When you describe the sounds of protest as “noise” you deny its democratic function—and admit how much it bothers you.
by Jay Richardson
Wednesday 13th July 2022
“Woah, woah, woah, woah. No way!” yells Stop Brexit Man, as a uniformed police officer unties one of his bungee cords from the guardrail. Onlookers step back, pull out their phones, and begin filming. Amidst shouts of “hands off!” and “get back!”, police switch off the sound system—or, as it’s described in the legislation they’re using, “amplified noise equipment”—and take it away. Until then, it has been blasting out ‘Bella ciao’, the old Italian protest song. It’s a cover by Dean Reed, the American leftist peace activist nicknamed “the Red Elvis” for his politics. Stop Brexit Man returns to Parliament Square the next day, of course, with a megaphone.
If the phrase “amplified noise equipment” sounds ungainly, that’s because it might more naturally have been “amplified sound equipment.” It’s had the word “noise” shoehorned in, like some sort of bizarre McCarthy-era reference to Communism in American schools. Value-laden uses of the word “noise” also found their way into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which invokes “the noise generated by persons taking part in a public procession” to target loud protests.
The two pieces of legislation are rich texts for thinking about sound, and not in a good way. The word “noise” does not objectively describe characteristics of volume and timbre. If it did, the British colonial administration in Singapore would not have repeatedly tried to ban Islamic Muharram processions. At the time, the main English-language newspaper described them as a “horrid noise” and, memorably, “harsh jargon”, while encouraging its own church bells and brass bands. To define something as noise is to marginalise it. As David Novak writes, noise is “accidental and meaningless”—the opposite of political speech, which is deliberate and meaningful almost by definition. To describe a protest in terms of noise, even if you disagree with it, is to deny that protesters have anything intelligible to say. It is to put their speech on a level with nonsense.
The word “noise” itself comes from the same Latin root as “nausea”, suggesting a level of unwantedness and distress that goes beyond bad taste and towards toxicity. In data science, noise has come to be defined in opposition to a “signal.” Rather than conveying anything, it distracts, and in an ideal world it would be eradicated completely. The idea of protest as noise is astonishingly undemocratic. It goes beyond signifying that you disagree with someone, or even that you aren’t listening, and towards dismissing debate as worthless. If suppressing protests is frightening, refusing to even recognise them as legitimate speech is downright sinister. It positions protest as an undesirable waste product of politics, as the discursive equivalent of fly-tipping. “Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” environmental historian Peter A. Coates has pointed out, “beauty is in the ear of the listener.”
At the same time, any attempt to control noise is a kind of defeat: as soon as you try to tame the chaos, you’ve let it get to you. Even if you don’t recognise noise as deliberate or meaningful, it is bothering you. The very act of calling out and regulating it recognises its disruptiveness. There is power in controlling the soundscape, a fact that anti-nuclear protesters in Japan in 2012 exploited by drumming on empty nuclear waste disposal drums outside the Prime Minister’s residence, eventually forcing him to recognise as “unheard voices” what he had previously dismissed as “a loud noise”. The tradition of clanging pots and pans together has a long history of its own. Acoustic politics is increasingly regulated because it is increasingly proven to work.
It matters, in a deep, even constitutional way, that we continue making noise. Arguments about what constitutes noise are not new, but neither is sound as a tool of protest. It’s worth making sound together as a collective action to prove that effective political protests are not noise, because in reality, few people hear them as such. The politics of protest is based, as Laura Kunreuther memorably writes, on “a rhetoric of noise and silence.” Long may it continue.