On ‘Milkshaking’, the latest form of funny, trivialized Political Violence

I freely and unequivocally admit that figures like Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson are difficult – or perhaps impossible – to extend any sympathy or compassion to. It would require something approaching a herculean effort to make one’s heart hurt when hearing about their misfortunes. I imagine that would hold true even for a Buddhist who had spent a lifetime practicing the form of mediation meant to cultivate a deep sense of indiscriminate loving-kindness. Everything has limits, after all.

So I wouldn’t dream of appealing to your sense of pity here. Nor am I going to waste your time by issuing the (implicitly mandated) lengthy, perfunctory disclaimer about how vile I find the above-named figures. I’m long-winded at the best of times, so I’d probably just end up writing a few thousand extra words eviscerating them and the seething bigotries they represent. But you already know all the things I would say, don’t you? You’ve heard them a million times before. (A rare repetitiveness I’m actually glad of.) Besides, the reasons why they and their ilk are so morally repulsive also happen to be elementary. We ought to have taken them in with our mother’s milk. So if you’ll just lend me the small assumption of basic decency and sanity, we can skip straight to the point, y’know? I’m sure you have other things you’d like to do today, and I mean to respect your time.

I’m simply going to tell you why even if you (understandably) despise them and their crypto-racist anti-immigration politics you should still be appalled by the ‘milkshaking’ trend. Not to mention, appalled that the attacks are being glibly cheered on by so many dolts. Because these were acts of violence intended to punish people for their political stances and forcibly disrupt their ability to campaign for elected office. That is just about as fundamentally anti-democratic as can be.

I’d like to get one thing straight right off the bat. Physically assaulting someone in any way is not a legitimate form of protest whatsoever. It just isn’t. In a civilised society, protesting should be purely about communicating an idea or message. Via words. Not fists or improvised projectiles. And I don’t care how loudly or crudely or vitriolically you choose to express yourself, go nuts. I would defend, to the hilt, your right to scream and shout and march and wave flags and brandish inflammatory placades concerning any subject you happen to be passionate about. No matter how much I disagreed with you on it. Because that’s the cornerstone of any free, pluralist country. It’s something that was hard-won. And it’s something that we should be proud of and protect.

Oppositely, ‘milkshaking’ doesn’t belong under the noble banner of protest. It’s just a petty form of assault. Funnily enough, I’ve noticed that some people strenuously object when you label it or acts like it as ‘political violence’, as though that’s a melodramatic exaggeration meant to rewrite the harmlessness of the act. However, that denial is actually the spin. The reality is that throwing something at someone is physical violence by definition. You may not like that, but it’s true all the same. Take your disagreement up with dictionary makers, not me. I’ve always wondered, is Merriam-Webster the name of an actual person? If so, why don’t you go picket their house with your demands for ideologically-convenient newspeak. (Or, better yet, maybe just try to be a grown-up instead.) And ‘milkshaking’ is committing that – admittedly minor – act of violence as retaliation against figures you have a political hatred for. Thus, you put two and two together and you know what you get? Let me put it this way. One, two, three, political violence, five, six.

And what is this particular form of it intended to achieve? A trio of effects, in my judgement: to punish, to silence, to intimidate.

The punishment aspect is obvious. ‘You say something we don’t like, and you can be sure we’ll do something bad to you in return.’ People can claim it’s no big deal all they like, but that’s an easy thing to say when it’s not happening to you. No-one wants a milkshake thrown over them, do they? It’s violating. It’s upsetting. It’s gross. It may well ruin your clothes. It’s potentially damaging to your chances of getting elected, if you’re campaigning in front of possible voters and this embarrassment diminishes you in their eyes. It’s humiliating. And not even just ephemerally. If media photographers are following you at the time, the moment of your humiliation will live forever, will be re-inflicted upon you ad nauseum by Twitter trolls and antagonistic tabloids.

I know, I know, you’re reading these things and thinking you don’t hugely mind any of them happening to a Nigel Farage sort. Those weasley bottom-feeders who make careers out of repackaging rank xenophobia into something with the passing semblance of acceptable political discourse. I get it. I really, truly do. Like I said, the fact that the figures who have been attacked are so easy to scorn is ethically distorting. It activates the primitive part of our brains which tells us that whatever ill-treatment befalls those we hate is a-okay. As well as the part which unashamedly gets a kick out of the accompanying schadenfreude.

Instead, look at the bigger picture. Consider one of the politicians you do like and/or respect having this done to them, for saying the things that you too believe. Or, better yet, just think of the isolated principle itself. That’s what all this comes down to it.

But I’ll return to that later on.

For now, I’m gonna move onto the aspect of silencing. Milkshaking is used as a form of no-platforming. ‘You’re speaking to an audience somewhere? I’ll come put a stop to that. Let’s see you give a speech when you’re covered in milkshake.’ The underlying idea is that once you make someone seem ridiculous, people hopefully won’t even want to listen to their arguments anymore. Who cares what the clowish sap drenched in pink strawberry-milkshake has to say, right?

