In observance of the tenth annual International Noise Awareness Day, Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2005
I saw a highway billboard the other day that summed up a prevailing attitude: "Silence is weird." The product being sold? Cellphones. This ad campaign had an obvious bias, but it prompted me to reflect on how pervasive (and accepted) noise has become in our society. Without question, loudness now trumps quiet wherever people live, work, study, play, and even sleep.
During the current era we are so submerged in our turbulent sea of human-made sound that we rarely experience the healing, tranquil balm of silence. Instead of the relative peace enjoyed by our technology-deprived grandparents--who had to make do with wire-based connections if they were lucky enough to have a phone--we're now assaulted by the sounds of traffic, sirens, aircraft, leafblowers, weedwhackers, jackhammers, snowmobiles, and, of course, the cellular squawkbox.
The price we pay is measured not only in psychological stress, but physical damage. The New York-based League for the Hard of Hearing has compiled research correlating loud sounds with negative impacts on digestion, sleep, blood pressure, mental health, and fetus development, to say nothing of hearing. Experts believe that exposure to noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss among 28 million in the U.S. who suffer such an impairment. Studies also implicate the harmful effects of loud sounds on children's learning and behavior. "Calling noise a 'nuisance' is like calling smog an inconvenience," sums up former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart.
As an antidote, the League for the Hard of Hearing's Noise Center is again coordinating activities commemorating the annual International Noise Awareness Day. As in the past, the event pulls together a growing group of antinoise activists who want stricter volume controls for public places, crackdowns on noise polluters, quieter entertainment venues, and greater appreciation of silence by the general public. "Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves," declares the Noise Free America website created by Ted Rueter, a Tulane University political scientist. "Right now we're in the infancy of the anti-noise movement," Rueter told a reporter, adding that awareNoisy daycare reduces retiree to tearsness of the issue is "where air and water pollution were in the 1960s."
In some communities on April 20, anti-noise activists will station themselves on busy street corners and pass out leaflets calling attention to the problem. It is argued that, while some annoying sounds are inescapable, a combination of technological fine-tuning and respect for others can reduce their impact dramatically. Fire engines, for example, can now use sirens and horns that broadcast in specific directions, eliminating discord behind and above such trucks as they travel.
Some uncontrolled noise inevitably greets us as we walk out the door, but often we feel compelled to introduce it voluntarily to our inner-sanctums: flicking on TV sets, computers, or stereos; playing back answering machines; encouraging our children to play video games; and installing gadgets in every room of the house. The result, I fear, is we can't hear ourselves think, or even feel. As columnist Anna Quindlen has noted, the static in the collective human psyche "threatens to drown out the small voices of cosmic questioning or contentment."
The League for the Hard of Hearing proposes that we each observe a noise-free minute, wherever we are, from 2:15 to 2:16 p.m. on April 20. The notion is radical in its simplicity. Additional quiet-time would help, but this is a start. A more radical suggestion has come from Brett Banfe, who proposes a 24-hour stretch of silence once each year. If his name is unfamiliar, I'll remind you that Banfe gained worldwide attention by becoming voluntarily mute from Sept. 1, 2000, through Aug. 31, 2001, setting an example that underscored the value of attentive listening, observation of details, and peacefulness. A 19-year-old New Jersey college student at the time, Branfe used computers and other devices to communicate, along with body language and throat sounds.
Most of us are neither prepared nor inclined to be silent for a full day. But I, for one, will embrace the proposed "quiet minute" on April 20. I'll be sure to turn off my own TV, radio, stereo, telephone, and computer, then ask for the same courtesy from those who prefer to blast, blare, and beep. During that day, I'll patronize my local public quiet spots: the park, library, museum, and beach. Finally, I'll write a polite letter to my city manager, urging stricter enforcement of noise abatement laws. Maybe she can do something about those garbage trucks that create havoc at 5:30 a.m., or go after those insensitive people who let their car alarms screech without cause or concern.
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