The XX Factor

New York Times Essay Tells Everyone to Be Quiet

Shhh! Men are thinking.

Photo by Jennifer Polixenni Brankin/Getty Images

George Prochnik had a beautifully written essay in the New York Times on Sunday about why noise might be the “supreme archenemy” of thought. It is full of scientific evidence suggesting that hearing, an evolutionary “early warning system,” takes over our brains in ways we don’t always understand. For instance, we’re wired to attend to harsh sounds—even in sleep. One study showed that people who dozed off in airports experienced “blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates and … vasoconstriction and the release of stress hormones” from the roar of the planes launching and landing. Another found that “Western Europeans lose more than one million healthy life years annually as a consequence of noise-related disability and disease”—meaning that environmental noise causes almost as much damage as air pollution.

Did I mention Prochnik has a lovely way with words? “We jerk to the tug of noise like sonic marionettes,” he writes, describing how a brute sound can yank us out of our ruminations, loosening the mental clamps holding our ideas in place. And he ends with a modest plea: “Most people who are seeking more serenity from the acoustical environment aren’t asking for the silence of the tomb,” he explains. “We just believe we should be able to hear ourselves think.” As I write this, the horn players outside the Metro station are taking their third pass through “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” (It. Is. August.) and I could not agree more.

And yet. Something off-putting lurks behind Prochnik’s whole Mr. Darling “a little less noise there” routine. Maybe it’s just that the expectation that one can work in pin-drop quiet feels very … male, or at least alien to a lot of women’s experience. We’ve usually got a colleague asking us for help with the copy machine (we’re supposed to be the office team players) or a kid crying in the other room (we log more of the child care hours) or a floor to vacuum (ditto the housework hours). Generally, we’re taught to deal with these distractions rather than demand a lofty silence befitting our magnificent alpha brains. 

Prochnik opens his piece by quoting the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed “a great mind can have great thoughts only if all its powers of concentration are brought to bear on one subject, in the same way that a concave mirror focuses light on one point.” Noise disperses focus, disrupting the formation of ideas. Fine. Yet any “great mind” in Schopenhauer’s philosophizing by necessity belongs to a man. In his 1851 polemic On Women, the thinker isolates rationality as the quality peculiar to men; women “are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children.” (Sidebar: “Big children” is two words.) Ladies interfere with the exercise of the male intellect, clouding it with the “feminine charms” of “coquetry and mimicry.” In fact, Schopenhauer dislikes women for precisely the same reason he dislikes noise: because they get in the way of great thoughts. 

Prochnik’s second historical example, after Schopenhauer, involves Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter narrating how “the men whose labors brought forth the Constitution of the United States had the street outside Independence Hall covered with earth so that their deliberations might not be disturbed by passing traffic.” A true and resonant detail! But it’s also one dude quoting another dude describing a bunch of dudes seeking to carve out a tranquil dude-space in which dudes’ rights could be secured across the country. Sausagefest aside, you get the sense a group of founding mothers would maybe just shut the windows.

“The quiet in Independence Hall was not the silence of a monastic retreat,” Prochnik writes. “It was a silence that made them [the “men whose labors … ” etc] more receptive to the sound of the world around them.” Not quite. The world around them was muffled by all that dirt. Playing out the metaphor, while the constitutional convention accomplished wonderful things, must we pretend it did a great job amplifying all marginalized voices? Some serious silencing was still going on.

I guess that’s my problem with Prochnik’s otherwise excellent article. History is littered with instances of white men thoughtlessly asking (or forcing) people who are not white men to shut up. It just feels jarring to read a male author use the words of other male authors to extol the virtues of silence. Either Prochnik shouldn’t place such a high premium on quiet, or, if he must have a hushed, pristine bubble in which to think great thoughts, he should retreat to a highbrow man cave and let the rest of us live in and contribute to the sound of the world around us.