That the word “violence” is a powerful piece of political rhetoric has been brought home by the welter of opinion pieces, editorials and tweets that have emerged about a recent spate of “milkshakings” – in which prominent right-wing figures have been doused with dairy-based beverages. Those who have sought to condemn these actions have labelled them “political violence”, taking them to be unjustifiable. Those who have sought to defend and justify these actions have rejected the term “political violence”. It is worth asking two questions: as political violence, could “milkshaking” be justified? And is milkshaking even violence in the first place?
At the outset, it’s worth dealing with the objection that political violence is always wrong. This is almost certainly incorrect. It’s useful to think of a distinction Hannah Arendt made between legitimacy and justification. Violence can never be legitimate – it cannot be intrinsically right – but it can be justified. If we are committed to a present state of affairs – such as the enfranchisement of women – then we cannot completely dismiss the way that that state of affairs was brought about. The difficulty is in determining the “ends” that justify violence and whether those ends can be attained. It’s a near impossible task to weigh the consequences of violence after the fact, let alone beforehand and, as Arendt added, the further the ends recede into the future, the less justified violence becomes.
Are these milkshakings actually violence? Hardly. These are disruptive actions, no doubt, and they sit somewhere on the spectrum between the peaceful and the violent, but, by nearly all accounts, political violence entails intentionally inflicting harm. So far, if their own accounts of their intentions are to be believed, the “milkshakers” have wanted, at most, to inflict humiliation.
Even if we were to accept a more permissive definition of violence as only the infliction of harm (whether intentional or not) it’s still difficult to see how, of all things, a milkshake could be construed as harmful. The instruments of violence really are important here. We associate things like knives, guns and bombs with violence precisely because of what they can do to somebody – both physically and psychologically. That said, public ignominy may be more of a harm to some than to others, particularly when we consider relative positions of privilege, power, and vulnerability, and particularly if want to include a psychological element to our understanding of “violence”.
In the early 1960s, at a time of radical protest in the US, the political theorist Sheldon Wolin claimed that violence should be understood as an “intensification of what we ‘normally’ expect”. Something is “violent” when it exceeds a normal level of controversy.
Such an understanding might be problematic in that we wouldn’t want to say something had ceased being “violent” because we had simply become inured to it, and it raises the broader question of what is “normal”. But this tells us something useful. In the context of political campaigning in Britain, vigorous debate has often been accompanied, not coarsened, by a certain level of theatrics. Small and harmless projectiles like eggs have often been thrown, and just as often met with a good deal of sangfroid. After being egged on the campaign trail in 1970, Harold Wilson quipped that if the Conservatives got into power, nobody would be able to afford eggs to throw. It’s hard to see how “milkshaking” exceeds a typical level of controversy.
The idea of “relative severity” here allows us to recast initially poor justifications for violence in a new light. One does not justify an act by claiming that the far right have already undertaken violence, or that politics has already become imbued with violence – as though two wrongs had ever made a right. Rather, it’s as though commentators on the left are arguing that, if the right, or public opinion more widely, is prepared to call milkshaking “violence”, then it must be prepared to call things like hate speech “violence” too.
The point here is that whether we choose to call something “violence” or not is not a dry philosophical question. The word “violence” has a strong emotive force and is used, when applied to actions, to uphold or denounce a certain moral vision of the world. Those who choose to call this or that act “violence” have already, in a sense, made up their mind about the fact of that action being wrong. In applying that term it paints one’s opponent in a certain light and puts them on the back foot. But in applying the word “violence” to a given action one is also saying that that action should be treated with all the seriousness and gravity that the word “violence” demands. That is something that should not be done without thought.