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Commentary: Change has to start somewhere. Why not at BYU?

FILE - In this April 12, 2019, file photo, Tyler Slade and Zoe Calcote stand for a moment of silence, as they gather on the campus of Brigham Young University, with hundreds of BYU students at a rally to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, in Provo, Utah. BYU will change the way it enforces its honor code following protests calling for more compassion at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-owned institution. The Tuesday, May 14, 2019, announcement doesn't change the code itself, which bans drinking, premarital sex, beards and piercings. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

When the movement to reform the Honor Code began, like many other students, I was thrilled at the thought of a chance to change Brigham Young University from within.

It didn’t take long for a group of passionate students to form in the hopes of bringing about a long overdue update to university policy. My position in BYU Democrats placed me in that passionate group of students because of the many members of our club who had been made to feel particularly marginalized, despite the fact that people on both sides of the political aisle have been hurt by the inequitable enforcement of the Honor Code.

All of us were ready for battle. But, before I could fire any cannons, I had the opportunity to meet with the director of the honor code office and, for me, everything changed.

I learned a lot in that meeting, but if I could sum it up, I would say that the new director has made … improvements. Essentially, he is trying his best to remove any sort of shame associated with certain behaviors but, regardless, that leaves us with a few problems.

The first is that his point of view is not shared by everyone in his office. The second is that the changes he has made might not be permanent. The third is that the Honor Code and the Honor Code Office, no matter what improvements are made, are embodiments of a deeply rooted and remarkably damaging culture.

The first two problems can be solved quite easily, but this last one is much more difficult to address. That being said, it is also the most important, because it means that this fight will be longer and harder than we realize. The battle we were ready for won’t end with mere improvements to the Honor Code Office or even just the Honor Code, rather, it will go on until this culture no longer exists.

What do I mean by culture? It’s difficult to pin down but, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, “I know it when I see it.”

Sometimes culture can be the food we eat (funeral potatoes), the clothes we wear (knee length jean shorts) or the words we say (oh heck). While these features are largely innocuous and even humorous at times, other symptoms of culture can be more painful and potent. These can be the way we treat members of our church who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, members who are single or have no children, members with tattoos or piercings and even members who are Democrats.

These examples are embodiments of powerful customs and traditions that are so profoundly embedded into our culture that even when the prophets of our church declare such customs not only obsolete but destructive, they persist. The sorrow that I have witnessed countless friends and family members endure has come as a result of the way we as a culture and, often, as a church, address imperfection and how we view those who are different than us. This is wrong. Yes, it’s fun to laugh at our idiosyncrasies occasionally, but when they become as damaging as the Honor Code has proven them to be, something must change.

Changing a culture isn’t easy. General Conference talks urging transformation are valuable, but we need more than words. At BYU culture is not only written but also enforced, and as such, love tends to slip between the cracks.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints everywhere are beginning to understand that this is not the way of Christ or the church we claim to be His. The Honor Code movement is important because it offers the church a chance to change its culture, but we must have the courage to help it along this path. While the battle might not be with the Honor Code or the Honor Code office per se, it is certainly a battle worth fighting. Change has to start somewhere, why not at BYU?


Abigail Woodfield is a student at Brigham Young University where she studies political science and psychology and is co-president of the BYU College Democrats club.

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