Noise Trespass

We need a noise trespass law.  At the very least, the concept of noise trespass should be as familiar among the general population as physical trespass.

Why is going onto someone’s private property without permission (physical trespass) considered a wrong?  Because doing so is intrusive (presuming a right to privacy) and potentially damaging.  The same goes for sending noise onto someone’s private property.

Noise is intrusive because it—the sound of machinery, loud music, screaming kids, even conversations (having to listen to someone have an extended cellphone conversation, for example)—detracts and distracts from whatever one is trying to do, whether that’s watching tv, listening to (one’s own preferred) music, writing an essay, filling out income tax returns, sleeping…it doesn’t really matter.  Surely we have a right to privacy concerning our attention; noise hijacks our attention—it coerces us to pay attention to something we don’t want to pay attention to.

Noise is potentially damaging in a number of ways.  Depending on a number of factors (of which dB is only one), noise “damages hearing [at least 20% of teenagers now suffer from slight hearing loss], disturbs communication, disrupts sleep, affects heart function, intrudes on cognition…, reduces productivity, provokes unwanted behaviors, and increases accidents” (Mitra).  It can also cause or contribute to “anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headache, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, change in mood, increase in social conflicts, neurosis, hysteria, and psychosis” (Noise Free America).

Noise produced by industry, airports, and so on is already being monitored and regulated.  I’m talking here about the noise caused by individuals in residential neighborhoods.  Various sound charts put city traffic at around 80dB, the subway at 88dB, a garbage truck at 100dB; lawnmowers and leafblowers can also be as high as 100dB, and chainsaws, dirt bikes, ATVs, boat motors, and PWCs are louder still, at around 110dB.

But, one might object, although we own our own property, and so have a right to object when someone trespasses on it, we don’t own the air over our property, and sound travels through the air.  There are several replies to this: we shouldn’t own the land either (and yet physical trespass might still be wrong, merely because of occupancy); we should also own the air over our land (in which case, noise trespass is as wrong as physical trespass); we collectively own the air (and that’s sufficient to consider noise a trespass); ownership is irrelevant altogether (occupancy is sufficient).  People get upset when a neighbour’s dandelion seeds travel through air and land on their property; is there not similar justification for getting upset when a neighbour’s sound waves travel through air and ‘land’—ah, but they don’t land on one’s property.  No, but they ‘land’ on one’s eardrums: sound is not perceived until the sound waves ‘hit’ one’s eardrums.  Surely that’s even more intrusive: the sound waves actually touch our body, not just our property.

In any case, smoke from burning tires travels through air, and if it travels from your neighbour’s property through the air onto your property, or, more accurately, into the air over your property, perhaps even through your open windows into your house, you would, I think, cry foul.

In addition to the intrusion and the damage, most of the annoying noise caused by individuals is avoidable.  Manual lawnmowers, rakes, and clippers have enabled people to take care of their lawns for almost a century.  I suspect that dirt bikes, ATVs, and PWCs can be redesigned to be quiet; for starters, could they not use electric motors rather than two-stroke gas-powered motors?  They certainly don’t have to be modified to increase their noise (as they often are), and they can be driven in a fashion that minimizes their noise (as they often are not).  And, of course, people could use instead bicycles, kayaks, canoes, and so on.  And earbuds or headphones.  And landline phones inside buildings.

All of which begs the question: why don’t we consider noise trespass to be trespass?  Are we so unable to consider the invisible and the intangible?  It we can’t see it or touch it, it doesn’t exist?  Despite its obvious effects?

Or is it that men like noise?  (After all, for the most part, they’re the ones making it.)  And it is the male view, male interests, male values that dictate law and custom, make no mistake about that.  This is the view presented at Manly Power Tools.  It’s also the view endorsed by a certain electronic composer who, when asked why he writes such loud, dense music, replied “Besides the obvious?  The desire to fill all this space with sound?”  Perhaps men are still being led around by their primitive brain, and all their noise is just a sublimated roar, mistakenly believed to be necessary for survival.  (Which begs the question: when will they evolve into homo sapiens?)

 

Private Property and Visual Intrusion

There should be regulations about what people can put on their private property that will be in view of their neighbours.  Even more than in public spaces, visual material on private property is not easily avoided.  If you put a swastika or a pornographic image on your garage door, and that door is right across from your neighbours’ living room window, they will have to see it every time they look out their window.  Asking them not to look out their window is unreasonable.   If they were there first, they have a right to ask you not to put the image on your garage door.  If you were there first and had the image on your garage door when they were looking for a place, they could have chosen to not move in (and so don’t have the right to ask you to remove it) (maybe).

