• J.S. Mullen

The Semiotics of Milkshake Throwing

Over the past few months a somewhat puzzling trend has developed: namely, throwing milkshakes at those you happen to disagree with politically. While in the United States this has largely been confined to clashes between alt-right groups and antifa (with the added American twist that many are not actual milkshakes, but rather combine things like vinegar and cement to make something of milkshake consistency), in the UK milkshake lobbers have specifically targeted individuals, particularly politicians. While at first glance one is tempted to pass the phenomenon off as merely another example of the embarrassing level to which political discourse has sunk, but upon closer examination there is something fundamentally different about the throwing of milkshakes, particularly at politicians.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a politician. You are used to being regularly bombarded with degrading attacks via social media, perhaps you have even been accosted verbally in person. But as you walk down the street on this particular day someone suddenly jumps into your path and smacks you in the chest or face with a milkshake. Your security detail, if you have one, was not able to prevent it happening, and push the milkshake thrower away, looking slightly abashed. The police arrive to take the offender away, while you are left to try and dry off as best you can, the sticky residue and scent of caramel banana your companion for the rest of the day.

The message here is deeper than "I want to humiliate you," or "I disagree with you," deeper even than "I hate you." The message conveyed by the milkshake thrower, whether consciously intended or not, is "Look what I can do to you. You aren't safe from me." It is, in a very real sense, a nuanced form of terrorism--a mock execution, if you will. "I got this close to you. Your bodyguards didn't suspect me. I can get to you. We can get to you. You aren't safe from those who disagree with you."

Quite apart from the semiotics at play here is the very real danger that these attacks demonstrate and highlight the basic vulnerability of public figures. Those desiring to make a bigger statement might very well see and learn from the success of the milkshake throwers. A phenomenon that has been written off rather glibly by a number of articles and editorials, or worse, been depicted as a humorous peculiarity, milkshake throwing deserves our attention, and the offenders deserve to be punished to the fullest extent that the law allows. Not only does our political discourse deserve better, our elected leaders, no matter their party, deserve our vigorous defense of their feeling of personal safety.

J.S. Mullen, August 2019

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