A mother and her son are walking hand-in-hand down the cobblestone walkway at their local park. Up ahead, the young boy sees another boy, about his age, walking with his own mother. Almost instantly, the child picks up on the physical differences that accompany Down Syndrome, and raises his hand to point at the oncoming boy.
He asks his mother, in a strictly curious tone: “Why does he look like that, mommy?” The mother, who considers herself completely accepting of those different from her, turns red with embarrassment at how rude her son is acting. She shushes him, and speeds up slightly while averting eye contact as the boy and his mother pass; all the while, her son is watching her intently.
The key here is that her son does not see her reaction as embarrassment; he does not have the ability to understand that his pointing was anything that should be considered rude. What he does see, however, was averted eye contact, quickened pace, and his mother telling him to hush. He learns, as a result, to treat a child with the physical features of Down Syndrome as someone to be avoided. In short, his mother has unintentionally passed along the stigma surrounding this genetic disorder to the malleable mind of her son.
Stigmas are rampant in our society today, whether they surround mental health, gay marriage or identity. Not only do these stigmas stem from a resistance to change within society, but also from a lack of education that manifests itself in multiple ways.
As demonstrated by my example of the mother and her son, stigmas can be passed along by silence, even though that is usually not the intention. Educational institutions across the country, including Colgate, need to step up to the plate and tackle these stigmas head on. Colgate has progressed in recent years, but there is still much work to be done. Stigmas instill in many of us a sense that these topics are incredibly shameful, and that they should not be talked about unless behind the closed doors of a psychologist’s office. The uncomfortableness and refusal to address topics of this nature strengthens the stigma, further encouraging those who are suffering to hide their inner turmoil. Society may not be outwardly telling people to associate shame with depression, eating disorders or sexual abuse, but the silence and discomfort exhibited in place of education and awareness sure does a good job of making the association seem logical.
Sometimes it is not the silence that worsens a stigma, but speaking out in ways that are extremely inefficient. In modern society, it is almost impossible to escape the draw of social media. Once involved in social media, it is even harder not to get involved with the various conflicts rising in society, such as LGBTQ freedoms. When it comes to individuals who support open-mindedness and acceptance in society, we too often see them posting about how horrible those who do not support the movement are. They do not, however, preach in ways aimed at educating, but rather at shaming others into submission. This merely riles up the opposing side, which feels the need to defend their beliefs. Fighting for their beliefs not only strengthens those beliefs, but also strengthens the stigma for those who already buy into it. When someone fighting against a stigma does not chiefly try to educate, but rather to attack, they may be inadvertently worsening that stigma in society.
Stigmas are a part of our society because there is a lack of openness and education on uncomfortable or controversial topics. I admit that I am not perfect, and my actions do not always reflect those of someone who preaches about speaking out in purely an educational way, but I do recognize it as the best method for creating a society free of stigmas. Stigmas are bred from ignorance, and ignorance can only be combatted with an honest attempt to educate.