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.

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...