By Steven Norris

We’ve all been there. Whether it was a church service, wedding, funeral, or concert. Someone steps up to the microphone, preparing to sing. We sit up on the edge of our seat, anticipating the soothing beauty of the voice that is about to take us on a sonic journey.

Then, as the singer opens their mouth, our attention is shattered by an eardrum-piercing, glass-shattering, alien-sounding squelch from the speakers. It’s as if the gates of Hell have opened and demons are shrieking their chaos into the peace and tranquility for which we had hoped.

This is a sound engineer’s worst nightmare.

If you’ve been there, what you experienced is known as a “positive gain feedback loop,” or the “Larsen effect.” This occurs when sound is picked up by a microphone, sent through an amplifier, and projected in such a way that the microphone picks up the amplified sound and starts the loop over again. The amplified sound continues to be amplified over and over again until all we hear is distorted noise.

It strikes me that this is an apt metaphor for much of the anger and vitriol that I see in the world today. It seems to me that we are caught in a feedback loop. The loop is started by some event (a tragedy, speech, legislation, etc.) which sparks a reaction. That reaction is picked up by others – maybe through the traditional news media or, as is more likely the case, through social media – and amplified. 

Social media outlets, online entertainment sources, and advertising agencies are now run by algorithms that seek to identify a user’s personal preferences. They will then show us information and advertisements that reinforce those identified tendencies and ideas. Not only that, but we reinforce these choices when we opt for media outlets that exclusively share our own bent or point-of-view. 

This continued filtering creates a feedback loop where opinions and reactions seem to escalate quickly, often to the point of shrieking distortion.

But what is the solution? How do you stop an acoustic feedback loop? Stop the input. Turn down the volume. Press mute. Turn off the entire system. Unplug.

In the letter of St. James, we read, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

It is a sobering realization that I have control over only one person on this earth. As much as I wish I could dictate how others will respond to the circumstances of their lives, I can only take responsibility for myself. 

Therefore, my hope is that people of faith might take the initiative to alter the course of conversation. My hope is that they may choose to disengage from the feedback loop squealing around us. My hope is that they might take the time to sit down face-to-face and really listen to someone with whom they disagree, modeling a different way of living and being. 

It may not change the world overnight, but it will certainly change the lives of those who have the courage to embrace a divergent path.