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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

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Politics: A war of words or dignified discussion

The biggest barrier to productive political discussion isn’t the fact that we disagree, but rather how we act when we disagree

Is talking politics in the workplace a bad idea? Is talking politics in general a bad idea? Plenty of Americans think so. For a long time, I did too. 

For many, politics is a subject to be avoided like the plague – particularly when talking to peers, friends and family. It is so simple to debate sports with close friends and family or work plans with peers in the office, yet when talking politics, it isn’t uncommon to find stress and discomfort. In fact, 45% of American adults claim to have completely stopped talking politics with those closest to them. 

But what is it that drives this discomfort? Why is it that we cannot discuss politics with ease? Some claim it’s because they feel they don’t know enough on the subject matters, others cite fear of rejection for having opinions different than their peers and even more find anxiety when discussing political matters they perceive to be related to morals. I argue that the true difficulty Americans face when it comes to talking politics, that which is the catalyst of our fears, anxieties and stresses, is a lack of dignity in discussion. 

Most easily seen on social media but equally apparent in our everyday lives, there has been a growing culture of rudeness and disrespect within American politics. This country is now characterized by negative partisanship as Republicans and Democrats are incessantly at hateful odds with one another, as it is commonplace to dismiss and negate the views of the ‘other side’ without a second thought, and as partisan animosity is at an all-time high.  

To be fair, it is certainly easier to remain secure in your beliefs when you can actively deny the legitimacy or existence of someone else’s. And it is a natural aspect of human nature to seek security. So, it’s no wonder that most of us have probably played a part in or fallen victim to the modern antipathy and closed-mindedness of talking politics at some point, but just because it is easy does not mean it is okay. If we continue to participate in this cycle of hostility and suspicion, we may very well see our carefully crafted democracy collapse. That’s why I was so pleased when the Students for Dignity reached out to BridgeND to collaborate. 

Students for Dignity is a movement that works to “change the purpose of public debate from attacking enemies to solving problems.” The program is structured similarly to BridgeUSA as various chapters led by university students have cropped up across the country. At the core of Students for Dignity rests the Dignity Index, a tool used to measure our political discussions for dignity. 

Founded in 2021 and launched a year later, the Dignity Index is grounded in the recognition that “contempt causes division; dignity eases division.” Set on an eight-point scale, the Dignity Index was created to score the language we use and consume: 

1 - Encouraging Violence: "It’s our moral duty to destroy them. They’re not even human. They’re the source of all evil. They’re destroying everything we value. They don’t deserve to live. We have to kill them now before they kill us."

2 - Allegations of Evil: "Those people are evil and a danger to everything we value. They’re going to ruin us if we let them. It’s us or them."

3 - Attack on Moral Character: "We’re the good people and they’re the bad people. We’re responsible for all the good things and they’re responsible for all the bad things. It’s us vs. them. We win only if they lose."

4 - Mocking: "We’re better than those people. They’re different. They don’t really belong. They’re not one of us. We shouldn’t trust them."

5 - Listening Respectfully: "I believe everyone has a right to be here and a right to be heard. Even if they don’t share our point of view, it’s their country too."

6 - Common Ground: "I have deep convictions and feel a strong sense of belonging to my group, but I’m curious about the other side, too. I want to meet and talk with people who don’t share all my views, find common values and interests and solve problems together."

7 - Full Engagement: "I have strong convictions and I’m loyal to my group, but I want to meet with the other side and talk about the views we don’t share. I’m not afraid of losing an argument, admitting mistakes or changing my mind. That’s how we solve the toughest problems."

8 - True Dignity: "I love and cherish my own people, but I can connect with all people. I will talk and work with anyone. I don’t need to be right. I don’t care who gets the credit. I refuse to hate or condemn anyone, and I believe everyone has inherent worth so I treat everyone with dignity, no matter what."

But why should we need to score our language? Well, about a year ago, I wrote an article discussing the importance of our use of language in politics – more specifically how the use of gendered language socializes the idea that women do not belong in politics. The message remains true that the way we speak matters. More importantly, the way we speak about issues as important as our politics can carry grave implications for the health of our country, mollifying or amplifying polarization and partisanship in the United States. 

Many of our leaders, media sources and peers have drifted from logic and rational arguments toward aggressive, emotive assertions: 

- “When Joe Biden’s hand shot up, it was the first of many warning signs that Biden’s approach to immigration would be an unmitigated disaster. Three years and 10 million illegal crossings later, President Biden’s failed leadership has allowed our southern border to spiral into a humanitarian, national security and economic crisis of epic proportions.” David McCormick, February 21, 2024 – Dignity Index Score: 2

- “Donald Trump would sell this country for a dollar if he thinks that it would benefit himself.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, February 24, 2024 – Dignity Index Score: 3 

- “Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic…. MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people … MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies…. Democrats, independents mainstream Republicans: We must be stronger, more determined and more committed to saving American democracy than MAGA Republicans are to destroying American democracy.” Joe Biden, November 1, 2022 – Dignity Index Score: 2

- “Whether it is the mob on the street, or the cancel culture in the boardroom, the goal is the same: to silence dissent, to scare you out of speaking the truth and to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage and their very way of life. We are here today to declare we will never submit to tyranny…” Donald Trump, September 17, 2020 – Dignity Index Score: 2

It's these scathing, undignified remarks, born from animosity toward the ‘other side,’ which have created America’s present chasm of polarization. It is this chasm which makes it feel impossible to talk politics with our friends and family. And it is this chasm which makes the Dignity Index necessary. If you’re passionate about bridging the divide and injecting dignity into our discussion, I encourage you to attend a BridgeND meeting this semester and reach out to Students for Dignity to participate in their upcoming projects. 

Ainsley Hillman, a junior studying abroad in London, is studying Business Analytics and Political Science. She served as the Fall Semester President of BridgeND. Some of her research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the intersection of environmental and social justice.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues. You can contact BridgeND at


BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.