Generally, I believe that if a participant in a political debate has to resort to violence or anything that physically attacks their opponent in place of verbal argument, they probably don’t have the necessary reasoning or evidence to back up their viewpoint. A particularly memorable and shocking example that comes to mind is when Ilias Kasidiaris, a spokesperson for the Greek far-right Golden Dawn party, threw water over one woman and slapped another three times after one of them claimed that his party would take Greece back 500 years during a TV debate. In his attempt to silence both women with violence, Kasidiaris ironically went ahead and proved their point to be pretty accurate.
But what about the certainly less violent but nevertheless physically reactive trend of ‘milkshaking’, which has been sweeping through the UK? A wave of right-wing politicians and public figures have found themselves to be the targets of attacks in which the sugary beverage is thrown over them. Some of these figures have responded by pressing charges, others have suggested that this phenomenon is a step towards serious public violence against those on the right of politics.
Of course, it could be argued that the the act of throwing milkshakes at people whose views might be difficult to stomach is counterproductive, and readily desensitises us to political violence. But at the same time, it is undeniably difficult to present eloquent verbal opposition to the Brexit party, when it has virtually no policies; it is hard to think of the words that can dissuade a man like former UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin, who believes that making rape threats is a productive exercise of free speech, of his opinion.
So maybe, as Tom Peck notes in the Independent, ‘milkshaking’ does indeed constitute breaking the official rules of political debate. But so does turning sexual harassment into a political weapon. These are times where conduct in the political sphere is degenerating on all sides. Perhaps throwing a milkshake over someone who is implicated in this degeneration is forgivable.
To some extent, I think this argument holds, but what I do think is more interesting now is the symbolic power of the milkshake. During the EU election campaign, there were reports that members of the public had turned up to one of Nigel Farage’s rallies carrying milkshakes. As the Guardian put it, Nigel Farage was forced to take refuge on his Brexit bus as a result. This was following Farage’s unfortunate encounter with a luxury banana and salted caramel milkshake in Newcastle a few days prior. This time, there was no milkshake throwing, but instead Farage was forced to retreat by something as objectively unthreatening as a dairy beverage in the local area.
And so it seems the milkshake has taken on a temporary power. Without being deployed, the drink can instil fear in the political fiends of modern times.
And while milkshakes continue to be thrown at figures on the right of socio-politics, the milkshake can effectively do its work from inside its paper cup. And this is where my support is strongest. Though I am unsure how I feel about the act of throwing, just the fact that a milkshake in the hand sends something of a message to those who exploit defences of ‘free speech’ is exhilarating.
And more importantly, the symbolic milkshake is quite simply funny. The idea of Nigel Farage cowering on his Brexit bus in fear of the drink is comedy gold. Humour should never be underestimated as a political weapon. Making those who might hold unpleasant views seem ridiculous is often the best way to counter their worryingly potent rhetoric.
And this is important, because trends in the political sphere are certainly alarming. On both the left and the right, we are seeing a rise in autocratic politics, personality politics, and politics which does not allow for dissent.
Alongside pruning his personality cult, Farage has followed his counterparts across the pond in implementing media censorship, blacklisting channel 4 news from covering Brexit Party events during the EU election campaign. This is no different from Trump’s decisions to blacklist journalists from CNN, whom he describes as purveyors of ‘fake news’.
But this happens on the left of politics too. Jeremy Corbyn has opted for a position of combat against ‘the mainstream media’, rightly noting that the free press has the capacity to spread lies as fact, untruths as truths. But even traditionally leftwing news outlets are routinely criticised as dangerous, and the idea of a free press in itself seems to be very much under review by the Labour leadership. This same leadership expelled Alastair Campbell from the membership of the party after he admitted to voting for the Liberal Democrats in the EU elections. Though Campbell passionately defended the ideology of the Labour movement, and characterised his vote as a consequence of the Labour party’s stance on Brexit, this was not enough. Apparently, dissent is not an acceptable quality in a Labour member.
And it is these political conditions which mean that an injection of humour is vital. From Corbyn to Farage, none of these figures are following political rules. They make grand claims in favour of free speech all the while censoring the levels to which they can freely be spoken about. And so when speech fails, grab your milkshakes. You don’t have to throw them to have the desired effect.