Of all the rights given us by our Constitution, possibly the most beloved — and most abused — is the freedom of speech. From the day we learn to say “Mama” or “Hey, dude!” we are given almost unrestricted license to say what’s on our minds, day or night, alone or in company, in whatever language we choose.
And in any democracy, that freedom is priceless. But it also causes fist fights, divorces, broken friendships, riots, lawsuits and hundreds of other nasty outcomes. Even when the results have been lawful and non-violent, unlimited free speech has too often been a burden on the eardrums, the serenity and the sanity of anyone unlucky enough to be within hearing range of the speaker.
You and I could be wealthy beyond belief if, during our lifetimes, fate had handed us a $5 bill each time we were trapped in the presence of a speaker (or speakers) who we wished would be struck dumb with galloping laryngitis. But hope does exist, in several forms, the most powerful (and conveniently available) of which is television.
One reason TV watching is so addictive is our power to banish or otherwise control it in a flash, via the OFF button, the MUTE button and the CHANNEL button. You and I, not the machine, are in charge.
I recently found hope that a similar control may one day be extended over speakers in our presence. Those of you who have one or more dogs in your household may already be aware of anti-barking devices. They come in various shapes and sizes. They may cost only a few dollars, or many dollars. Their common denominator is that they discourage or completely prevent a dog from barking — whether just once (for any of many good reasons) or from barking, yelping, yipping and/or whining in continuous fashion from sun-up to sundown and beyond.
By pressing a key on the hand-held gadget, the dog-owner sends out an electronic signal. Humans can’t hear it, but a dog can. The signal doesn’t harm the dog’s hearing, but the reception is unpleasant enough to make the dog connect his/her barking with the owner’s desire for silence.
My friend — I’ll call her Ms. Mulloy — has ownership/custody of two dogs. One is the size of a postage stamp. The other is large. Both of them are convinced that their mission in life is to defend Mrs. M from all dangers. These include postal workers, UPS package deliverers, anyone strolling down the street, stray cats, falling raindrops, sunrise and a possum belching seven blocks away. Each stimulus triggers an outburst of barking from both dogs. It is auditory hell.
Until recently, that is, on the happy day when Mrs. M acquired ownership of an SBD — a sonic barking deterrent. Within minutes both dogs had learned how it works. Their barking dramatically decreased, and relative peace has returned to the Mulloy residence.
Could this magic solution one day be used to free us all from having to listen to live conversations and formal speeches that bore us to the point of insensibility? Indeed, why not? If modern inventors can silence howling canines by merely pressing a button or switch, it seems more than likely that similar technology will be transferable to human utterances.
I envision the day, for example, when a crowd is assembled to hear a speech about bitcoin swindles or how to play an oboe. But within five minutes it’s plain that the audience — or most of it — wishes they were at a root canal convention. These sufferers quietly take out their sonic boredom deterrents and point them toward the podium. Within seconds, the speaker suddenly discovers he has no more to say. He smiles, says thank you and departs. The crowd’s applause is deafening. Modern science has triumphed!
This column was inspired by a disturbing thought: more than 20 months of political oratory await us before the next presidential election arrives. Sonic silence inventors, man your battle stations!!!