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Noise provokes suppression, from Mesopotamia to the U of M

Twice this spring, university officials have moved to discipline students for loudly protesting events on campus.

At the University of Minnesota, you’re free to speak, within prescribed channels.

Twice this spring, university officials have moved to discipline students for loudly protesting events on campus. These episodes highlight the tension between rights and regulation through the counterposition of noise versus authority.

Eva von Dassow

In one case, the student group Whose Diversity? protested the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated second floor of Coffman Memorial Union on March 12.  The students reportedly kept speaking loudly enough to disrupt the speeches celebrating the renovation, and wouldn’t quiet down when asked. The Office of Student Conduct and Integrity has since notified several protest participants that for their disruptive behavior they may be subject to penalties ranging from a warning to expulsion.

In the other case, Students for a Democratic Society held a protest outside Northrop Memorial Auditorium on the occasion of Condoleezza Rice’s speech on April 17.  The group had obtained a permit for the protest, which was joined by others. Subsequently, prompted by a report from the University of Minnesota Police, Student Unions and Activities notified SDS of potential sanctions for using amplification outdoors. (Meanwhile, a military veteran who informed the UMPD that he also used amplification at the protest, and moreover that he called out from the audience at Rice’s speech with intent to disrupt, received a reply saying that no action would be taken against him since he’d broken no law.)

Venerable (if not admirable) precedents

In both instances the protests were loud, peaceful, and opposed authorized speech with unauthorized speech. In both instances university officials cite the making of noise as the reason for punishing the protesters. They should know that their confrontation of noise with control – up to controlling the noisemakers out of the universe/ity – has venerable (if not admirable) precedents. This very theme figures prominently in ancient Mesopotamian literature, where noise accompanies both creation and disruption, connotes dissent as well as bustling activity, and provokes suppression by authorities that can’t abide challenge.

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The myth entitled Enuma Elish (“When on high”) relates how in the beginning, when primordial elements mingled to give birth to gods, the echoes of that big bang within them made such a commotion that they tried to destroy their own offspring. The ensuing conflict among the gods concluded with the winner, Marduk, taking control and creating the world.

Creating the world was hard work, according to another myth, entitled “When Gods Were Man.”  The long eras of heavy toil provoked the laboring gods to go on strike against the management, headed by Enlil, CEO of the universe. Recognizing the justice of labor’s complaint, Ea, god of wisdom, proposed to create humankind to take over the toil of making and maintaining the world (and the gods). The manager gods slaughtered the strike leader and mixed his flesh with clay to make humans, in whose hearts the slain rebel’s spirit would beat perpetually.

They made us male and female so we’d reproduce, but initially they didn’t make sure that we’d also die. Humans reproduced and reproduced, filling the world with our clamor until the noise reached heaven, so the gods in charge could get no rest. Enlil tried several methods (plague, drought, famine) to reduce overpopulation, but he was thwarted every time – for, with the help of Ea, humanity always found a way to cope. Eventually, exasperated by our resistance to regulation, Enlil decided to wipe us out with a universal deluge. But Ea got a message to his protégé Atrahasis, who built a round ark and … you know the rest of the story: Humankind survived even the Flood.  The gods’ final solution was to make humans mortal.

Still another myth explains how humankind controls its population itself through warfare. The weapons of Erra, god of war, were feeling the need for exercise and for respect. As a pretext for action they argue that the noise of humanity has grown intolerable, that in its clamor the population waxes impious, that people no longer obey authority, so they must be cut down. Erra goads the supreme god Marduk to yield him the reins of the cosmos, whereupon warfare is unleashed in all its ungovernable horror until humankind is reduced to a submissive remnant.

Danger seen in loud and free speech

Myth imitated reality: Kings of Babylon and Assyria portrayed challenges to their rule as “noise.”  There was danger in loud and free speech, for discussion risked dissent and dissent could spawn rebellion.  Accordingly, rulers endeavored to confine and regulate what, where, and how people could speak, suppressing unauthorized speech and punishing violators. The Laws of Hammurabi include regulations imposed on brew-pubs, for there the public could gather over beer and discuss politics.

As in Mesopotamia, so on campus. You’re free to speak, within prescribed channels. You may protest, but not loud enough to be heard. You may dissent, but only for three minutes parceled out of the hour allocated for a public forum. Your free speech must not interfere with authorized speech. Authority abhors disruption – so much that even a silent protest at last Friday’s meeting of the Board of Regents provoked the chairman to threaten to have the protesters thrown out.

Yet as Mesopotamian myth relates, the blood of the rebel god flows in our veins.  Let’s make some more “noise.”

Eva von Dassow is an associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. The views expressed in this piece are her own and do not reflect those of the university.


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