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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

What's Left Unsaid? Taboo Topics At Dartmouth

One writer investigates what topics students find controversial and how they intersect with campus culture.

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In 2015, the Mirror polled students on three questions — “What are the most taboo topics at Dartmouth?”, “What is something you’ve done that you wouldn’t want your parents to know?” and “What is something you wouldn’t disclose to your closest friends?” 

Nine years later, I anonymously asked students around Foco and Novack if anything has changed: What is taboo at Dartmouth in 2024?

Students' answers revolved around several themes: controversial politics, financial issues and class differences, mental health, racism and sex among them. Some students noted more Dartmouth-specific phenomena — such as social pressure to party on campus, being Good Sammed and hook-up culture.  

It can be challenging to voice opinions on topics that spark conflicting dialogue and fuel emotion. At a college with only 4,000 undergraduate students, being mindful of one’s reputation is an added consideration when expressing a “hot take” or stepping out of the “small talk” status quo. 

Ravin Anderson ’24 stressed the idea that students constantly face a pressure to conform to their communities. As a result, they tend to avoid discussing taboo topics that can change others’ perceptions of them. In his case, Anderson felt that sharing his mental health struggles with friends would only bring his friends down along with himself.

“There are days when I wake up and I just [wouldn’t] want to do anything, I [wouldn’t] want to talk to anybody, and I could be in a really bad headspace,” he said. “But I feel like just coming across as someone who has mental health problems or a lot of stress [that you] can’t deal with, can be a burden to people, especially your friends; you don’t want to feel like a burden to them.”

Caroline Conway ’24, co-president of Dartmouth’s Mental Health Union, echoed a similar sentiment. 

“I think there are some areas like eating [disorders], or [situations in which] someone hasn’t left their room in five days, or something like that — those aren’t the kinds of things we’ll hear about because I think that there is a kind of filter in Dartmouth culture [that asks], ‘What is considered acceptable to share?’” she said. 

Some students find it difficult to bring up taboo topics like these because they’re worried about others’ reactions. Both Anderson and Conway highlighted Dartmouth’s Good Samaritan policy as a key example of taboo. 

Just like pretty much any taboo, the topic of the Good Sam policy is made taboo because of its implications about individuals’ reputations, according to Anderson.

“I think people are typically okay with drinking, but then once you reach past a certain point where you’re intoxicated — and obviously that’s the level needed to probably get Good Sammed — I feel like that’s not [an idea] that people want other people to have [of them]: an idea that they drink a lot, to the point where they need help,” he shared.

The layers that make the policy a taboo continue to deepen when there are financial repercussions, according to Conway. Class status and money fall on the list of taboo topics.

“Getting Good Sammed can be a massive financial burden because [the person getting Good Sam’d ends] up having to pay the hospital bill, pay for the ambulance transportation, and sometimes that can also cause problems with a visa, or they [might] get charged with underage drinking,” she said.

She also commented that the complicated ethics can make the subject difficult to discuss.

“Good Sam is often done, at least in my experience, without the consent of the person. And I think that’s just a very awkward situation because especially if you’re good friends with someone, it feels really shitty to get the sense that you’re robbing them of their agency in any way, even if it’s for their own good,” Conway said. 

Despite these circumstances, she still advocates very much for the use of the Good Samaritan Policy as a resource in case of injury.

In the same vein, another commonly considered taboo topic on campus is safety and risk in Greek spaces.

Abigail Kayser ’24 said the issue of sexual assault in Greek life can feel difficult to broach — especially student complicity in the issue.

“There’s one frat on this campus that I’ve heard was called the ‘rape-y frat,’” she said. “There’s been plenty of stories about sexual assault surrounding that frat. But [even though] everyone knows it’s the rape-y frat, no one talks about that. Just accept that it is [the rape-y frat], and don’t go to it — it’s kind of what the [implied message is]. ” 

Even though the 2015 survey also listed “sexual assault and alcohol abuse,” “Greek life being bad” and “mental health” as topics students thought were taboo at the time, I questioned whether some of the other topics mentioned nine years ago still felt taboo to students. I asked Anderson his thoughts on these issues today.

Anderson claimed that although some topics in the list such as ‘Columbus Day,’ which was seen in a negative light due to its celebration for Christopher Columbus’s violent actions, are now not as applicable to campus life as they might have been before, certain ones such as ‘not being okay’ or ‘saying anything that might offend anyone’ are still greatly considered as taboo on campus today. 

Along with these topics, he brings up “sexual assault,” “the mental health aspect of grades,” and “feeling burning out” as current taboo topics. 

“I don't think those things will change,” Anderson stated. “I think those are things that have become ingrained within Dartmouth culture.” 

Hopefully, writing this article is one step towards breaking through the taboo.