Students silenced regarding taboo topics

By Kendall Tich

In a classroom on our campus, approximately 25 students sit with their mouths shut and heads down as their professor patiently awaits a response from one of them. There is a looming feeling of discomfort and anxiety, eventually causing the switch to a completely different topic of discussion.

This scenario is triggered by the introduction of topics that have become taboo on our campus. Our generation claims to be progressive, opinionated and accepting. However, there are many issues that have been pushed aside and dubbed to be universally accepted in order to avoid awkward conflict among peers and classmates.

“I think that certain topics are taboo not only because we attend a Catholic university but because they are controversial topics in everyday life,” junior Cameron Brown said. “I wish teachers here would encourage discussions on controversial topics more because without debate, the issues never get resolved.”

Whether it is fear of offending others, lack of relevance, or complete ignorance to a topic, there are many underlying realities with which we are currently living that are worth bringing to the table.
In one of my USD sociology classes, the professor asked the class to list the races that appear in the United States, in the order they would appear as a hierarchy. Undoubtedly, the class agreed that the top position goes to Caucasians.

The professor then asked the class where Africans would appear on this hierarchical chart. Our class got silent and awkwardly looked around the classroom as my professor encouraged students to contribute, noting that the answer is well known among all of us.

A student finally raised her hand, putting African Americans toward the bottom of the racial hierarchy, while looking behind her at the rest of the class hoping that she did not offend anybody. This awkward situation has happened and will continue to happen in classrooms if students treat the idea of race as something that is taboo.

We are part of a progressive, accepting generation in which it is believed that all issues of our country’s past have been left in the past. I don’t think I am alone in thinking that there is still some discomfort among USD students when the topic of race comes up in the classroom. Instead of talking about race, we sit in silence waiting for the participation of others or the decision of our professor to switch to a different topic. Many college students stay silent about the topic of race, overlooking its existence or the effect it has on our generation.

I will agree that our country has come a long way, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s and extending into our lives today in which all humans are seen as equal, independent of their skin color. Even now though, our society still cannot have genuine discussions about race without fearing that they will offend someone or fearing they will be called insensitive or racist.
“People always talk about USD being ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than it being all of us as a community,” senior Siena Pugnale said.

Once our generation begins to openly discuss race, it will no longer be seen as something that sets us apart or makes us different from one another. Rather, the popular opinion will be that difference is what makes our country great.

While race is, in my mind, the most taboo topic that has come up in my time at USD, there are others that have also led to some awkward classroom situations.

Since we attend a Catholic university, it is home to many religious students. This encourages discussion about religious beliefs and spirituality. Our generation seems to be one of questioners, shying away from organized, church centered religion and moving toward a more progressive view of spirituality and belief.

In theology classes on campus, students are generally accepting of religions different from their own; however, it doesn’t seem that these same students are tolerant of the complete absence of faith in someone’s life.

Most Atheists would say that although they choose not to believe in God, this does not make them a moral nihilist, or one who believes that view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral. They still maintain ethical conduct and have principles that happen to exist outside the walls of an organized religion.

According to National Public Radio, “One-fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated (…)” and “those younger than 30 especially seem to be drifting from organized religion.” So if that is the case, and the younger generations are shifting from organized religion to individual beliefs and faith, why is it that discussing the absence of faith in someone’s life has become so taboo?

Religion is so grounded into the history of the United States, with Christianity and faith in God being the dominant beliefs in our country. Much of the history regarding our founding relied on the existence of organized religion and the belief of the public in the church. Therefore, our country has deemed “non believers” as sinners who are against those who value their religious beliefs. This, however, is not the case.
One USD student, who chooses to remain anonymous, summed up her Atheist beliefs in a way that can shed some light on why students choose a path of Atheism versus one of religious beliefs.

“Throughout our lives we come into contact with different views regarding religion and what we should or shouldn’t believe. As we grow and develop our own opinions on these beliefs, we realize that life isn’t always a result of believing or disbelieving but rather a result of our own actions and decisions. I believe I am the maker of my own life and I am the one who will decide what happens to me and when things happen to me. I do not believe that my life can be in the hands of someone who may or may not exist. I do not believe in an omniscient God or higher power yet I believe in principles and values that I have used to guide me through life.”

Atheism does exist on our campus; however, those students often feel threatened and unable to voice this choice. The fact that the student in the above quote preferred to remain anonymous is further indication of the fear Atheist students have for expressing their lack of religion.

In a classroom at USD, where many students are either Catholic or another Christian religion, the topic of no religion and no belief in God or a higher power often creates an awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere therefore making it seem as though Atheism is taboo on our campus.

While on the topic of religion, it is hard not to think about why so many people turn to religion when they get older: they are accepting that at the end of their lives, comes death. We are young, seemingly immortal and have our entire lives ahead of us. Yet dying is a part of life and at some point, we will all have to start thinking about it.

So why is it not discussed in classrooms? Why do professors initiate conversations about the values, norms, beliefs about life but no one ever brings up the existence of death? Talking about the end of your life has become taboo in college classrooms because no one wants to talk about something they can’t understand.

“There’s really no formal class dedicated to the view and role of Atheists in the world today,” junior Kevin Matthews said.

We understand short term consequences and know that if we get pregnant in college we will have a different life than if we don’t. We know there are consequences to drug and alcohol abuse and we know that cheating on an exam will have its own consequences too. However, we never talk about how at the end of our lives, we are going to die. I believe this is due to fear; but how are we supposed to face death at the end of our lives when we have spent our entire lives avoiding talking about it?

For the last taboo topic, I will begin with saying that it is something that we have been exposed to since middle school. I remember in my seventh grade health class, my teacher began the conversation about sex by saying “ok, everyone say the word ‘penis’.” And so we all giggled, and yelled out the word ‘penis.’ We were socialized from a young age to talk about sex in a way that makes it seem funny, however, most of us actually learned very little about it before coming to college and hearing about it from our friends.

Statistically, many teens are having sex before arriving at college, and even more during college, yet it is still something that makes students feel uncomfortable and awkward, especially when it involves discussions in front of classmates or professors. Are we afraid that by saying our opinions about sex we are succumbed to ridicule in the forms of being called a “slut,” “man whore,” or “prude”?

“Students tend to be concerned with what their peers think causing them to often hide their emotions or opinions when they are put on the spot in discussions involving things that are taboo,” junior Jenna Palazzo said.

Sex, although prevalent and accepted on college campuses, is still not openly discussed in classrooms on our own campus. While there are classes like Gender Studies and Love, Sex and Science that encourage students to voice their opinions about human sexuality, it still leaves many students feeling awkward or judged based on their responses to questions or the opinions they hold about sex.

The only way to truly educate college students and have open discussions about sex is if it becomes less taboo and more open to discussion. Sex, whether it be someone wanting to have it or waiting to have it, is on the minds of the majority of college students and USD is no exception. By creating open discussions and comfortable environments to freely discuss sex, it promotes responsible and well-informed decisions among our student body.

“People should be able to feel comfortable expressing who they are when it comes to sexuality,” senior Mary Richardson said. “College shouldn’t be about judgement and who is better or cooler. It’s about learning new things about yourself and those around you and discovering the vast and diverse world around you.”

USD will truly know progress when topics that are taboo on campus and in society have become topics that are discussed openly and freely in classrooms and with professors. By eliminating the fear of those who want to voice their opinions and the judgment of those who are listening, we will know real acceptance and we will be able to promote a well-rounded, open-minded generation that will have the necessary knowledge to run the world one day. These taboo topics shape our university experiences, so discussing them is the only way to accept them.