” after he declined to attend a debate. “Calling Owens a ‘cowardly’ man states a fact,” she replied via Twitter. “Rethink how you use this index in future election cycles, or at the very least, change the name. There’s no ‘dignity’ in its scoring.” When I spoke to McDonald after the election was over, she said she understood the intention behind the Dignity Index but found it fatally flawed in its execution. “If you are really good at manipulating language, you would score very high on this index. That’s my biggest beef with this,” she said. “A better dignity index would speak to what is being said, not how it’s being said. Because we have people who don’t tell the truth. They can lie to your face very nicely.”
Most politicians ignored the Dignity Index altogether. Four of the other candidates scored by the Index, including Sen. Mike Lee and his challenger McMullin, did not respond to my requests for comment.
“I thought it was great. But that being said, there’s a lot of skepticism,” says Herbert, the former governor who is also an advisor to the Index. “I don’t think politicians will back off if they think they might lose. That’s just a hard thing. Until the public says, ‘We will not tolerate it,’ it’s not gonna stop.”
‘I’ve internalized the Index’
The Dignity Index has obvious limitations. It does not take into account whether words are factually accurate, for one thing. A politician could give a speech that scored high in dignity — and was riddled with falsehoods, as McDonald noted. Nor does the Index assess people’s actions, which generally matter more than words. Those dimensions are important, Rosshirt acknowledges. He points out that other organizations, like PolitiFact, track accuracy, and many interest groups, like the NRA and the AFL-CIO, grade politicians’ voting records. The Dignity Index is meant to be additive — to offer another metric for Americans to consider when deciding which candidates to support.
But so far, that is not the main way that people have used the Index, interestingly. In Salt Lake City, I spent a week interviewing the coders and following Pyfer, Shriver and Rosshirt around from one media interview to the next. Pyfer led us around town, chapstick in the car ashtray, Christian music on the radio, whisper-singing along to the music as she drove. The three of them laughed a lot, clearly enjoying each other and this odd little caper they’d found themselves on. For Pyfer, it felt particularly poignant to be in her home state, working on a problem that has strained so many families, including her own. One morning, while watching Shriver talk about the Index on a local PBS show, she sat listening out of sight of the cameras, tears running down her face.
From what I saw, the Index’s greatest impact to date has been on the everyday behavior of regular people who learn about it — not politicians. After she gives speeches about the Index, people come up to Pyfer and vow to talk to their husband or their kids with less contempt. Jason Williams, a Utah radio show host who interviewed Pyfer about the Index, confessed that he’d felt compelled to delete a tweet he’d recently posted after talking to her. All of the student coders I interviewed said the Dignity Index had changed their own behavior.
“I don’t think this was intended, but I feel like I’ve internalized the Index,” says Susie Estrada, a PhD student at the University of Utah. It’s changed how she interacts on social media and in real life, with her husband, she said. “I come from North Hollywood, and I grew up around a lot of different things, like gang violence for example. So I am trying to step back from survival [mode]. I’m trying to at least get to a 5.”
“In a way, it’s a bait and switch,” Shriver says. “You get to judge someone — but then you start to see it in yourself.” Several of the coders told me they’d changed which podcasts and other media outlets they follow online. “Honestly, it was a little uncomfortable,” Jones says. “I realized that I really consumed a lot of media that was just insulting people, kind of humiliating them, and after working on this Index, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I should be looking at this.’”
Jones grew up in Salt Lake City, and many of her relatives are to the right of her politically. Once a month, she does her grandmother’s nails, and the conversation inevitably drifts to conspiracy theories and politics. “In the past, I’d say, “I don’t know why you think this. It is stupid,’” Jones said. “Now, I know that’s not going to help. Now, I’m trying to figure out why she thinks these things.”
At their last manicure appointment, after the Dignity Index had launched, they had a conversation about abortion that tested Jones’s new mindset. It wasn’t easy to stay above a 4. “There’s like this little monkey in my brain that just wants to clap those tambourines and go, ‘You’re wrong! You’re wrong!’ Just yell at her,” Jones said. “But the Index has made me feel like, ‘I don’t want to have the contempt of a ‘3.’”