The ironic thing about milkshaking is that those targeted by it all – as far as I know – seem to have been pro-Brexit figures. That was the motivation for assaulting them and trying to stop them from speaking. Yet, is one not always hearing that the ‘leavers’ have no cogent, persuasive argument for the UK departing the EU, that it is a mere tissue of lies which falls apart at the slightest examination? If that’s true, shouldn’t Brexit advocates be encouraged to spout their supposedly blatant idiocy, so that it can be emphatically refuted? If your opponent will blithely reveal himself to be a moron/liar/bigot as soon as he speaks, you don’t frantically leap across the table to cover his mouth. How the fuck would that make any sense? And, in fact, when you do so, you just make onlookers wonder what it is you’re so opposed to or afraid of them hearing. In that sense, it’s a self-defeating strategy. You think you’re sidestepping the debate by forcibly shutting down one side of it. But you’re not. You’re just giving them an even bigger spotlight. So, how about you stop being so lazy and just explain why their stance is stupid and/or repugnant? If it’s as clear-cut as you claim, you can surely count on the listener being easily won over. Trust that they’re intelligent and rational enough to recognize the better argument when it’s presented to them.

Finally, let’s talk about the intent to intimidate. The truth – and at least admitting this point is a good test of whether someone, regardless of their conclusion, is approaching this conversation honestly – is that ‘milkshaking’ is also intended as a psychological attack. Because the lasting impression the act itself is meant to leave on its victim is: people who detest you and your politics so much that they believe the normal rules of civility do not apply can get to you. It’s meant to impart an air of unspoken but unmistakable menace.

Today, that stranger managed to come close-up and throw a milkshake right in your face. That means than you – your body, your physical safety – have just been made fair game as a target for reprisals of political anger. It has been made clear that you may be assaulted in certain minor and allegedly comic ways. But that’s just the first point on a continuum of violence, isn’t it? And how long will it be before some unhinged person decides that if the continuum itself is now open, why not kick things up a notch? If bigoted politicians should be punished with physical attacks, isn’t milkshake woefully insufficient?

So that tomorrow, someone less scrupulous about their weapons of ‘protest’ may well come along. Perhaps they’ll have bleach in that container they fling. Or acid. Or gasoline, followed by a lighter. That’s what will keep the targeted figures (and their families) up at night. That’s what will make them second-guess doing public appearances and trying to argue for their ideas (such as they may be) or contesting an election. This isn’t some fanciful hypothetical either. Nigel Farage was reportedly unwilling to leave his campaign bus to give a speech because a masked group awaited him with milkshakes in hand. These are cowardly imbeciles who decided that they should have a veto, by wielding the implicit threat of assault, on whether a politician gets to speak to those who came to hear him.

I think I also ought to say something about the people who give cover to those self-same cowards. The detractors who make flippant tweets ranging from “wish I could’ve thrown it myself, good on them” to “whatever, it’s just a milkshake lol” to “couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy…’. The notion they all generally take refuge in is that, hey, relax, it’s just innocuous, vaguely charming schoolyard antics from the faction which, after all, has both the correct answers and the moral high ground on its side anyway.

By either outrightly praising or refusing to condemn these attacks they knowingly give cover (and the green-light) to the self-righteous useful-idiots among their ranks who want nothing more than the momentary glory from getting their name in the newspaper for milkshaking an odious figure. And, again, if they get a bit of online applause for lobbing a beverage, it’ll eventually occur to one of them how much more they stand to get if they hurl a rock. So on and so forth.

I should point out here that ‘milkshaking’ is, of course, just the latest variation in a long-running tradition of political violence hiding behind a comic veil. First came the equally self-explanatory ‘pieing’ and ‘egging’. And everything I say applies to those too.

Speaking of the latter, I want to take this opportunity to say something about that Australian senator, Fraser Anning, who was recently egged by someone.

(Quick aside first: I found it interesting that the media was so keen to repeatedly stress that the perpetrator was a 17-year-old ‘boy‘. Firstly, as if being <12 months away from legally-an-adult status changes anything morally. As if it somehow makes him less culpable or what he did less wrong, or the actions needed to defend against his attack somehow unseemly. At seventeen, you’re a young man, not a kid, and you know what you’re doing. I dare say reporters would be just a tad more circumspect about sympathetically emphasizing a 17-year-old’s proximity to childhood if they’d been egg-smashing in the name of, say, some anti-gay agenda. Secondly, I think you’d be hard-pressed to tell his age just by looking at him, so what difference does it make to the dynamics of that situation in the heat of the moment?)

