Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is throwing a pie in the face of an unsuspecting victim ever a good idea?

No, argues T.A. Frank in The New Republic.

Frank's headline is "Is Pie-Throwing Ever Morally Justifiable?," but I've qualified my heading to make it clear that we have to exclude consensual pie-throwing, which is probably more common than what Frank is talking about: pie-throwing as an attempt at protest.

Pie-throwing is the issue of the day because Rupert Murdoch was almost hit with a pie while appearing before a parliamentary committee in London before his wife, Wendi Deng, successfully intervened.

Frank admits that no one seems to be supporting the pie-thrower in this incident, but he says this isn't a universal reaction to non-consensual pie-throwing. For instance, he cites Matthew Yglesias's approving reaction to someone hitting Thomas Friedman with a pie. Frank writes:

A common defense of pie-throwing is that it’s, well, just a pie. But, of course, the person getting attacked has no idea what the hell is about to hit him or her. In 1976, during a campaign appearance in his first run for the U.S. Senate, Pat Moynihan got pied by a Yippie yelling “Fascist pig.” Moynihan, a child of Hell’s Kitchen, was no softie, “but it scared the hell out of me,” he told The New York Times. It had been “a violent act.”

The defense that the fear lasts only a short while—between the time you first notice you’re being attacked and the time you realize it’s just a pie—doesn’t work, either. If fleeting fear were no problem, then mock executions would be just hilarious. But momentary fear can be very powerful indeed. If someone aimed a machine gun at me and started firing loud volleys of harmless whipped cream, I wouldn’t laugh it off. I’d scream in terror. And, if someone “just” charged me with a foreign object in hand, I’d be pretty damn frightened, too. . . .

Dignity is a tricky concept, hard to define. But it’s central to many religions, and it’s mentioned in numerous international conventions. The Geneva Conventions famously prohibit “outrages on human dignity.” What separates civilized nations from barbarous ones is that they treat all human beings, even the enemies that they kill and the criminals that they punish, with dignity. (If prisoners of war were to have custard pies pressed into their heads upon being taken into enemy custody, decent people would see it as a sickening humiliation.) It’s also what separates civilized people from bullies and brutes. Pie-throwers want to rob their victims of dignity. That degrades the rest of us, too.

By the way, what’s ironic about many of these pie-throwers is how seriously they take themselves. When the supposedly light-hearted [Noel] Godin, who kicked off his career by throwing a pie at Marguerite Duras in 1969, explained why he spattered Bill Gates with a pie in 1998, it was because Gates “chooses to function in service of the capitalist status quo, without really using his intelligence or his imagination.” Yeah, intelligent and imaginative people don’t bring personal computing to half the globe. They spend 30 years throwing pie.

Ultimately, pie-throwing amounts to the most violent way possible to attack someone powerful without being likely to get in trouble for it. (Victims rarely press charges, because they don’t want to look like bad sports.) But it’s the not the hegemony of elites that’s threatened by pie-throwing. It’s ordinary decency and openness. Murdoch goes back to work tomorrow. But, if there are further hearings, the public will have to go through much more security to get access to them. Today, only journalists were allowed to stay after the pie incident. Ordinary onlookers were made to leave. Thanks, pie-thrower.
One exception to Frank's general rule that pie-throwers don't get in trouble is Johnny Marbles, the man who tried to pie-throw Murdoch. He was arrested and jailed. So, does Marbles regret what he did? He writes:
I had intended to unleash a wave of polemic as I made my move. As it turned out, the whole thing was far too weird for me to string two thoughts together, particularly as Murdoch's wife rose from the chair to prevent and avenge her husband's humiliation. As it went, I'm glad I was even able to make the accurate understatement that he was a "naughty billionaire".

As I languished predictably in a prison cell later that evening, I contemplated whether people would understand why I'd done it. I knew it was a tall order: a surreal act aimed at exposing a surreal process was never going to be an easy sell. I worried, too, that my clowning would detract from the scandal, or provide sympathy for Murdoch.

Believe it or not, I even worried about Rupert Murdoch's feelings. You see, I really don't hate 80-year-olds and, at the end of the day, Rupert Murdoch is just an old man. Maybe what I was trying to do was remind everyone of that – that he is not all powerful, he's not Sauron or Beelzebub, just a human being, like the rest of us, but one who has got far too big for his boots.
Even the aspiring pie-thrower himself was unable to articulate a convincing case for what he did, either at the time or in a long-winded editorial after the fact. So I agree with Frank: in addition to being violent and degenerate, pie-throwing simply isn't the incisively satirical act the pie-throwers seem to think it is. In fact, it's the opposite of what it's trying to be. People don't have trouble understanding why Marbles would want to do this because pie-throwing is too surreal or subversive for our comprehension; we have trouble seeing the point because pie-throwing is trite, formulaic, old-fashioned, humanizing toward the target, and ultimately meaningless.

