Letters: Silenced by Sound
I was very much struck by Michael Cronin’s timely article ‘Silenced by Sound’. It suggested the following thoughts.
Cronin omitted one particular instance of ‘silenced by sound’. I mentioned it in my ‘Seattle’ book Uncertain Dawn: Hiroshima and the Beginning of Postwestern Civilisation. I refer to the silencing of spontaneous personal song and of casual whistling. I mean a man or woman – but mostly women – singing a song aloud, alone, while about their work. And for the whistling, I mean, most typically, ‘a boy whistling on the street’.
In my youth, I used hear these musics, coming across fields or through an open window or passing in the street. I heard them in Ireland and in Continental countries when I was travelling. For many years now, I have no longer heard them.
It has struck me that this is a momentous change in human culture that I have lived through. This silencing of the spontaneous ‘body music’ of the human being is a break with all of previous human history. Vaguely searching for a cause of it, I have found it partly in what Cronin writes about: the ubiquitous (to use my own phrase) ‘music of the Empire’, imposed on us imperially and commanding our personal silence. And partly I have attributed it to the latent depression that goes with the forced labour of the consumer society.
Cronin relates to this when he writes of our public spaces being flooded ‘with music to deal with the anxiety and fretfulness of the solitary consumer’. Truly, the consumption we are continually driven to in droves by the whips of advertising is the contemporary version of serf labour in the fields; now, as in those old days, for the benefit of tiers of lords and masters. Repeatedly we are told that on our performing this labour depends the prosperity and very structure of the system we live within. How sing or whistle if you believe that?
Again, Cronin rings a bell with me when he writes of ‘the economic forces that … usurp our right to silence’. I have long believed that people have a natural ‘right to silence’; and it has struck me that it is one of a number of fundamental rights that are – significantly – not included in the much-proclaimed ‘human rights’. (To instance another: the right to be able to live decently in or about one’s home place.)
We are told that ‘human rights’ are the set of rights that people must have in order to live freely and happily. The corrolary is that these rights are sufficient for that, and that people have no other rights. They have not, for example, ‘the right to silence’, and to demand it politically would be pure subversion!
Published on 1 January 2003