But it’s not even, or not only, so-called ‘offensive’ images that I’d prohibit.  It’s anything the neighbour doesn’t want to see every day, anything that’s an unwanted intrusion on their consciousness.  It could be a ‘Jesus Loves You’ sign (unwanted by the atheist), the Canadian flag (upsetting to someone who is well aware of Canada’s environmental record), or even an inoffensive and non-upsetting image of an infant playing with building blocks.  Who knows?  It doesn’t matter.  The people who are forced to see your house every day are the ones who get a say in how it looks.  From the outside.  To them.  What you put in your back yard doesn’t affect them, so they don’t have a say.  What you put inside your garage, or inside your house, doesn’t affect them, so they don’t have a say.  But what you put in plain view?  They should have a say.  A reasonable say.

Obviously the effects of such a prohibition increase the more visible you are.  If you own a penthouse apartment that can be seen by thousands, guess what.  If you own a house on a lake that can be seen by everyone on the lake, guess what.

To provide just one example, I live in a cabin on a lake in a forest and several people consider it appropriate to ‘decorate’ their property, lakeside, with solar lights that can never be turned off.  Some are arranged in a runway fashion to mark a path from their house to their lake; some are arranged in a row along their frontage.  Needless to say, the lights really ruin the beauty of the lovely moonlight glimmering on the water, the otherwise dark forest…  I claim that such lights shouldn’t be allowed.

First, my right to revel in the natural beauty every night trumps their right to ‘decoration’ that isn’t even being appreciated (if they’re weekenders, they’re back in the city during the week and so don’t see their lights; if they live there, they’re typically asleep in bed after midnight and so don’t see their lights).  Second, my right to revel in the natural beauty trumps the marginal utility of the lights even when they are there or awake because there are alternatives (one can use a flashlight or install motion sensor lights that go on only when one needs to see the way).  People with lakeside solar lights are imposing their conception of decoration and utility on everyone else, and they are preventing others from appreciating their own conception of beauty (the dark night, the moonlight glimmering on the water).  If your property is in the middle of natural beauty, you have an obligation not to ruin it.  And if you don’t see that, you shouldn’t live there.  Similarly, people who don’t appreciate Beethoven shouldn’t go to concerts and talk all the way through.

And if those lights are blinking, it’s even worse: given the way our brains are wired, our attention is coerced.  No one has a right to force me to pay attention to something I don’t want to attend to, and blinking lights do just that.

One may counter by claiming that surely one is allowed to do what one wants on and with one’s own property.  Well, no.  For example, you shouldn’t be allowed to dump oil on your property because it will seep through the soil into other people’s property and into the lake.  When your actions affect others, there are limits to what you can do.

In short, even though your property is ‘private’, what you put on it is not: as long as it can be seen by others, it’s public.  And it should therefore be subject to restrictions: you don’t have a right to coerce other people’s attention, especially if what you’re forcing them to pay attention to is something they don’t want to pay attention to.

I can do whatever I want on my own property!

I am so very sick and tired of hearing ‘I can do whatever I want on my own property!’  The latest instance concerns a neighbour who has stuck some of those new solar lights in front of her cottage, lakeside of course.

Thing is, they don’t have an on/off switch.  So what she’s done on her own property means the rest of us will have to see her lights every night, all night, for the rest of our lives.

If we lived in the city, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad; they’d get ‘lost’ in their surroundings.  But we live on a lake in the forest.  Where the stars are amazing and the moon glimmers across the water. And now there are a dozen lights at eye level a little to my left whenever I look out at night. They stand out like a middle finger.

I can understand the desire for outdoor lights in order to see where you’re going, but then turn them off when you go to bed.  Or in this case, cover them.  And I can understand the possibility of all-night lights deterring wildlife, but motion-sensor lights would be a better choice, if only for the startle effect.

Please, people, are you really that stupid?  Do you really not see that what you do, even on your own property, affects others?  On that basis, those others most certainly do have a right to ask you not to do something.

In the same way, your pre-1980 use of spray cans is justifiably subject to my complaint.  It’s why I’m at risk for skin cancer now.  Your excessive use of fossil fuels was partly responsible for the flood or drought that destroyed my house.  (Let’s say.)  Your actions often have consequences for me.  Not immediately and not directly and maybe you’re too stupid to see any other kind of consequence, but nevertheless, most certainly, what you do affects me.

The really sad thing is that my neighbour doesn’t even notice the lights.  She doesn’t believe me when I say I do.  She’s that desensitized to her environment.  Or that inattentive.  She thinks I’m exaggerating the intrusion.  I received the same response when I complained about the bright red Home Hardware sign that suddenly appeared nailed to a tree at the end of the lane.  And when I’ve complained about any one of a hundred noises – dirt bikes, atvs, leaf blowers, weed trimmers, generators, chain saws.  Those of us who see things, who hear things, those of us who pay attention to what’s around us, we’re the ones to suffer.  The dullards who go through life with a ‘What?’ expression permanently on their face, who wouldn’t notice, well, anything, they’re the ones living happily.  So in order not to go crazy, I wear earplugs most of the time now.  And my reading glasses, so everything more than six feet past the tip of my nose is out of focus.  The alternative is to become as oblivious as the rest of ‘em.