How Not to Debate What We Should Be Doing at Movie Theaters

On cinema decorum

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
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Well, that was quick. Just three days after it began, the debate about what we do at the movies has reached its nadir. A quick catch-up: On Monday, tech guy Hunter Walk wrote a blog post saying that movie theaters should offer screenings with brighter lighting and WiFi, where people who want to can tweet and text and do all kinds of other "second screen experience" things. Many people found this proposal appalling. Or, if not appalling, certainly a little depressing. Then this morning, another tech guy, writer and self-described entrepreneur Anil Dash, wrote a smug, scolding piece about priggish "shushers" and their obstinate refusal to let other people enjoy movies the way they want to enjoy them — meaning talking, texting, tweeting, tromboning, whatever. It's a gruesome read.

Most glaringly, Dash, in an effort to paint these "shushers" as people standing athwart history yelling stop, invokes slavery of all things as evidence that societal norms are forever changing. No, he really did: "This list of responses pops up all the time, whether it’s for arguing why women should not wear pants, or defending slavery, or trying to preserve a single meaning for the word 'ironic,' or fighting marriage equality, or claiming rap isn’t 'real' music, or in any other time when social conservatives want to be oppressive assholes to other people."

In likening the social stigma against bringing iPads into movie theaters to the defenders of slavery, Dash was, he explained on Twitter, "providing a wide range of examples of cultural conservatism, I showed a continuum from trivial to profane." Which, indeed, there is a continuum from trivial to profane in his post — he mentions slavery and people who turn up their noses at rap music in the same sentence. But the broader problem here is that he's painting people who want, or even expect, a little courtesy from their fellow moviegoers as conservative oppressors. Isn't that a nifty trick? If you don't like me talking and using my bright, glowing phone in a movie theater it's you who have the problem, and if you complain I will, however facetiously, compare you to freaking slave owners in a blog post.

Dash also casts those of us who would like to watch a movie we've paid $13 to see relatively unbothered as wanting a "hermetically sealed, human-free, psychopathic isolation chamber of cinematic perfection." It's a bit of hyperbole that completely (and deliberately, because a more measured argument would be harder) ignores and blows past any legitimate, reasonable desire to be quiet and unintrusive during a movie and hope that others do the same. Ratcheting things up another notch, Dash talks about what cinema-going is like in India, with people talking and answering calls and milling about. So, you see, these shushers are thus rife with "privilege or entitlement," operating with a colonialist mindset that fustily, and whitely, calls for creaky old decorum. Which, I'm sorry, is bullshit — and what's worse, insincere bullshit. Whether he set out with this intention or not, by this point in Dash's post he's gone full troll, piling on a few layers of achingly pretentious sociopolitical critique to get people's heads spinning. All while arguing, remember, that people shouldn't be shunned for tweeting during movies.

So, stylistically Dash's post is ridiculous. And perhaps the most insidious (see, I can be hyperbolic too!) thing about all those silly flourishes is that they do distract from what he, in some gnarled way, is actually arguing: That people should do whatever they want in movie theaters and that anyone who wants them to be quiet or turn their phones off is, at best, a cinema snob who refuses to acknowledge the realities of the world, and, at worst, a conservative nutjob hellbent on prescribing their rigid and antiquated morals on the rest of the world like old-timey, privileged bigots. It's the ultimate way to shut down what had been a reasonably amiable disagreement about everyday public manners. He knows he's being this way — specious, smarmy, contrarian — but he doesn't seem to care. If he was trying to say that this is a silly argument to be having at all, it was an oddly brilliant way to make his point. Trouble is, I think he means at least some of what he says. And so now we're here, arguing about how a guy said something instead of, really, what he said.

Please don't use your cellphones in movie theaters. That's all. Because one activity is passive and unobtrusive — sitting quietly and watching what everyone's there to watch — and the other is active, aggressive even. Dash wants us to feel ashamed for demanding that everyone behave exactly like us, when the real crux of the matter is that everyone mutually agreeing to do nothing but watch the movie is a more reasonable request, in a logical and even factual way, than expecting everyone to just put up with whatever the person next to them wants to do. Dash says the shushers are trying to block out the world, when I think it's the opposite. Being considerate of those around you — recognizing that they might want to watch a movie in the quiet dark — is an act of communion. Whereas the alternative is basking obliviously in the self-important glow of your telephone.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.