Few frustrations match the one that involves lying in bed, dead-eyed in the night, as the neighbor dog’s ten-billionth bark pierces the thin psychic veil between sanity and bloodlust.

People kill other people distressingly often over noise.

Plenty of evidence implies that the planet is noisier than at any other time in human history. What now?


Before attempting to answer that practically – and we will, here, over time – we can begin by ruling out a few well-worn, fatally flawed approaches. Today’s approach is both the most common (by far) and one of the easiest to take down. It is the fantasy of silence.

The Times of London recently gave writer Helen Rumbelow one of those tedious assignments where the journalist is supposed to go out and search for an oasis of true quiet amidst the ubiquitous din of modern urbanity. Conventionally, the journalist either finds a single tranquil place or doesn’t; either way, the moral of the story is that we’ve forgotten the value of silence, and by extension neighborliness, peaceful contemplation, relaxation, and so forth.

In her piece, titled “Silent Night … Is There Peace Anywhere in Britain?,” Rumbelow takes the high road considering that her assignment was essentially a straw man. After moving through the usual tropes of noise control, she makes some great points.

To paraphrase the article, Britain is noisier. People have become exasperated. Noise-reduction experts agree that the problem stems in large part from overpopulation. But too much regulation on behavior (i.e., no peeing standing up in apartments after midnight) can be overkill. Besides, noise is also caused by more and louder technology – including things that can’t easily be limited, like motor vehicles. Such noise is not only annoying, it’s physically damaging to our bodies. Ultimately, since we can’t achieve total silence, perhaps we can overlay nicer sounds – like waterfalls. Finally, it is worth considering that people seem to tolerate mechanical noise better in developing countries. Is sensitivity to noise a disease of affluence?

Rumbelow offers, provocatively, that part of what makes certain sounds tolerable is not only, generically, that they’re subjectively pleasing, but that they signify things beyond human control. Some of the loudest sounds we hear – waves crashing, thunderstorms, forest animals – are usually pleasing in spite of their volume, and even their irregularity. Conversely, the animal sounds that do tend to bother urban-dwellers, like the aforementioned barking, are those that come from domesticated beasts, which people are ostensibly responsible for controlling.

On this, Rumbelow writes:

I have come to think that our relationship with noise is like our relationship with God, or with universal forces beyond our control. We crave natural sounds, such as that of the ocean, that are beyond our power. We long for the incorporeal, and our longing intensifies the more the noises of other people press in on us.

So, then, is sensitivity to noise actually a disease of the triumph of classical liberalism, in which people understand themselves as free actors with the right to control their environments? If we run with this thesis momentarily, we might conclude that nostalgia for silence is really a displaced lust for dominance – in particular, dominance over the actions of other people, which is one hell of a paradox for a philosophy of political freedom.

Whether or not this thesis is true, its mere possibility is one of many strikes against the open-ended idea of noise control animated by the fantasy of silence. This is because every time we choose a target for noise abatement, our choice is not only about volume, but about our own hearing. This doesn’t mean, at all, that the definition of noise is totally subjective and thus impossible to do anything about. It simply means that too few quests for greater quiet have considered the politics of listening in sufficient depth.

Next: The amazing noise map of the entire nation of England

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