Today Anil Dash posted an essay, “Shushers: Wrong About Movies. Wrong About the World,” a polemic against those who complain about people who text or make phone calls during movies. To speak out against those who wish to engage with others during a film is “a textbook case of cultural conservatism,” he writes, then presents a list of what he considers the common arguments against this behavior, including “These people are heathens! Why don’t they know how to behave?” and “It is not enough that I be able to do things the way I prefer, but others must be prevented from doing things in the way that I do not prefer.” He equates the desire to watch a movie in peace with being an illogical elitist (and, speaking of illogic, he puts someone shouting, “Yeah!” upon seeing his first glimpse of Optimus Prime in the first Transformers movie under the same audience-participation umbrella as someone tapping on a glowing phone in the middle of an intense drama). Then comes his we’re-in-charge-now proclamation: Let the “bullying” shushers go to small havens for fellow whisper-quiet elites (like the Alamo Drafthouse), while the “majority” of moviegoers (the “normal”) will go everywhere else and loudly and visibly multitask.
In other words, he wants the world to be like his own living room, and is petulant that it isn’t. But people who care even a little bit about what’s on screen – the movie! – are perfectly within their rights to be annoyed that he thinks people should be able to half-watch the film while talking constantly, or worse, narcissistically scrolling their iPhones, which is a small but very bright and distracting flashlight. My colleague, New York magazine’s film critic David Edelstein, recently chronicled his own apoplexy about a movie-theater chatter. And yet, to Dash, anyone who has a problem with such behavior is a fascist.
The essay stunningly posits that the tsk-ing arguments against the “heathens” who don’t sit quietly are no different than the responses used by social conservatives when “arguing why women should not wear pants, or defending slavery” or “fighting marriage equality.” This Bizarro-world logic is so extreme, Larry David might think it a bit much. Dash goes on to cheer that the interrupters have won – they are now the majority. Finally, after years of being the-opposite-of-silenced, these poor victims of stick-in-the-mud purists can stand up and cheer that the shushers’ “bullying hasn’t worked.” First of all, there is no bullying here. To say there is is an insult to people who have experienced real bullying. And the mind boggles at the reasoning at hand: Because it is now the norm to believe that buying a ticket gives you the right to behave any way you please, then apparently calling this behavior rude is what’s really rude. And would this be a good time to note that people doing as they please is one of the reasons theatrical exhibition is in decline? Why should people who love movies pay fifteen dollars to go into a room full of people distracting from the experience, when they can instead watch a film for far less money on a big-screen TV at home?
The original post has sparked much debate online today. In defending his treatise, Dash (with whom I have been sparring on Twitter) wrote, “What’s striking here is the presumption of shushers to not merely to say their way is best, nor to say they prefer it, but to deny that anyone else with different views should even be accommodated.” Nope. We’re not talking about cultural relativity here. His argument boils down to, “The way I prefer to behave is considered rude. My solution is to try to redefine rudeness as acceptable behavior, and people who care about acceptable behavior as bullies.” One could write the exact same post about people who take issue with somebody eating in a restaurant in their underwear, or humming constantly throughout a church sermon, or talking in a classroom. “What about my freedom, man? Fascist.”
Strip away Dash’s implicitly comparing himself to abolitionists and such, and you’re left with a much simpler message, a variation of what pretty much any rude person might say in a theater if you asked them to quit kicking your seat, or try to go five minutes without talking, or to turn off their iPhone and emotionally engage with the movie: “I paid for a ticket, I can do whatever I want.” Dash knows, or should know, that that sort of “defense” doesn’t really fly in a world where adults have to share space. To return to his use of his word “bullying,” this is actually the bully’s justification for doing as he pleases, a less belligerent version of responding to “Can you be quiet, please?” with “Make me.” In the adult world, we make compromises, but at the same time, we try to respect baselines of what’s considered acceptable behavior, because when we stop doing that, we’re endorsing anarchy, and the notion that might makes right. What’s happening in Dash’s piece is a very deliberate attempt to move the baseline in a direction that redefines rude behavior as acceptable.
And the saddest part is that he’s right: Talking, texting, taking blurry snapshots of the screen and each other, yammering nonstop and the like have, over the past several years, come to be considered “normal” behavior — in movies, in concerts, everywhere. Dash (who has noted that he himself turns off his phone during movies) should just be patient and wait for the inevitable moment when the definition of acceptable behavior gets redefined to mean “anything goes,” since that what he seems to be pushing for. The moment will arrive sooner than he or any of us think. And on that day, I hope he’ll have the decency not to be a sore winner.