Quiet as a basic human right

Silence is the enemy of everything superficial, stupid, and ugly.
Thomas C. Reeves | Feb 24 2010 | comment  

I read not long ago that automobile companies are racing to reduce the noise in cars. Along with fuel efficiency and safety, the executives are deeply concerned about silence. Why? Where is the demand? Modern life is extraordinarily noisy, and people are rushing to augment their car stereos with satellite radio and television sets. The motorcycle and truck owners who have modified their vehicles and roar down our street attempting to sound like the Airbus A380 about to land on our roof seem entirely in step with contemporary culture, a culture enamored of super-loud leaf blowers, riding mowers, jet-skis, and snowmobiles. And then there is the omnipresent popular music.

Muzak, usually unobtrusive popular music played in commercial and industrial centers, became a reality in 1934, and spread throughout the 1940s and 1950s. It grew because it was popular; studies showed that stores improved sales and factories raised worker morale by exposing people to a steady diet of “elevator music.” Radios, phonograph records, and television sets kept the level of sound high most of the time wherever one went. But how quiet it all seems now.

It is almost impossible today, beyond the confines of one’s home, to escape hip-hop (now taught as a serious subject in some colleges), rap, rock, and country-western hits, played at high volume. Shopping malls blast recordings, spoken commercials, and videos at shoppers. Our local Home Depot and Best Buy reverberate with the assault of sobs, groans, and twangs over gigantic loudspeakers. Our cavernous grocery store sounds like a perpetual rock concert, with thump-thumping, shouting, and shrieking tearing at one’s ears in every aisle. Going to the movies can often be likewise painful, as the volume of the film and the commercials is set at a level necessary to communicate with the many hearing-impaired teens in attendance. Summer fairs and festivals are often worse. At most sporting events, the bombast starts at the first hesitation in the athletic action. Gambling casinos can be as loud as a computer game room or a sawmill. When you enter a church and see a drum set near the pulpit or altar, you know you’re in trouble.

This is because people all over the West and industrialized Asia today, perhaps especially the young, cannot abide silence. Disc jockeys understand this well, not permitting even a second of silence between recordings, running everything together as though it was all of a single piece or leaping into the dreaded “dead air” at the end of a number with blaring commercials. One of the very few moral commandments of modern life to command widespread assent must be: Thou Shalt Not Permit Quiet.

I used to watch several of my students enter class with their earphones on, take them off reluctantly during a lecture, and clamp them back on as soon as possible when the class ended. They were intent on avoiding more than a second or two of silence. New devices have greatly encouraged more young people to become sound zombies, seeking constant instruction and inspiration from the likes of Lil Boosie and Chingy. Cell phones often occupy those intervals in life when silence might threaten. Now everyone is routinely required to sit or stand in public places listening to loud telephone conversations waged by people who have no idea that their conduct might offend others, and wouldn’t care if they knew.

In fact, silence is necessary for many achievements in civilized society, especially meaningful and thoughtful study (as opposed to mere memorization). Concentrated minds need to focus without interruption. When I used to tell my students that simple truth, I was often greeted with smirks and bewildered looks. Some had not even imagined reading a serious book in silence.

Quiet is also vital to contemplation, prayer, and worship. Churches should have signs that say (right after the admonition against beach apparel): “Be Still. Think. Listen. Pray.”

Silence is the enemy of everything superficial, stupid, and ugly.

Thus I am entirely in favor of the Right to Quiet Society of Vancouver, British Columbia (www.quiet.org), which seeks “recognition of the right to quiet as a basic human right.” Organization officials argue that “Noise causes stress, and stress is a major cause of illness and suicide.” Urban noise is said to be doubling every ten years, and air traffic is increasing by five percent a year. The Society declares, “The soundscape is part of the commons, the property that belongs to all of us. No one has the right to pollute it with noise any more than they have the right to pollute the air or water with chemicals.” When both of our political parties agree, we will have at least some grounds for believing once again in the idea of progress.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.

Copyright © Thomas C. Reeves . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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