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Elder Holland’s BYU speech is for a university of yesteryear

As BYU looks forward to the second half of its second century, erasing difference and implicitly upholding one particular social location as normative for everyone won’t equip students to succeed in a diverse world.

(RNS) — On Monday (Aug. 23), Elder Jeffrey R. Holland told Brigham Young University’s academic faculty and staff he’s looking forward to the second half of the second century of the school, but he worries the community is a “house divided.”

Founded in 1875, BYU is the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has historically tried to walk a fine line between being respected and accredited by the academic community on the one hand and not running afoul of the conservative denomination’s teachings on the other.

Liberal Mormon Twitter has been exploding with disappointment for the last two days over the way Holland’s speech came down hard on members of the BYU community who publicly disagree with the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage, which it opposes.

I’m disappointed in the speech, too. Holland is one of my favorite apostles, and his General Conference talks are always ones I look forward to. They’re generally both meaty and compassionate.

ALSO READ: “No more shame”: A Mormon apostle sheds light on mental illness—and his own struggles

This, by contrast, does not seem to have been his finest hour. In particular, people are hurt and angry at the harsh words he had for a BYU student who in 2019 used his valedictory speech to come out as gay. Although the student had received university permission in advance for the text of his speech, Holland said it was inappropriate “if a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation.” The apostle said this choice set a precedent for the triumph of “individual license over institutional dignity.”

What I take from his remarks is that people speaking at (or on behalf of) the university aren’t supposed to let their personal experience or cultural framing run the show. Rather, they should aim to represent everyone. If they don’t, “we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have — and we already have too much everywhere.”

However, Holland’s speech is about his own very personal experience of BYU, which he has loved for more than 70 years, from his childhood through his time as a student and eventually its president. The speech is also clearly shaped by Holland’s own race, gender and sexual orientation — important facets of his social location.

We all do this. Some people, like the BYU valedictorian, are just more conscious of it and transparent about it.

Let me explain what I mean by doing something people learn to do at a university: analyzing a text for its cultural assumptions and social location. By doing this, we learn to examine our own assumptions and location, which can be humbling and eye-opening. Through the years, my readers have pointed out to me (sometimes even politely!) where my words have revealed my blind spots. Seeing how narrow and culturally conditioned my outlook can be has been eye-opening.

Let’s look at what Holland’s speech tells us about gender. At least 15 men are cited in the speech, from Holland’s fellow church leaders (Russell M. Nelson, Spencer Kimball, Dallin Oaks, etc.) to past and present BYU professors and administrators (Kevin Worthen, Hugh Nibley, C. Wilfred Griggs, etc.) to some of the greats of English literature (John Milton, Robert Frost).  

Since women make up half the general population, and are more common than men among the membership of the church, we would expect their citations to be equal or greater than the citations of men — especially if the goal of a speaker at BYU is to represent everyone.

Yet women are wholly invisible, unless you count Holland’s jab at a much-married Hollywood star of the 1950s (“As Elizabeth Taylor said to her eight husbands, ‘I won’t be keeping you long’”) or his brief mention of his mother, who taught him what the “Y” symbol stood for when they passed by the university in his childhood.

The speech closes by referring to BYU with a feminine pronoun. In a bygone era, inanimate objects such as ships, storms and nations were commonly assigned a gender in the English language; universities, though, were typically not, so this is an interesting departure. I think this unusual practice makes more sense in the context of the entire speech, which is about protecting something Holland perceives as vulnerable.

It is a “pedestal” speech, of the kind women in the church are used to hearing: Women are special, women are unique, women are to be cherished and safeguarded in a changing world. Here, BYU is special, BYU is unique, BYU is to be cherished and safeguarded in a changing world. Of course the university is coded as feminine.

Now let’s look at other social locators. Every individual who is named in the speech is white; there is not a single person of color. As well, every person is American or northern European. And as far as we can tell based on their marital history, every person is heterosexual and cisgender.

Meanwhile, racial diversity is rapidly increasing around the world. In the U.S. earlier this month, census data revealed more than 40% of the population are people of color, and the white population declined for the first time in any census taken since 1790.

In the LDS church today, roughly 6 in 10 members live outside the United States. Its most promising area of membership growth right now is West Africa; membership growth in the U.S. is basically flat and in northern Europe it is actually declining in some areas.

In short, to only mention white male heterosexual church members from the U.S. and northern Europe doesn’t meet Holland’s own standard of BYU speakers needing “to represent everyone,” as he put it. Instead, the speech is an homage to an idealized university of a bygone era.

At the same meeting where Holland presented this speech, BYU was showcasing its commitment to racial inclusion. President Worthen announced the university’s intention to “root out racism” and achieve a “community of belonging,” centered in the school’s new Office of Belonging. There will be a new vice president of inclusion who will sit on the university president’s council. The meeting was conducted by Vern Heperi, a native Maori who is an administrator working for student inclusion; it featured a Native American dance by two students from the Living Legends cultural organization on campus.

In other words, the meeting actively sought to address the cultural reality that a university is a diverse place with a mission to include everyone. In that context it was ironic that the most important speaker of the day was looking backward to a different era. The overt, spoken message of the meeting was that inclusion is important; the unfortunate and unspoken subtext of Holland’s talk was that the voices of nonwhite, nonheterosexual, nonmale members of the church are unimportant.

I think Holland would be horrified to think of his speech in any way standing in the way of this important work the university is doing. In 2009, for example, he publicly disavowed the church’s racist teachings of the past as “inadequate and/or wrong.” In 2020, when installing the new BYU-Hawaii president John “Keoni” Kauwe, the descendant of one of the first native converts in Hawaii, he noted that “diversity of culture, experience and thought is one of our greatest strengths.”

I hope that vision — the one that considers diversity an asset to be celebrated — is the one that triumphs at the various BYUs, and not the one that suggests only white heterosexual men have valuable things to contribute to the university’s intellectual and spiritual life. As BYU looks forward to the second half of its second century, erasing difference and implicitly upholding one particular social location as normative for everyone won’t equip students to succeed in a diverse world.

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