MEDIA VIOLENCE, NOISE POLLUTION AND GUNFIRE
by Michael Phillip Wright
Norman, Oklahoma USA
As we struggle for explanations for such tragedies as have been witnessed in Colorado, Arkansas, and other places where killings of high school students by other students have taken place in recent memory, much has been said about violent themes in entertainment and the media. (For brevity's sake, the problem shall be abbreviated as VE&M--violence in entertainment and the media.)
VE&M likely has played a role in shaping these catastrophic events, but probably few would name it as the single factor accounting for these tragedies, nor even the most important factor. Nonetheless, a view worthy of consideration is that VE&M has been influential in suggesting, to those predisposed for other reasons to extreme anti-social conduct, specific examples of ways by which to express aggressive behavior.
Inevitably, calls for censorship in one form or another have arisen in response to the growth of explicit and random VE&M. Censorship, though, is problematic. It raises thorny legal and Constitutional questions, and always summons forth cries of repression of artistic freedom.
There is a way in which society can act to minimize the impact of VE&M while completely circumventing the issues raised by censorship discussions. The problem should be framed and approached as a health hazard. Along with Marilyn Manson and gangsta rap, "death metal" and "black metal" rock groups have glorified violence, pain, death, suicide, Satanism, and misogyny. Undoubtedly, their live concerts are conducted at sound levels which audiologists have known for decades place listeners at extreme risk of hearing loss. Powerful stereo amplifiers often present the same risk when listeners are exposed to their recordings.
Hearing impairment is America's most prevalent chronic illness, with an estimated 28 million cases. Federal health officials believe that at least 10 million cases of hearing impairment have been caused by excessive noise, and loud rock music is frequently mentioned as an important contributor to this problem.
Legislating safe sound levels at rock concerts along with aggressive education on the health hazards of excessive noise would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of VE&M, without extended struggles over censorship issues. Safe sound levels would in no way legally obstruct Marilyn Manson and others from standing on a stage and using microphones to repeat lyrics considered vile and abominable by more civil members of society; nonetheless, it has been said that loudness is the very essence of rock music. The violent assault on the inner ear accomplished by the power of 110 decibels is a natural partner for the violent themes in the message. VE&M expressed by rock bands and recordings would have never come into existence in a society governed by legislated safe sound levels at public concerts.
Audio Aggression and the Continuum Argument
The decline of good manners and civility is a popular theme among contemporary writers and commentators. Looking at aggressive behavior as a variety of different specific actions occurring along a continuum from mild to severe, we may see non-violent discourtesy at the mild end of the spectrum. At the severe extreme, we witness such atrocities as the school shootings at Littleton, Colorado.
Bearing the continuum idea in mind, it is clear that there has been a continuum shift in American society within the past three decades. At the mild end, there is greater tolerance and practice of conduct which, at an earlier time, was considered intolerably rude by members of society considered typical. At the same time, at the extreme end we have begun to experience violent atrocities, such as mass murders by junior high students, which would have been thought inconceivable thirty years ago.
At the mild end of the aggression continuum, we hear much of "road rage." Rude conduct behind the wheel has become more common in recent years in Norman. Occasionally I am subjected to hostile horn-honking to punish me for doing nothing more than slowing down on a busy street to read a road sign, look for an address, or turn a corner. I do not recall ever having this experience before the 1990s.
Another example of tolerated rudeness is found in the behavior now experienced in the Norman Public Library and the University of Oklahoma (OU) Library. Children growing up in earlier decades were taught that libraries were quiet places. One would no more be expected to raise his voice in a library than he would in a wedding ceremony. In the two libraries I have mentioned, these norms of silence and respect for those who wish to concentrate have evaporated. The children's room of the Norman Library is more like a play ground or a recreational center. Children cry, whine, scream, yell, and play on the furniture -- all with the tacit approval of librarians. Additionally, they are even provided noisy software games for entertainment. Calling this to readers' attention is not to argue that the city is without obligation to provide recreational activities for children. It is to express regret that, in this instance, librarians appear no longer to recognize the need to teach children that there are certain locations in our society where quiet is the rule, and the library is one of them.
Moving along the continuum in the direction of more severe forms of noise aggression, the growing availability of powerful stereo and amplification equipment in recent decades has contributed to an atmosphere in which an individual's right to quiet in his own home is under constant attack. A single noise aggressor with a loud stereo can hold a yard party and inflict his entire neighborhood with unwelcome disturbance lasting for hours. Outdoor garage rock bands can project their sounds as far as a mile. While those close to the noise source are at risk of hearing impairment, victims who have the noise imposed upon them suffer stress and sleep deprivation. Stress is a known risk factor for heart attack,  and sleep deprivation leads to immunesuppression, fatigue, inefficiency in the performance of tasks, and fatigue-related accidents. Currently from 200,000 to 400,000 annual auto accidents in the US are attributed to sleep deprivation. 
