Enjoy Yourself... or Else!

Do we have no right to silence?

Posted Apr 23, 2015

We live in the first age of compulsory, or at least of unavoidable, entertainment. We are treated in taxis, train stations, bars, stores, restaurants, airplanes, public squares and elsewhere as if our minds were empty leaking vessels in constant need of filling. God forbid that a mind should be left to its own devices even for a few moments! It might think dangerous, perhaps even unhappy, thoughts. The world is therefore becoming like a giant Times Square.

Returning to Europe from the United States recently on an overnight flight, my plane was held up on the ground for forty-five minutes while engineers tried, unsuccessfully in the event, to repair its entertainment system. It seemed that the airline company considered that the passengers could not go six and a half hours without access to film, comedy or music, though in fact most of them would probably be trying to catch what little sleep they could on the fight, and the rest carried some form of entertainment with them. When the captain announced the reason for the delay in taking off a loud groan rose from at least a proportion of the passengers. But their wishes did not count: We had a duty to be entertained, whether we wanted to be or not.

When you ask in restaurants for the music to be turned down (you dare not ask for total extinction, though that is what you really want, for fear of being thought extreme or curmudgeonly), your wishes are either complied with, but only for a time, the volume creeping back upwards as if by ineluctable natural process; or you are told that the staff do not know how to do it or that they are forbidden to do it, because policy, that force as powerful as gravity, decrees music precisely it at its current level. There is no going against policy; besides, you are told, customers like it, even if you happen to be the only customer present. You are not a real customer, then, because you don’t like it, for if you were a real customer, you would like it.       

Compulsory entertainment, or perhaps I should call it unavoidable audio-visual stimulation, divides the population into at least three unequal segments: those who like it and feel uneasy without it, those who are so accustomed to it that they do not notice it, and those who dislike it and try to avoid it as much as possible (very few of the latter actually protest against it, they are like those German opponents of Nazism who went into inner emigration). The proportions of the segments will change, no doubt, and eventually the last will disappear entirely: stillness and silence, like measles or mumps, will become an experience of the past.

I once worked on a hospital ward in which there were six beds. Each of the patients had tried to commit suicide, or at least made a suicidal gesture, by taking an overdose. This was in the days before individualised hospital televisions with earphones. There was a single television for the whole ward. Sometimes a problem of political philosophy arose when five of the patients wanted it on and one wanted it off. Whose will should prevail? Was the majority vote sacred, or was the right of a hospital patient to silence inviolable?

I took the latter view: the right of the one counted for more than then the wishes of the five. In practice, though, it didn’t really matter, because having turned off the television myself, I invariably found that it been turned back on the moment my back was turned. The strange thing was that I could never discover who had done it. Either there was a supernatural being who switched it back on, or the television was fitted with a mechanical device that turned it on automatically—but on it certainly came. It was like the entertainment systems on aircraft: You switch them off, and before long they are on again.

Whether this constant stream of audiovisual stimulation does real damage to the human mind I do not know. In my more misanthropic moments, I certainly hope so. But it nevertheless seems to me that, from the point of view political philosophy, there is an analogy between inescapable audiovisual stimulation and smoking. A single person’s right to clean air trumps the right of any number of persons’ right to smoke—and I say this as someone who finds anti-smoking zealotry somewhat suspect, as if the denial of someone else’s pleasure were more gratifying to the zealot than any good done to him. Nevertheless, what we need is a right to silence, not just when we are accused of something by the police, but as we go about our daily business, for silence is the midwife of reflection.