They ended up talking more than usual about their own personal stories. Her grandmother told her how she’d felt pressured to have an abortion by a doctor, many years before. After a few minutes, they moved on to talk about the latest sale at Sam’s Club. Politics was present, but contained, as it should be.
Pyfer, meanwhile, got swamped with dozens of speaking invitations — from Rotary groups, business associations, podcasts and schools. “People are starving for this message!” she wrote (in all caps) in an email to Rosshirt and Shriver. It was tempting, in those heady few weeks, to start thinking that the Dignity Index would sell itself. That maybe Americans were not so far gone after all.
‘The Answer to Our Problems is Dignity’
The ballroom of the Ahern Hotel in Las Vegas was a riot of red, white and blue when Pyfer arrived for the National Federation of Republican Women’s “Stars & Stripes” conference on Veteran’s Day weekend. Some 150 women from 17 western states were there, wearing bright-colored blazers and buttons. Pyfer had been invited at the last minute by one of the organizers, a woman named Kari Malkovich who had seen Pyfer talk about the Dignity Index in Utah and wanted her to do the same thing for this crowd.
Pyfer and her husband took their seats to watch the speakers who would precede her, including Utah Rep. Owens and Utah State Treasurer Marlo Oaks. Almost immediately, Pyfer realized she was in trouble.
One after the other, Owens, Oaks and other speakers stood up before the crowd and fired off volley after volley of blame, outrage and fear, whipping the crowd into something of a frenzy, according to multiple people who were present. Owens had just won re-election to Congress, although he’d declined to participate in two out of three debates. His words had been scored five times by the Dignity Index over the course of the election season, and all but one of those scores were low in dignity. This was, after all, a man who had written a bestselling book titled “Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps.”
Oaks, meanwhile, had received a lot of attention as Utah’s State Treasurer for challenging the Environmental, Social and Governance policies that have caught on with many large corporations and investment firms. He’d recently moved $100 million of Utah money from the investment firm BlackRock to different asset managers, accusing BlackRock of “using other people’s capital to drive a far-left agenda.” At the Vegas event, he stressed the importance of free speech and warned of cancel culture and censorship, showing a slide deck that referenced Hitler, Marxism and fascism. During a Q&A session afterward, a woman in the audience called Democrats “barbarians.” Watching this, Pyfer felt her heart pounding in her chest. She wondered if she could find an excuse to bow out. She texted Shriver and Rosshirt: “I don’t think this is going to end well.”
“It was not quite a ‘1’ on the Dignity Index but a number ‘2’ for sure,” said Malkovich, the woman who’d invited Pyfer. Malkovich was an elected city council member from Woodland Hills, UT, and she’d arranged for a mix of speakers that weekend, including a panel of Holocaust survivors and a Paralympian. But by the time it was Pyfer’s turn to speak, the vibe was a little less than dignified, she had to admit. “I had to have a few congressmen there, and they were the cheerleaders. And everyone was back in that red-meat mentality,” she says. “There was some fear.”
Sitting in the ballroom, waiting to be introduced, “I was dying,” Pyfer says.
She turned to her husband. “I can’t give my presentation,” she said.
“You have to,” he told her, sounding confident but looking worried. Frantically, she started tweaking her slides on her laptop, finding ways to remind her audience of her GOP bona fides.
“She was nervous. She was pretty much shaking,” Malkovich remembers. “I knew I was putting her in a hard spot.” She grabbed Pyfer’s hand. “You got this,” she told her. “I really feel strongly that they need to hear this.”
At the podium, Pyfer ditched her prepared opening gambit. Instead, she said: “I love the energy in this room. I’m a lifelong Republican woman, and I’m here surrounded by Republican women.” Then she paused.
“I will tell you though, I’ve been asked to give a different perspective.” The room got quiet. “It’s a counterintuitive way to solve the problems in your communities, and it’s gonna surprise you.” This was a tactic she had learned as a teacher. “We call it a pre-instruction,” she told me later. “I just wanted to signal to them: ‘This is not what you want to hear.’”
Then she hit them with the gut punch: “I think the answer to our problems is dignity.”
Watching this, Malkovich felt the energy in the room shift. It was almost like someone had said something obscene. “There was whispering. I could see the restlessness in the crowd. We could all feel it.”