Now, even from a cursory glance, Anning’s politics make one shudder with fucking disgust. They are rife with utterly noxious and abhorrent positions. To take just one thing, he’s clearly cut from the same cloth as Robinson and Farage. He blows on the white-supremacist and white-nationalist dog-whistle so hard and so frequently that he’ll surely have an exertion-induced aneurysm someday. One wonders that his doctor hasn’t told him it would be a hell of a lot simpler and less effort intensive to just come right out with it and say you’re a racist. Yet, such candor would require even a quantum of courage. Which disingenuous, spineless, smirking creeps like Anning couldn’t pluck from out of their souls with a thousand years of opportunity.

But here’s the only thing which is relevant in this particular situation: he was absolutely justified in punching his attacker. As anyone else finding themselves in that predicament would be. No question about it. And I’m glad to see the Australian police cleared him of any wrongdoing. It’s pretty much as clear-cut a case of self-defense as you’ll ever get. Someone snuck up behind him – what a brave hero, huh? – and smashed something on his head unprovoked. (Even filming it to presumably share online later. No better sign that someone’s a virtuous warrior for all that’s good and right in the world than when they make sure to prioritise the Youtube views they’ll garner.)

If that happens to you, I think it’s very possible that in the moment you’d have no idea what exactly you were just hit with. It could easily turn out to be something much more harmful than the humble egg. Something corrosive or poisonous maybe. In fact, you may not even realize it was an object at all; it may just feel like someone has punched you in the back of the head. Which is, of course, a very dangerous place to receive a blow.

At any rate, I think you are perfectly entitled, in the name of defending yourself from what could very well be an ongoing attack, to strike your attacker. I mean, that’s just common sense. To deny it is – and I don’t say this lightly – completely ridiculous.

(On the other hand, were his cronies justified when allegedly one of them kicked the attacker whilst he was held down? No, of course not. But such things are separate considerations. And should be dealt with accordingly. Defending oneself or others is permissible; revenge is not.)

Back to milkshaking. There are those who suggest that anyone perturbed by the phenomenon must simply be a pro-Brexit diehard who’s upset their ‘side’ is on the receiving end.

I assure you, mine is not a partisan response. I did not vote in the EU ‘referendum’. ‘Non-binding, advisory’ referenda are a grotesque and contemptuous mockery of the real thing and should be treated as such. They are glorified opinion polls which you are expected to feel very, very special for partaking in. I decline to be patronized in that way.

Anyway, my point is that I would be saying this exact same thing if it were the most vocal, fervent ‘remainers’ (along with ‘Brexiteers’, these may well go down in history as the all-time most groan-worthy terms applied to political polarities) who had been attacked. The underlying principle would be totally unchanged, totally undiminished.

Whereas I suspect that those who commend the milkshaking, or who are even just unconcerned by it, do not apply their judgement impartially.

I’ll highlight a subtle form of what I mean. Something which really struck me was how the news articles covering these events had such a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek vibe to them. (Yet another little dagger in the heart of hack-journalism’s absurd pretense of objectivity.) I particularly liked how almost every one I read took pains to name the flavor and price of the milkshake that was thrown. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, he he he. And why not, right? What’s funnier than Nigel Farage getting splashed with milkshake? However, could one also expect to read similarly gleeful references to the flavor in question if, for example, some alt-right goon hurls a milkshake at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Oh wait. Those articles would read very, very, very differently, wouldn’t they? (“Noble Liberal-Heroine viciously attacked with Suspicious Fluid: New Form of Domestic Terrorism?” There’s your headline written up in advance, Salon.com. No need to thank me. Or give me any kind of attribution at all. Good grief. Please no. That would be like gifting someone a pair of old, stinky, possibly lice-ridden socks to try and convey gratitude.)

But if it’s an acceptable form of protest, why should that disparity be the case? You may feel strongly about Farage et al’s pro-Brexit rhetoric. The alt-right undoubtedly feels strongly about AOC’s progressive and democratic-socialist rhetoric. Politics is subjective. You can’t prove you’re objectively right. They can’t prove they’re objectively right. It’s all relative. It’s all just personal preference and judgment calls. So…. milkshakes to be thrown in the face of everyone! Hooray. Hooray. Hooray?

Or, perhaps – stick with me for a second here – we could all just agree that milkshaking and anything like it ought to be considered off-limits across the board? I know, that’s crazy. That’s naive and utopian. But, alas, it’s nevertheless what I think. Because legitimizing, however surreptitiously, certain forms of political violence against ideological opponents is an incredibly dangerous Pandora’s Box to open.

I’ll put it as straightforwardly as possible. If you think assaulting politicians is sometimes okay (i.e. when you loathe them), you’re always wrong. Damn, that’s got a nice ring to it. Provides a handy way of remembering it. Maybe write that on a little piece of paper and keep it in your pocket. A crib sheet to consult during any strange, heady moments where you or those around you forget what the necessary conditions for civil society and democracy are.

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