John Kelly's Washington

Movie Texters Take Note: My Radical Civility Campaign Starts With You

By John Kelly
Monday, June 22, 2009

You are invited to get in on the ground floor of a new social movement. I call it Radical Civility, and I hope that in the next few months it will change Washington.

I've written about Radical Civility in this space before. In a nutshell, it's the belief that we shouldn't have to put up with people being rude. I've done a bit of research, codified a few rules, procured a nifty logo (thanks to Patterson Clark for the iconic black-gloved hand holding a teacup) and today formally launch my campaign.

We all know there are plenty of places where people are rude in Washington, but I've chosen to focus on just one: in our movie theaters. We may want to spread Radical Civility to other areas -- and I certainly endorse a blanket politesse -- but I thought we should start modestly, by trying to end the practice of texting during movies. If you're on board, repeat after me:

1. We hold this truth to be self-evident: People ought to be able to go to the movies without being disturbed by the behavior of others. Increasingly, that behavior includes texting during the film. The bright light of the screen is distracting, taking us out of our reverie. It ought not happen. We are determined to address it.

2. We start from the assumption that most movie texters are clueless, not evil. They just haven't thought about what they're doing.

3. However, that does not give them the right to ruin our evening. Thus we feel entirely justified in asking them to stop. The preferred method is to lean over and politely whisper, "Excuse me, the light from your cellphone is extremely distracting. Can you put it away, please?"

The key words here are "excuse me" and "please." Those of us who practice Radical Civility will take the high road. We must not give movie texters the opportunity to complain that we were rude to them.

4. If we are sufficiently annoyed, we will seek out an usher or a theater manager, but we will not escalate. We will not resort to a raised voice, let alone violence.

5. We will reward movie theaters that deal with this problem. We will avoid -- nay, shun and ostracize -- those that don't.

And that's it. Starting today, my blog, "John Kelly's Commons," will devote itself nearly 24-7 to issues related to the Radical Civility movement. It will be a place for readers to share their horror stories and describe their triumphs. Go to to see some especially egregious examples today.

Could this work? Could a groundswell of activity by like-minded people -- call it civil obedience -- actually change the behavior of others?

Maybe, said Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University psychology and marketing professor who studies what's called social influence. Basically, he said, what other people do affects what we do.

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