"What does activism look like?"

May 18, 2017 | What does activism look like? Crowds of protesters filling streets? Arrests for acts of civil disobedience? Demonstrators carrying signs and raising their fists? What about protesters who lost their jobs because they missed work to demonstrate? What does that look like? A tale of quiet changemaking captures our emotions and lends itself to visual storytelling. Did the mathematicians in NASA's East Area Computing pool think of themselves as activists? Was that how their contemporaries perceived them?

In late 2016, an article and related commentary described the phenomenon of people who report hundreds, sometimes thousands, of aircraft violations created by flights that are unusually noisy, or that cause especially disturbing vibration. Often such reports arise after a change in flight patterns, or creation of a new flight path. Earlier scientific literature examined demographic information about these "serial complainers" and attempted to create a psychological profile of such people. In some articles, authors refer to frequent complainers in terms of "neurosis" and "neuroticism" - this description persists to this day, many years since use of such terminology fell out of favor in science and academia. One 2003 article mentions "neurosis" "neurotic" and "neuroticism" more than thirty times.

But a 2002 article article about "serial complainers" suggests that bias is not significant:

"The frequency histogram of complaints indicates that the vast majority of complainers do so only once a year but at the other extreme a few individuals complain most days of the year. This contribution of 41% to the complaint data from the serial-complainers has the potential to bias the results. However, the series of graphs indicated that, compared with the low/moderate complainers, the serial-complainers:

1. Simply accentuated the underlying trend in the daily plot.
2. Presented a slightly more complex effect on the monthly plot but maintained the essential features.
3. The 24 hour pattern shows that both types of complainers have a major problem at nighttime but the serial-complainers seem to have a particular problem with going to sleep, early sleep and early mornings while the low and moderate complainers have a more consistent nighttime problem with a peak at 02.00-03.00 and much less of a problem in the morning."

However, the authors of the 2002 study maintain the position that high volume aviation noise complainers have psychological problems, suggesting they have poor coping skills and are unable to "take on a positive mental attitude after balancing the disturbance with positive benefits of the airport being nearby." But the authors concede that not everyone views high volume noise complainers negatively: "Interestingly, there is a wide variation in how serial-complainers are viewed from "cranks" to "champions of the community" i.e. no need to complain as he/she will have done it for me!" And it has been well established that most people affected by noise pollution do not complain, not knowing how or where to complain, or believing complaints do not work.

Some aviation noise literature suggests that human beings may be able to reframe noise as one would reframe a feeling by means of cognitive behavioral therapy - to adapt and override nature - while related research suggests that policy discourse may affect people's subjective response to aircraft noise. And some yoga practitioners add to this line of thinking, claiming that with effort, one can override natural instinct through meditative practice. *

I don't think that high volume noise reporters ought to be called "serial complainers" and I don't think that they are cranks or "just chronically annoyed" as some suggest. Should we call them "noise violation reporters"? That sounds too clunky. I think that we should call them activists.

Centuries ago, the earliest noise activists were affluent individuals leveraging their privilege to control noise created by street workers and others without power or authority. The actions of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia provide an extreme example of the way that anti-noise legislation and enforcement was used to exert power and control over the poorest among us. At the same time, noise itself has been used to exert power and control over those with little power, autonomy, and freedom, from concentration camp prisoners to more contemporary prisoners of war, and jail and prison populations generally.

Stereotypes of affluence and privilege continue to follow noise activists. Some elected leaders support and eventually lead with efforts to reduce noise pollution - recognizing that environmental noise affects the poor and less powerful just as much as it affects the affluent. Other elected leaders feel comfortable ignoring constituents and eschewing any action towards mitigating noise pollution, perhaps buying into unfair stereotypes associating noise complaints with cranks or priviledged elites or both.

When times are good, it is difficult enough to move forward with mitigation of environmental noise, whether the source is air or road transportation, construction, sound piped into public spaces, or nightclub noise - thanks to erroneous stereotypes about noise and noise activists. But when times are tough, it is nearly impossible to persuade elected leaders to give time, attention, and resources to noise-related issues. When science is ignored or poorly understood, some leaders, believing that noise is merely a nuisance, bothersome only to individuals rather than the public health issue it is, feel justified dismissing constituents who attempt to discuss noise pollution issues.

In good times and bad, noise pollution deserves as much time and attention as other environmental issues. Environmental noise has proven negative effects on hearing, sleep, concentration, cognition, learning, mental health, and cardiovascular health. Mitigating noise pollution enables populations to better endure the stresses of tough times. It is time to stop dismissing those who report violations as buffoons and cranks.

What does activism look like to me? My Aunt Betty was a pioneering gay activist during the 1970s and 1980s, a key figure in the passage of New York City's gay rights bill in 1986, a goal that took fifteen years to achieve. When I consider all that she and her colleagues endured during the course of the effort, it astonishes me to think of their accomplishing all that they did in their spare time, after long days at work and time spent on family responsibilities. The bill passed after the group had testified ten times before the New York City Council over the course of fifteen years. I wonder what would have happened if they had given up after testifying for the eighth or ninth time, or if they had decided to give the effort ten or twelve years. As a group, they also endured ascriptions of "neurosis" and worse, and suggestions that with effort they could override human nature and become heterosexual. Sound familiar?

I think that Dawne Morong, pictured above, is as much of an activist as those who march for workers' rights and women's rights, and as much of an activist as were my aunt and her colleagues. It pains me that people who do what she does in the world of aviation noise reporting receive undeserved criticism and ridicule, and that they aren't recognized as activists or civic leaders. I just hope that Morong is wrong when she says that she doesn't think the complaints will have the intended result, and I'm glad that reporter Stacy St. Clair wrote a sympathetic and respectful article about Morong's work.

* (It should also be noted - should you read the referenced article - that the condition misophonia involves sensitivity to specific sounds, and has nothing to do with environmental noise; such sounds can be soft, and may even include subtleties such as breathing or the pronunciation of certain consonants.)

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