Content Warning: Racist language, references to racist violence and rape threats
Over the past few weeks, there have been four incidents of milkshakes being thrown at leading figures on the (far) right, who are campaigning to be elected as MEPs: twice with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), once with Carl Benjamin (known online as Sargon of Akkad) and most recently with Nigel Farage. Whilst some have lauded this and others are largely apathetic towards it, a not insignificant number of people have claimed that this is an issue of free speech and has worrying connotations in terms of potential political violence - with Katie Hopkins even grotesquely likening it to the murder of Jo Cox in 2016.
Whilst I think it’s true that a situation where politicians are having milkshakes thrown over them is not the ideal state of political discourse - it seems to me that the whole situation is being massively (and deliberately) overblown. Perhaps the first thing to note about this milkshake throwing is how limited it has been in scope. As of the time of writing, only three men have had milkshakes thrown over them.
The first of these is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, founder and former head of the white nationalist group, the English Defence League, who is a self-identified hater of Muslims, quoted in 2017 as saying “Islam is not up for reform or negotiation – so we have no other choice than to fight it.” Beyond this rampant hatred, he was also convicted in 2017 of contempt of court (and again in 2018), when he tried to livestream a gang rape trial where the accused were South Asian, to advance a typical Islamophobic narrative about people who are (or are perceived as) Muslims being sexual predators. Beyond this, he also plead guilty to mortgage fraud in 2013, and was jailed in the same year for using somebody else’s passport to travel to the USA.
The second is Carl Benjamin, a man who weaponised his Youtube channel to become a key figure in ‘Gamergate’, a ‘movement’ which began in 2014 where female games journalists (especially transgender and/or BME women) were subject to targeted online harassment under the guise of criticism about ‘ethics in games journalism’. As if that wasn’t gross enough, he was also banned from Patreon in December of 2018 after saying on a livestream “I can’t be bothered to deal with people who treat me like this. You are acting like a bunch of n***ers, just so you know. You act like white n***ers. [...] Maybe you’re just acting like a n***ers, mate?... Do you think white people act like this? White people are meant to be polite and respectful to one another.” and also repeatedly using homophobic slurs. Additionally, in 2016 he tweeted at Birmingham Yardley MP - Jess Phillips: “I wouldn’t even rape you”.
The third of these men is Nigel Farage. Whilst arguably the least overtly terrible of the three, Farage has still called Steve Bannon, a man who said “Let Them Call You Racist … Wear It as a Badge of Honor”, ‘a good friend’. Farage has also peddled in his fair share of islamophobia sentiment - claiming in a speech in 2015 that some British Muslims are ‘conflicted in their loyalties’ between the UK and their religion. He also formerly led the UKIP party which arguably ushered in the entrance of the far-right into mainstream British politics, whilst currently being the leader of the Brexit party which seems to be achieving a similar outcome.
My point here is that none of these men are nice people or ‘normal’ politicians, so the suggestion that this could somehow lead to an avalanche of milkshake attacks seems overblown to say the least. Perhaps more importantly, it must be remembered that the hateful views and ideas that the aforementioned trio and their ilk put into the world has real and violent implications - far beyond that of a milkshake thrown. The number of hate crimes reported to the police in the UK has risen by 17% from 2016-17 to 2017-8, to 8,336, double the number of hate crimes reported between 2012 and 2013. More specifically, the horrific Finsbury Park attack in 2017, where van was driven into innocent pedestrians outside their place of worship, was perpetrated by a man who was inspired by anti-Muslim hatred based off of the vile Rochdale grooming ring. Hateful ideas have real and tangible consequences that affect the millions of people in this nation who don’t fit within the narrow idea that the far-right have of an ‘acceptable’ British citizen.
I think that even if we accept the idea that throwing milkshakes at figures who have spread bigotry and hatred (or at the very least associate themselves with those that do) is deeply wrong, we’re still missing the bigger picture. In spending time mulling over the ethics of these incidents, we lose sight of the violence that is perpetuated in our society every day that go beyond a drink (possibly) ruining a suit. There is an inherent and persistent violence to the continued proliferation of the ideas represented by these men. They create an environment in which anyone who doesn't fit a very specific profile becomes a target - especially if they weren’t assigned as male at birth. An environment where everyone marked as an ‘immigrant’ (irrespective of the reality) feels like they're living on borrowed time. Whilst these violences often aren’t as tangible as a milkshake, they have a very real impact which those philosophising about these actions seem to be (sometimes willfully) ignorant to and largely unaffected by.
The hand-wringing over these incidents clearly demonstrates what kinds of violence are tolerable to many in our society. It may not be ideal that people are throwing milkshakes on politicians, but it’s horrific that UN envoy Phillip Aston has found the UK in breach of four human rights agreements due to austerity policies, and it’s atrocious that the (already punitive) immigration detention system has ‘utterly failed’ on its responsibilities (according to a select committee report). However, because these violences primarily affect the people most ignored in society and are carried out under the banner of government policy, they’re treated with less gravity than a bigoted (or bigot-adjacent) politician having a delicious drink thrown over them.
If we want to be a moral society that condemns violence, we have to condemn the violence that many of us find easy to ignore due to its normalisation and bureaucratisation, not just the whimsical milkshakes that break our fantasy of painless and peaceful political discourse.