ADDED: A couple people have asked me if I feel the same way about the people who are going around throwing glitter at politicians who are opposed to gay rights. Here's my response.

14 comments:

George said...

Someday one of these pie throwers is going to encounter a twitchy security guard and get themselves killed.

Brian said...

It's a tort and a crime, but victims choose not to become plaintiffs because they want to appear to be (as the author of the original article put it) "good sports," and/or they don't want to look like they're playing the victim card. And the perpetrators, when they get prosecuted, rarely if ever do real time. They should.

Allow me to violate Immanuel Kant's ethical injunction and use the blog as a means to end, as the comments section for The New Republic doesn't allow non-subscribers. The last two sentences of that article are:

"But I would like to see him spend a few days in jail. It’s also a good place to meet more executives from NewsCorp."

T.A. Frank, you are a world-class pussy. You couldn't complete a single short article saying that violence is bad, even when directed against a target your friends dislike. So in a sad little obsequious gesture, you assure your readers that you, too, hate the target of the violence. Pathetic.

Carol_Herman said...

Answer a simple question. Who controlled the cameras? Why did the camera jump to the abstract painting? And, not follow Wendi Deng Murdoch, as she rose up. Grabbed the pie plate ... with contents still within ... And head for the head of the pie thrower?

This was PURPOSELY not captured!

The room was in England's parliament building. (About as safe as the streets of Oslo, I am beginning to suspect.)

We've now all lost our virginity.

NONE TOO SOON! Since all the left does all day long is SPIN.

Pie Throwing my ass!

Time to practice a bit of volleyball on the beach. You never know when punching the ball back ... comes in handy.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Bill Gates pie'ing. It was very physical - he was punched in the face with a pie. There was nothing cute about it.

Anonymous said...

I'll have a good laugh the next time one of these idiot pie throwers is shot dead by an alert security guard. After all, how do we know it's "just" a pie?

Anonymous said...

PS- You know when we'll start seeing and hearing how bad this tactic is and see widespread condemnation of it?

When a prominent Democrat politician is the victim.

Sean D Sorrentino said...

If I ever end up in a position where I have security, I will instruct them that should someone attempt to assault me, whether with knife, gun, or pie, they are to be put down with whatever force that can be brought to bear.

I'd like to see a pie thrower punched to the ground and put into the hospital.

Ron Wallenfang said...

A little off-point, since it was both consensual and show biz, but I still love The Three Stooges

Marc Malone said...

I do not want to see one of them shot for their juvenile behavior. I do want to see the intended target put a gun in the attacker's face and say, "Go ahead. Make my day."

"An armed society is a polite society."

The pie-attack is really just an attempt to humiliate the target, take him down a peg. It is envy and resentment of success. I want the pie-thrower to wet himself and be himself humiliated.

I think Rupert Murdoch is deeply in love with his wife again and is showering her with flowers and gifts. ;)

Dan said...

Crime? Prank? Dangerous? I'm ambivalent about these. Suffice it to say that I think whatever the case, it's in poor taste. No pun intended.

But what I WILL say is that if I'm ever in public life and someone does a stunt like that to me, my reaction will be to grab the pie, ask someone for a fork, wipe off my face if they hit me, and continue whatever I was doing while having myself some pie. Makes no sense to let a perfectly good pie go to waste, IMHO.

Sean D Sorrentino said...

"continue whatever I was doing while having myself some pie"

You intend to eat an entirely unknown substance that a hostile person just threw at you? Are you mad?

"I do not want to see one of them shot for their juvenile behavior."

I didn't say that they needed to be shot for the pie. Punched to the ground for the pie. Perhaps beaten with a nightstick for the pie. Certainly hurt badly enough to stop his actions and to serve as a warning to others.

The problem is that no one has any idea if the person with the "pie" has a pie, or some sort of dangerous chemical done up to look like a pie.

Also, no one knows if the pie thrower is the main attack or a diversion for the main attack.

Here's a test. Take a pie and try to throw it at the sitting President. Do you think that they will laugh it off? Or will you get dogpiled and beat down and possibly shot? And in the confusion the President will be hustled off to safety because no one knows if you are just a diversion for a real assassin.

If I ever have security, that's what they will be trained to do. Since I don't have security, and have little chance of ever needing it, I will just beat the ever loving (deleted) out of whoever tries it.

Minicapt said...

"I do not want to see one of them shot for their juvenile behavior."
... self-inflicted injury; in the military, it's a chargeable offence.

Cheers

Ann Althouse said...

A little off-point, but Soupy Sales looks like Russ Feingold.

Anonymous said...

Part of the discourse dealt with the contention that the victim suffers only momentary terror. And this is somehow....ok.

Aren't people who are being waterboarded prone to momentary terror then in short order are fine?