The recent trend of “milkshaking” by radical-left activists, in which a controversial figure (mainly one perceived to be on the right) is hit with a milkshake, has stirred up a heated discussion on the ethics of such an act.
Throwing food and drink items at others for a political purpose is by no means a new thing. Canadian politician Stockwell Day was attacked with chocolate milk during the 2000 Canadian Election for one of many examples. Its defendants have argued recently that merely throwing ice cream or something similar at those they deem extremists causes no real harm.
On the flipside, Sam Harris tweeted last month that such attacks on figures including but certainly not limited to British politicians Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson, are akin to mock assassinations that could easily have been real if the attacker used something more malicious, such as a knife or gun.
While exposing the lack of available security for many public figures thereby opening them up for future attacks, this also creates a slippery slope that is bound to lead to someone taking it too far. While the latter point is frequently accused of being fallacious, real-world examples, both old and new, suggest that justifying assault, however satirical, however minor, can eventually lead to actual harm.
In the 2006 Dutch election cycle, Pim Fortuyn, a gay academic known for his opposition to radical Islam and mass immigration, was smeared with cake by a protestor who was vehemently opposed to Fortuyn’s views. A figure incorrectly labeled as far-right by the media, and placed as an equivalent to then-contemporary leaders of the European far-right: Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jorg Haider, Fortuyn received as much opposition as he did support. So much so that three weeks before the election, he was fatally shot by a Dutch national who had perceived him as a danger to minority rights; the same justification used to smear the late-Fortuyn with cake.
On June 29th 2019, journalist Andy Ngo was assaulted by anti-fascist protestors while he was covering a Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon. At the same time, police in the area received several reports of milkshakes laced with quick-dry cement being thrown at attendees. An act which originally was deemed physically harmless had been proven otherwise, as it had now been used in a way to cause genuine harm to political opponents.
However, the most widespread danger with milkshaking is the precedent it sets. Once we legitimize throwing food items at those with whom we disagree, we are ultimately stating that it is technically okay to assault our rivals. Once we declare that assaulting our rivals is okay since we subjectively deemed them to be dangerous to the values we hold, there is little that separates a milkshake both principally and definitionally from a brick, or a brick from a gun.
The definition of assault and of violence do not change based on the extent of the damage one does. While one could argue that the intent matters, they would be wise to remember that legitimizing this act easily opens the door for it to be taken further. When a person discovers they have a malignant tumor, they do not wait for it to begin threatening their life. Rather, they have it surgically removed to prevent such a scenario. The same should be done to those that think assault via food items is okay.
The fact remains that resorting to violence is a tactic used by terrorists, and not by reasoned, intelligent individuals that merely disagree with one another on important issues. Even so-called “minor” strands of this, such as milkshaking, are a form of intimidation that states in principle that offensive violence is okay. Those that resort to terrorism are a fundamental threat to the liberal democratic values we espouse, and should be stopped in their tracks before they or anyone else watching are able to go any further.