Secondhand Sound and the Right to Introspection
Which freedom is more foundational than the freedom to think whatever you want, whenever you want? How difficult is it enjoy an unbroken string of your own thoughts when constant, overwhelming distraction is the default context of daily life?
Personally, I’ve often noticed that my ability to think clearly is directly affected by the certain types of sounds that I’m subjected to. Some sounds, even loud ones, are ok, like: the din of a crowded coffee shop, the white noise of rushing or falling water, background music that I’ve chosen for myself, the symphony of wildlife sounds in a remote place, etc.
Other sounds are horribly distracting and consistently interrupt my thoughts, preventing me from enjoying that foundational freedom of introspection, sounds like: honking traffic, car alarms, incessantly barking dogs, piercingly loud laughers/talkers, another person’s music (especially with heavy bass), custom exhaust systems, and most motorcycles, to name a few.
Looking for the essential difference between these two types of sound, I’ve found that what sets them apart from each other is also related to the concept of freedom. The first set of sounds all seem to be “built-in” sounds, things that are just a natural extension of the world, a necessary consequence of a given activity that I’ve chosen to enjoy. The other set of sounds are less necessary, even unnecessary, and are more likely to be the result of inconsiderate behavior rather than simply a consequence of the way things are.
Which brings me to my main point: I believe that unsolicited noise is immoral. Immoral in the same way that smoking in a closed car with children and other non-smokers is considered immoral. Secondhand sound is the new “secondhand smoke” issue and it must be controlled in the same way that smoking has been controlled, as a means to greater social freedom and happiness.
Speaking of freedom and happiness, don’t all free people have the right to pursue happiness in any way they want, even if that means listening to loud music, or installing loud tailpipes, or watching a movie on a bus? Well, yes. But, also no.
Here’s the thing about freedom: it is not, and never has been, absolute. The “freedoms” we enjoy are all contingent, because some freedoms just aren’t compatible with others. So, the only kind of “free” that is morally allowable is the kind that doesn’t make others less free.
Of course, you should have a right to act in any way you wish, so long as your actions don’t prevent others from acting how they wish. If you want to pump destructively loud music into your eardrums, smoke crack, and shove rusty nails up your nose then please, be free, enjoy yourself!
But, your freedoms end where mine begin and vice versa. Your freedom to be as loud as you want is restricted by my freedom to choose the silence necessary to think freely. Similarly, your freedom to choose bad breath, stinky clothes, yellow teeth, premature aging, and lung cancer (aka: smoking) is restricted by my freedom to not choose those things.
Society (eventually!) figured out that secondhand smoke was an infringement on people’s freedom to not smoke and so things changed. Now it’s time for society to understand that when someone chooses noisiness, they’re infringing on the rights of those who choose silence. Especially in their own homes, in public parks, on public transportation, etc.
Libraries get it. Houses of worship get it. In fact, all “introspective spaces” like these have an overt expectation that silence is essential to their utility.
But, if introspection is a personal right that is constantly infringed upon by a culture of inconsiderate behavior, then why am I the only one complaining about it? Sure, it may seem that most people get along in life just fine with all the noises and other sensory assaults, so maybe the sensitive people like me just need to get over it and stop whining.
Well, many things in the past have seemed insignificant while actually causing real harm, without us even noticing it. Air pollution, carcinogens, capital punishment, patriarchy… so many other things. In fact, a look at the current evidence shows that you may be being harmed right now by noise pollution, which has many, many well-documented effects on public health and productivity. Here’s a tiny sampling of the enormous number of studies and papers on the subject:
But noise pollution is not the point of this blog. This blog is about the freedom to choose.
So please, please, choose headphones. They make it easier for you to hear and easier for us to think. Oh, and also, please stop choosing ear-piercing exhaust systems for your cars and motorcycles... and stop choosing theater-quality sound systems for your tiny apartment with thin, shared walls… and don't get me started on people who bring a bass-thumping mini speaker on camping trips! Honestly, you’ll save money, you’ll save lives, the world will thank you!