The "Boom Car" Menace
Among adolescent and young adult males, recent years have witnessed the growing practice of acquiring powerful auto stereo systems and speakers with augmented bass performance in order to produce loud booming sounds as they drive on public roads. Vehicles equipped in this fashion are commonly called "boom cars." They can be heard for at least a one-block radius from the vehicle. Although prohibited at night by city ordinance and also by the OU Student Code, these offensive vehicles are tolerated both on campus and by the Norman Police Department. If there is any enforcement effort against them, it is extremely lax. They are frequently heard driving with impunity on the campus streets.
One may gain an idea of the magnitude of community disturbance which boom cars can inflict by making a rough calculation using the geometric equation for the area of circle (a = 3.1416 x r2). Assuming a one-block radius for projecting the noise and 14 residential lots per city block, a single stationary boom car can be heard by the occupants of about 44 homes in a residential zone. With 2.5 residents per house, before the auto even moves it can disturb 110 people. Bearing these numbers in mind, we can easily see that a single boom car operator driving home after the bars close can potentially disturb the sleep of thousands.
What are the motives of the boom car boys? Peer competition and jockeying for position in a status hierarchy obviously enter the picture. The operators who can achieve the loudest and "purest" amplified bass sound enjoy the highest prestige in the boom car community. Aggressive motives are also present. The boom car boy finds satisfaction by inflicting annoyance and aggravation on others. He wants to call attention to himself and dominate.
This fact comes into plain view in a Prestige Audio ad for boom car equip- ment. Published in the October 1997 issue of Car Stereo Review, it has appeared in other magazines as well. Better than anyone else, the marketers understand the motives of those who purchase their products. The headline of the ad reads: 
"Research shows excessively loud car stereos are the number one annoyance to people over 40."
The text of the ad boasts that "it's [sic] built-in four-channel 120 watt amp will put the over 40 set into cardiac arrest." In other words, the message is: buy our products, so you can kill old people by causing them heart attacks.
The Prestige Audio marketers are correct in the claims they make regarding the damage their products can inflict. The EPA's recognition of noise as a source of stress and risk for coronary heart disease was published in its 1978 booklet Noise: A Health Problem.
Evaporation of Basic Moral Codes
Oklahoma state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, quoted by The Daily Oklahoman, told a July 1998 audience of educators that society has "dropped the ball in terms of passing on the basic moral code that defines what is acceptable behavior and what is not." The aggressive behavior of the boom car boys makes her point perfectly. From an ad in a national publication commonly available on magazine racks, they receive the message that it is a good thing to inflict people over 40 with annoyance and heart attacks. Local police take little or no action to obstruct them as they routinely break the law with their thundering devices. The boom car problem and police indifference to it is not unique to Norman, Oklahoma.
Considering this atmosphere of tolerating aggression along with the massive doses of media messages glorifying violence, should anyone be surprised at the news from Littleton?
Proposed Strategy for Solutions
Recognition of the continuum phenomenon points the way to a strategy for reducing violence: we must shift the aggression continuum back in the direction towards the state of affairs three decades ago. This must begin with a campaign to restore the norms of civility, and emphasis should be placed upon the need to end our current tolerance of noise aggression. We can do much to minimize the influence of VE&M by legislating safe sound levels at all public performances where amplifiers are used and by implementing a nationwide public health education effort focusing on the health hazards of noise. Additionally, we can work toward our goals in these ways:
Norman residents who would like to work for a more quiet and civil community can feel free to contact me. For more information on noise problems and what other communities in the USA are doing to confront them, see the web site of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (http://www.nonoise.org). To read my arguments for a product liability lawsuit against the producers and marketers of boom car equipment, see The Oklahoma Observer, June 25, 1999, page 19.
Note: Some sample obnoxious ads may be found at http://members.aol.com/mpwright9/boomcar.html
About the Author
Michael P. Wright was graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a BA in political science and MA in sociology. His professional record includes research in a variety of areas including health science, energy economics, American Indian history, and computer software development for health risk assessment. He has on several occasions appeared before Oklahoma legislative committees in the capacity of expert witness. Wright has also been the recipient of four federal grants from the Small Business Innovation Research program of the US Public Health Service. In this capacity part of his tasks included study of diagnostic error.
Wright is listed in the 24th and 25th editions of Who's Who in the South and Southwest, published by Marquis, and the 17th edition of the British directory Men of Achievement. He has been published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Sept/Oct. 1997), the Journal of the American Medical Association (letter, Mar 24/31, 1993), and AIDS Education and Prevention (fall 1991). Additionally, his work has been presented in the proceedings of the Oklahoma Symposium on Artificial Intelligence (November 1993, Oklahoma State University), and he has been a guest opinion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle (May 24, 2000).
As an OU undergraduate, Wright was a participant in the University Scholars program and was named Outstanding Senior in Political Science at graduation. In the fall of 1975, he received the additional honor of appointment to the State Regents Student Intern program.
Ways to Contact the Author:
Home Phone: 405/329-6688
US Mail: PO Box 204 - Norman, Oklahoma 73070 - USA