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Steve Moody Explores How We See Identity, Unity, and Diversity

In a four-part lecture series at BYU Education Week, Assistant Professor Dr. Steve Moody shared answers to the question “Who am I?”

Photo of Assistant Professor Steve Moody
Assistant Professor Steve Moody lectures at BYU Education Week
Photo by Brennan Purcell

“The answer to the question ‘Who are we?’ is not one thing; it’s a lot of different things,” said Dr. Steve Moody (Asian and Near Eastern Languages) during his lecture at BYU Education Week 2021. In his lecture series, Who Are We? Perspectives on Identity from Sociolinguistics and the Gospel, Moody focused on how we define and understand identity in the context of both academic research and eternal truths.

Moody taught that understanding our identity includes discovering how unity and diversity relate to each other. In academia, researchers can define identity by any number of things, such as your level of education, where your ancestors are from, or your socioeconomic status. Our individual identities are socially constructed from those sources based on our interactions, history, and culture.

From the perspective of a scholar, identities can be either unifying features or markers of diversity. Unity comes from group identities, which are formed from the characteristics we share with others. Diversity exists because of our individual identities—which consist of the qualities that make us unique. Like Moody said, who we are can be a lot of different things.

How Do Identity, Unity, and Diversity Overlap?

Using the following story, Moody explained how unity and diversity affect our identities: Two American exchange students lived in Japan and worked at the same company, in the same job, one year apart from each other. The first student knew he was an outsider working in a Japanese business, so he did his best to conform to the group identity. He spoke only in Japanese when he was at work, and he tried to follow Japanese linguistic norms when he talked to his coworkers. The student’s extra efforts to fit in with the group made him stand out more. The student’s coworkers thought his efforts were forced, so he didn’t fit in to the group identity.

The other student took a different approach. He already knew he was going to stand out, so he made efforts to stand out from the group even more. This student exaggerated linguistic patterns when he spoke, and he openly joked about the mistakes he made as an American in Japan. His coworkers valued his humor and willingness to accept what he didn’t know, so he quickly became part of the group.

Why did these two students have such different results? An audience member offered, “Authenticity allows us to see real people. It allows others to feel like they know . . . the person.” In the case of Moody’s story, the student who was the most authentic was the second student. His experience teaches us that embracing our individual identities can create unity and bring a group closer together. As Moody suggested, “When in Rome, just be yourself.”

How Does God See Identity?

So, what does the gospel teach us about individual and group identities? Moody asked, “If we’re going to ‘become one in Zion’ . . . does that entail stepping away from the individual things that make you unique?”

We may have the tendency to think being “one” means losing our individual identities, that we have to fit a mold or check off a to-do list to fit in with the group identity. Moody mentioned that there is more to our religion and our identity than a list of dos and don’ts: “The qualities that define Zion are not minute things, like singing hymns or getting married young. They are basic, more fundamental commandments. You have to forgive others. You have to love others.”

In other words, those things we think we are “known for” are not what God knows us for. “When you really look at it,” Moody said, “the list isn’t that specific. It’s a far more inclusive identity.” Being one in Zion doesn’t mean we all need to be exactly alike. Instead, being one means we have a common goal as a group, and our individual identities work together to achieve that goal. Our identity in God’s eyes transcends how well we can play the piano or teach a lesson. To God, being ourselves means becoming more like Him.

The characteristics Moody mentioned—loving and forgiving—require ongoing effort. This effort means we are constantly learning and growing, and Moody believes that process “aligns us with our divine identities.” He remarked, “Our identity is one that puts us in a position of progression.”

So, who are we? Well, we’re still working on that.