Milkshaking: a new form of political protest

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If you’re not a fan of Nigel Farage, you definitely chuckled when he had 400 millilitres of Five Guys caramel and banana milkshake sloshed down his suit last Monday. Come on, don’t lie to yourself. You did.

Farage, with his outsized, boozy “man of the people” façade and public school boy undertones, is a naturally laughable man. Even if you agree with him, it’s impossible not to see that his persona is very easy to joke about.

Other victims of the ‘milkshaking’ trend are less funny, however – take Carl Benjamin, the YouTube provocateur-turned MEP candidate-turned rape joke apologist. Unless you never grew out of your Milo Yiannopolous phase, there’s very little humour to find in Benjamin’s general vicinity. However, it’s that – the precise fact that the man has retained some semblance of popularity despite somehow lowering the bar for “worst thing said to Jess Phillips on Twitter” – which makes it more cathartic to see him drenched in McDonald’s finest.

Milkshakes could be the tip of a nastier iceberg

But, inevitably, it’s not all fun and games. Whilst it might seem deeply satisfying to see your least favourite demagogue have something lobbed at them, realistically what’s happening is triable as assault and/or battery, and Farage is pressing charges accordingly. Very presciently, Brendan Cox, husband of the late Jo Cox MP, has spoken out against the incidents as “[normalising] violence and intimidation”, and he’s got a point. The actions’ illegality aren’t what makes them morally wrong per se – political protest isn’t always legal – but the milkshakes could be the tip of a nastier iceberg.

We’re all aware of the shocking circumstances of Jo Cox’s murder, and they’re as far from being funny as is possible. There is a very real risk that the normalisation of throwing things at politicians could lead us down a violent path. However, it’s also important to remember that Nigel Farage – naturally, the main opponent of the “throw milkshakes at Nigel Farage” movement – faced outrage for declaring that the referendum campaign had been won “without a shot being fired”, despite Cox’s murder – and less than a year later claimed he would “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if Brexit was not delivered. From a man disavowing political violence of any stripe, it’s disingenuous that he’s also fueling it from his own platform.

It seems that the milkshake trend has poked a few hornet’s nests on both sides, and is perhaps beginning to lose focus of its aims

As John Elledge eloquently puts it, “punching someone is, all things considered, less bad than inciting ethnic cleansing. You don’t get to incite violence against somebody, and then whine when somebody wants to hit you.” It is an unavoidable truth that far-left violence tends to focus on the far right, whilst the far right attacks its perceived enemies – often people of colour or of religious minorities. Even when right-wing violence is ideological, it manifests in the numerous attempted (and one tragically successful) attacks on Labour MPs’ lives. Evidently, a different beast to the milkshakes.

So, who is it okay to throw stuff at? Only extreme right and left? Does that include Farage? What about Corbyn? Remember poor old John Prescott? Ultimately even if it’s dangerous to have no criteria whatsoever, there’s definitely a spectrum – if someone can’t see a difference between throwing something at Carl Benjamin or, say, Vince Cable, then that says more about them than it does about political violence in general.

The main casualty in all this is not Farage’s image or the sanctity of discourse, though – it’s the blurring of political lines

But the recent spate of incidents indicates that the whole situation may have spiraled out of hand. Femi Oluwole, notable anti-Brexit campaigner, was accosted the other day at a Brexit Party rally whilst being called “treacherous f***ing scum”. It goes without saying that this carries nastier undertones than the hurling of a milkshake. It seems that the milkshake trend has poked a few hornet’s nests on both sides, and is perhaps beginning to lose focus of its aims. By stooping to the level of the far-right in attacks, the left doesn’t just make themselves look bad – in the case of Femi, the rhetoric hurled back is of a nastier, more sinister kind.

It may not be productive in terms of the promotion of polite discourse to throw milkshakes at bigots and fascists, but the message to them is clear – “you’re not welcome here”. Milkshakes and egging aren’t violence. They’re a brash yet admittedly effective way of getting a message across, but must be accepted in exchange for getting the same hurled back. The main casualty in all this is not Farage’s image or the sanctity of discourse, though – it’s the blurring of political lines. Is it worth throwing a milkshake if you don’t know what’s getting thrown back at you?

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