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The Lee-McMullin debate was a ‘less dignified’ affair, says The Dignity Index

AP — Election 2022, Senate Debate 2, Utah Valley University, Mike Lee, Evan McMullin, Oct. 17, 2022
Rick Bowmer
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, left, and his independent challenger Evan McMullin shake hands following their televised debate, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Orem, Utah, three weeks before Election Day. The debate will be the only time the candidates appear together in the lead-up to next month's midterm elections.

There were plenty of jabs traded between Sen. Mike Lee and Evan McMullin during their lone debate. And some of those shots earned low marks in the new Dignity Index.

Compared to other Utah congressional debates this election cycle, the discourse between Lee and McMullin featured “fewer examples of treating the other side with dignity,” said Jesse Graham, a professor of business management at the University of Utah. Graham is also a behavioral scientist who helped design the index.

“I think it was weighted more heavily on the contempt side. There was a lot more name calling – names like ‘bootlicker’ or ‘opportunistic gadfly,’” he said.

There were moments in the debate when each candidate demonstrated dignity, Graham added. But overall, “this was a less dignified debate.”

The Dignity Index is a new initiative to evaluate the level of civility in political discourse. Coders rate selections of political speech found in various forums, including debates and campaign ads. The passages are graded on a scale from one to eight, with higher numbers indicating speech more conducive to civility and problem-solving.

The candidates themselves are not rated.

Both Lee and McMullin made a few statements scoring in the five to six range. But each also made some three and four statements as well.

An advance copy of the index’s debate report was provided to KUER. It explained, “The mindset of THREE attacks the other side’s moral character, declaring directly or implicitly that ‘we’re the good people, they’re the bad people. We’re responsible for all the good things; they’re responsible for all the bad things.’”

When McMullin called Lee’s efforts during the 2020 election “the most egregious betrayal of our nation's Constitution in its history by a U.S. senator,” it earned a three score and exemplified this mindset, the report said.

Tom Rosshirt, the index’s project director, said it is possible to hold an opponent accountable for serious breaches of conduct while still maintaining a high level of dignity. It starts with avoiding labeling and name calling, he said.

“You take up the criticism in the language of decisions, actions, the outcome of those actions, who gets hurt. And you invite the other person to respond.”“If you really want to take it to a higher level, instead of saying just ‘This is who you are,’ you move to, ‘This is what you do,’” Rosshirt added. “And you move better than that to, ‘This is the thing that you did,’ to ultimately, ‘Maybe this is what we can do together.’”

One of Lee’s statements that earned a three accused McMullin of “spout[ing] lies that are specific to the leftist cause, lies that are specific to the Democratic Party.”

“The speaker says that his opponent is telling lies, and a type of lie that ‘the leftist cause’ and ‘The Democratic party’ usually tell, which ties Mr. McMullin to a group, or several groups, who represent ‘the bad people,’” the report stated.

The shortfalls in dignity seen in Monday’s debate were “very human,” Rosshirt said, given the circumstances surrounding the race.

“These two gentlemen from last night are at a peak of stress,” he said. “They're in the last few weeks of a high-stakes contest in which one is going to win and perhaps win the chamber for one side or the other.”

Mail-in ballots for the Nov. 8 election are in the process of being sent out to registered voters. Utahns have until Oct. 28 to register to vote to receive a mail-in ballot. People can also register at early voting locations or at the polls on Election Day.

Rob is a native of Salt Lake City and is happy to be back home and enjoying “one of the best backyards in the world” again.
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