Then, slide by slide, Pyfer went through the definitions of 1 through 8 on the Dignity Scale, just as she had so many times before in friendlier rooms. “Level two accuses the other side not just of doing bad or being bad,” she said, her mouth dry, “but promoting evil.” It was hard not to feel like she was indicting the entire room. So she tried to fall on her own sword, confessing that she routinely caught herself engaged in this same thinking. “Every day, I realize that the first thing that comes to mind sometimes for me is, ‘Those people are ruining everything,’ I’m like a 2 or a 3.” She saw some eye rolls — but also a few nods. She waited for someone to boo.
At one point, she referenced a survey finding that one in four Americans believed it might be time to take up arms. Several women sitting up front cheered. “You better believe it! 2nd Amendment!” Still, Pyfer continued. “Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. My dad was in the military. And it frightens me, with what they went through for our country, that we would think violence is the way to solve our internal disagreements.”
When she finished, there was tepid applause. No one booed. But about a dozen people approached Malkovich to complain about Pyfer’s talk. “Most were just angry. ‘Why did you pick her?’ That kind of thing,” she says. “I said, ‘I thought it was a really great presentation.’”
Pyfer came up to her, shaking her head. “They hate me,” Malkovich remembers her saying. “I said, ‘They don’t even know you, Tami. They are upset at themselves, and they need to project it on someone else. Let it sit. It’s a spiritual and physical emotion, not just mental.’”
The day before, these same women had listened to Holocaust survivors talk about what happens when contempt becomes the law of the land, when annihilation feels like the only option. They had wept with these survivors, wondering how countries could succumb to such brutality. Then, hearing Pyfer connect contemporary hyper-partisan language to political violence, the cognitive dissonance was hard to process, Malkovich said. It would take time. “When you recognize that you’re just one or two steps removed from the people you were crying with the day before, that’s quite a moment.”
A few people came up to Pyfer afterward. One cried. One invited her to speak in her hometown. It was the most partisan crowd Pyfer had addressed, and it was a reminder of what the Dignity Index was up against. Trying to convince partisan Americans to reject contempt in 2022 was like trying to convince people in the 1600s that the Earth revolves around the sun. That’s how Galileo ended up in prison, after all.
Still, Pyfer declined to criticize anyone at the event. “They were all playing their roles in a system that we’re all part of,” she told me. “And the Republican women were dutifully playing their roles. They want so badly to make a difference and do the right thing. How could you listen to these horrible things happening to your country and not be outraged?”
The ordeal prepared her for whatever came next, she said. “It was horrible but necessary.” The Unite team is analyzing the results of the Utah demonstration project and expects to make a plan in early 2023 for expanding the Index. They might create a funders’ alliance, channeling donations to politicians who score high on the Index. Or a project like the one in Utah — but in many more states. Eventually, the Unite team could collect enough human-coded passages to develop a way of automating the scoring with artificial intelligence — a difficult but not necessarily impossible goal. One way or another, their ambition, Shriver says, is to “put dignity on the ballot in 2024.”
‘It’s Going To Be Even Better Than You Can Imagine‘
The night before I left Utah, Pyfer invited me to come to the rehearsal for the Tabernacle Choir. It’s held in a domed building on Temple Square, renowned for its acoustics. Pyfer no longer sings with the choir, which has an age limit of 60, but she works as a volunteer, greeting visitors and welcoming dignitaries. She started smiling as soon as we walked in and didn’t stop for the next two hours. “This is going to be the best night of your life,” she whispered, grabbing my shoulders. “I don’t want to set expectations too high, but it’s going to be even better than you can imagine!”
The 85-piece orchestra began tuning their instruments. Above them stood 360 choir members, arranged below one of the largest organs in the world, made of 11,623 pipes. It was like a three-tiered musical circus, all managed, somehow, by a lone, soft-spoken conductor up front. Then, just when it seemed every conceivable space was occupied, a 32-person hand-bell choir filed in, each person cradling shimmering silver bells in their gloved hands.
The conductor raised his baton, and the choir launched into the song Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music. It was, as promised, an extraordinary performance to behold. A masterclass in the human capacity for cooperation. From the back pews, Pyfer stood watching, whisper-singing along, lit up with the majesty of what could be.
This content was originally published here.