No, throwing milkshake at someone is not an act of political violence

The idea that milkshaking is violence – but that inciting hate against minority groups isn’t – should be resisted.

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Like all genuinely awful people, Richard Spencer probably quite liked the idea of inspiring a meme, but I very much doubt he wanted the one he’s famous for. In January 2017, in the middle of an on-camera interview, the American white nationalist was punched in the face by a man wearing a mask. The footage escaped into the internet, as decent footage tends to do, and then the floodgates opened.

To this day, you can find videos online of Spencer being punched to the Eastenders theme tune; to “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins; to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. You can still, if you want, lose an hour to watching Richard Spencer get punched in the face, without getting bored. I got quite close, just then.

When you’ve spent any significant period of time watching a man get punched in the face, and if you’ve spent any time on the internet on which you are never more than 20 feet from a free speech bore, then you start to wonder whether there might be any moral implications to all this. Okay, so Spencer is a “white nationalist” and we all know what that means. But this is an act of violence – and by taking any pleasure in it we are surely no better than those who’d use violence for political ends. And just because we don’t like his views doesn’t mean he should be stopped from expressing them. And so on, and so on, until the earth finally dies in a ball of flames, and the sooner that happens the better, to my mind.

And if you think about all that, yet you find you can still get a kick out of watching a man getting punched in the face to the soundtrack of “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. you eventually start to prepare your counter-argument. Mine goes something like this:

1. It isn’t simply that Spencer and his ilk have views I don’t like. The problem is that, in expressing their views, white nationalists are deliberately inciting hatred against racial and minority groups they don’t like, in a manner that endangers their safety.  

2. Punching someone is, all things considered, less bad than inciting ethnic cleansing.  

3. You don’t get to incite violence against somebody, and then whine when somebody wants to hit you.

4. The far right knows exactly what its doing here, using instinctive liberal tolerance to carve out a space to express its intolerance. Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance says that the only way to prevent intolerance from gaining the upper hand is to not tolerate it – so free speech ultimately has to have limits if it’s to survive.

5. No far-right politicians have so far been murdered by a liberal assassin. The same is not true the other way around.

6. Ultimately, what the far right wants is a world in which political violence is acceptable. There is thus poetic justice in showing it that the reality of that world is a white nationalist getting punched in the face while millions of people laugh at them on YouTube.

So, on balance, I am not going to lose any sleep over the fact Richard Spencer got smacked in the mouth.

But still, it niggles. As convinced as I am by all those arguments, I’m aware that punching a white nationalist still involves punching: it’s still a form of violence, and I worry that none of the justifications above are quite enough to entirely get past that.

What I have no doubt whatsoever in saying, though, is that throwing a milkshake over a politician who incites hatred is completely and totally fine. That’s because all of the above arguments apply, but – and this is crucial – it’s not actually a form of violence. I have, in my life, been punched, and kicked, and had drinks thrown over me. I find it extremely easy to work out which of those three was not a violent act.

More than that, politicians have been pelted with eggs or rotten fruit for generations. It’s a form of political protest as old as politics itself, not some horrifying new development that suggests we are at the top of a slippery slope that leads to fascism. You know what is a horrifying new development that suggests we are at the top of a slippery slope that leads to fascism? All those fascists. 

So milkshaking politicians is fine. They are unharmed, but it makes them look and feel silly. It’s not a form of violence but one of humiliation – and it is far less violent than, say, promising to “pick up a rifle” if Brexit is not delivered, which some pin-striped arse recently covered in milkshake was promising us as far back as 2017.

The idea that throwing a milkshake is violence, but that inciting hate against minority groups isn’t, is responsible for a decent-sized chunk of all the world’s political problems. And anyone who is obviously more concerned about the former than the latter has forfeited the right to your attention.

Now read Douglas Dowell on why he disagrees with throwing milkshakes at the far right

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.