October 30, 2014 | The internet has brought out teems of armchair critics, people whose comments on anything and everything follow each article or blog post. No topic has a monopoly on the ability to elicit anonymous bashing, but few things give rise to more backlash than to suggest that a noise source should be addressed in an urban setting. The response is swift and cutting, and leaves no room for details, nuance, or context, and there is no filter:
“Move to a cemetery!”
“How petty and small you are!”
Online armchair critics are especially intolerant of criticism about horn honking. On October 5, the New York Daily News and the Ditmas Park Corner published a story about a Brooklyn mother who had handed out flyers requesting that drivers think before honking at her daughter’s school bus while children are boarding the bus. The mother was nervous about handing out the flyers, but felt compelled to do so because of the daily stress the noise caused her daughter, who has a condition that involves sensitivity to loud noises.
After the story was published, I searched for a follow-up story, but found none. I admired this woman’s courage, especially in the face of some New Yorkers' fatalistic attitude toward honking. I've never met her, but living a mile and a half away from me, this is my neighbor. I live at the epicenter of a region of Brooklyn where "incessant horn honking" is part of the culture. Illegal van drivers with aftermarket horns compete with each other as they honk at pedestrians, and one may even hear a horn honking rendition of "La Cucaracha" while walking home from the subway.
I looked at the comments beneath the Daily News story, hoping to find words of support. Instead I found a few suggestions and this critique:
"Move to the country - you should not be in a city and expect an entire city to go quiet for you."
I looked on other sites that had carried the story, and found more backlash. Backlash! For asking drivers to obey the law! The Stir carried the piece, which elicited these remarks:
“If this is a REAL problem for her child, can't she just drive her to school? Clearly some parents are over-sensitive with their children. What is she going to do when her daughter grows up, gets a job, and has to commute to work?”
“That's what I was thinking… just drive her yourself.”
“Could a horn be any louder than the inside of a school bus? I truly think the mom would have better luck getting her daughter to wear some sort of noise blocking ear covers.”
“She should wear soundproof headphones.” [Headphones on a three-year old?]
“If her child has issues with noise, Brooklyn is probably the wrong place to be.” [Nice helpful stereotype]
“3 years old really? You shouldn't be putting a 3 year old on a school bus anyways. What did you do with her when she was 2? ‘I can't wait till next year when she will finally be in school.’”
“She lives in NYC, and does not have noise-cancelling earmuffs for her noise-sensitive child? I would be looking into that instead of trying to change a New Yorker's behavior.”
“She can't change the whole world, so she should instead focus on her child and get her the therapy she needs to get through this. And at 3, I wouldn't put my kid on a beltless school bus, anyway.”
Several people defended the mother. One said, “God you women are bitches...” Another wrote, “You people are evil,” and that’s an understatement. What is distressing about the negative commentary is the fact that average readers felt comfortable and justified heaping judgment on someone who had every right to request that drivers obey the law while she also raised awareness about a sensitive population.
Surely a three-year-old with heightened sensitivity couldn’t have been the only person in earshot affected by daily honking at a bus pickup location. For every preschooler with noise sensitivity on that bus, there are probably other people suffering silently in nearby homes. The shift worker wearing earplugs and using a white noise machine who struggles to fall back to sleep after the honking subsides. The nursing student who studied until 2:00 a.m. and could have used that last hour of sleep before a twenty-hour day. The elderly retiree who – like many elders – is a light sleeper and can’t block out honking in spite of closed windows and earplugs.
Backlash and scorn are common responses to noise complaints, in spite of the seemingly universal and unquestioned value placed on things like reducing vehicle cabin noise – and other forms of noise that are perceived as a nuisance to the affluent and to car reviewers. So it should not have surprised me to notice that a new critic had posted a scolding lecture on the ParaPundit online forum, which is the internet’s longest running discussion forum focusing on horn-based lock alerts, or in ParaPundit parlance, “horn locking.”
In the October 17 post, a visitor named Cookie shared her opinion about the forum’s themes, and concluded that the only possible problem was that a lack of ambient noise amplifies horn honking on quiet streets where horn users lock their cars. The solution? Everyone who had posted in the forum, or anyone bothered by the sound of incongruous horns honking from empty stationary cars in peaceful residential settings, should simply realize that the contrast is the main problem, and adjust their attitude to be more tolerant.
The fact is that Cookie was correct in her summation where she writes about the contrast between low ambient noise in residential settings and a horn honk. But she made two mistakes. First, she based her entire argument on having read through one forum. She didn’t read other complaint forums to get a sense of context and a greater sense of the prevalence of annoyance over this still relatively new noisy convenience technology. She ought to have gone beyond complaint forums and read the thousands of complaints that can be found in car forums, written by the cars' owners. Then she might have watched some YouTube videos with thousands of visitors trying to learn how to silence their own cars' horn sound or switch to the quieter electronic tone.
Additionally, she based her argument on her own subjective experience – “It’s all about me” all over again. As so many posters do in noise-related forums, she dismisses the noise source as trivial because it didn’t happen to bother her. And then she lists some “real” noise problems that do bother her, such as lawn mowers. But she also explains that she would not advocate for the manufacture of quieter equipment, because she is all about living and letting live, and not trying to change things.
Thankfully, there are agencies and companies – including the US CDC – rolling out its Buy Quiet initiative for workplaces and manufacturing. Innovative manufacturers have created a line of quiet and environmentally friendly lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Even though I could probably sleep through the sound of ten lawn mowers and twenty leaf blowers, I'm grateful for individuals and agencies who take action to reduce unnecessary noise.
I’m also grateful to people like the Brooklyn mother who braved criticism and cynicism to hand out flyers to impatient drivers who are so completely self-absorbed that they will honk their horns rather than wait one minute for a three-year-old to board a school bus.
But I reserve my lowest regard for the armchair critics who casually criticized this woman. There is nothing wrong, ignorant, or “out of touch” with that mother’s expectation. In every city, including New York, there are as many quiet places than noisy ones, and as many considerate people as rude ones. New York has a wonderful (but rarely enforced) noise code that prohibits non-emergency horn honking. Anyone with the nerve to criticize someone for speaking out against such rudeness, and anyone defending the idea that one should move away rather than speak up for what is right, should acquaint themselves with the law, its companion, and New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law.
They might also consider the fact that they are defending road rage.
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