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Tommy Robinson
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The sweet hypocrisy of the far-right reaction to milkshake protests

In equating the lobbing of milkshakes at fascists with burning down mosques, the far right is making a startling admission about hate speech

For years, the far-right and its mainstream enablers have argued (against all evidence) that there’s no link between political words and political violence. From the Times to the Spectator, hate speech is breathlessly conflated with free speech, as an essential liberty that might sound mean, but is harmless in real life. Words, they have long insisted, don’t matter.

But the new trend of publicly “milkshaking” famous figures has caused a drastic change of tune, with the movement known for sneering about the inferiority of “soy boys” suddenly becoming lactose intolerant.

“See, it starts with milkshakes,” tweeted Raheem Kassam, former chief adviser to Nigel Farage, “then it becomes bricks.” Setting aside the absence of milkshakes at the historic Battle of Cable Street, is the humble strawberry shake truly a harbinger of oppression, or is refrigeration the only chilling effect here?

It was a tweet by Burger King that left Kassam and others particularly milkshook (sorry). Shortly before a Farage rally in Edinburgh, a McDonald’s branch 200 metres from the venue posted the sign: “We will not be selling milkshakes or ice cream tonight. This is due to a police request given recent events.”

The sign went viral, those ‘recent events’ being obvious to the public, which caused Burger King to jump on the bandwagon by tweeting: “Dear people of Scotland. We’re selling milkshakes all weekend. Have fun.” A “#justsaying” was added by the fast food corp attempting to get a greasy boot at the zeitgeist. The tweet was criticised on the right with accusations of ‘inciting violence’.

Part of their frustration is that milkshakes are funny. Beyond the inevitable public laughter, though, lies a much more serious own goal scored by the far-right, with potentially disastrous implications: by crying violence at Britain’s milkshaking meme, they just admitted words do matter after all.

As far as debating etiquette is concerned, it is at least reasonable to consider a milkshake to the face uncivil behaviour. The problem with emphasising civility, however, is how easily it invites questions about what makes milkshaking less civil than, for instance, calling migrant workers “cockroaches” – because unlike right wing punditry, no milkshake, eggs, or cream pie ever encouraged anyone to set fire to a mosque.

The Christchurch shooter exhorted his fans to subscribe to popular racist YouTuber PewDiePie during his killing spree, and claimed inspiration from American alt-right star Candace Owens (“who influenced me above all”), who saw fit to use a laughing emoji in her online post about the attack. Owens, who recently claimed the Third Reich only stopped being “fine” after it invaded other countries, enjoys mainstream support and acceptance in the UK from prominent figures like Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik claimed in the manifesto of his July 2011 mass murder of 77 innocents (injuring 319) that his actions were inspired not only by outright fascist writers, but also mainstream right wingers such as Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. Phillips denounced Breivik in 2011 and has made no criticism of milkshaking so far, but continues profitably arguing in the Times that “anti-hate groups have become the real voices of hate.”

“Unlike right wing punditry, no milkshake, eggs, or cream pie ever encouraged anyone to set fire to a mosque” 

Milkshaking has been denounced by fellow Mail opinion provocateur and Trump enthusiast Piers Morgan, who tweeted: “Throwing milkshakes over @Nigel_Farage is pathetic & will make him even more popular”. If that were true perhaps someone ought to have poured milkshake on Morgan’s short and deeply unpopular TV career in the USA.

And Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, better known as ‘Tommy Robinson’ – milkshaked twice in two days, both strawberry – has (as usual) failed to denounce the outpouring of death threats by his supporters against the Wigan man, now under police protection, who merely filmed the incident. Robinson, perhaps the most notorious words-don’t-matter denialist, claims not to have inspired Finsbury Park terrorist Darren Osborne despite having personally emailed words of encouragement to Osborne shortly before his 2017 van attack.

Careless talk has always cost lives. Now is a good time to remember when King Henry II famously uttered “will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” and the archbishop in question was summarily murdered by four enterprisingly attentive knights (sadly there were no milkshakes in 12th century England). Henry responded in horror by performing public penance for his sin – he did not say “hey, free speech” and shrug off responsibility before doing it all again. It is as true now as it was then that words absolutely matter.

For us to take the far right’s milkshaking 'threat' claim seriously, for us to agree that the slippery slope to bloodshed is indeed slick with delicious milky treats, we would have a responsibility to keep firmly in mind the bloody recent history of whose words have led to which outcomes. Before they demand we agree with them, these right wing provocateurs would do well to consider the implications of the question: do you really want us to believe you?