Some people can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to being assholes.
One of those people is Australian Senator Fraser Anning, who in addition to blaming the Christchurch mass shooting on immigration, is a proud anti-gay, far-right Queensland politician who once invoked the “final solution” while discussing immigration.
But the real reason Anning is famous internationally is that over the weekend he was the target of an egging heard round the world: “Egg Boy,” a 17-year-old Australian named Will Connolly, smacked an ovum on the back of Anning’s head during a Saturday news conference. The senator was apparently unharmed, but pissed off enough to punch Connolly twice in the ensuing melee. The incident went viral, with social media opinion firmly on Egg Boy’s side. A fundraiser set up to cover Connolly’s legal fees raised over $70,000, and Connolly said through that fundraiser that he will “send a majority of the money to the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack."
The disrespectful act inspired shock and admiration, but Egg Boy was really just the latest practitioner of the long-standing, noble tradition of tossing food at politicians., For centuries, Greeks have been throwing yogurt (the act is called yaourtoma) at politicians and other political figures. Britain has such an affinity for throwing eggs at politicians you can peruse multiple galleries of notable examples online. In New Zealand, if you’re a politician on the wrong side of the public, you might get manure thrown on you over a campaign finance scandal.
Aside from the comedic payoff, is there value in holding politicians to account through this sort of public embarrassment? Judging by recent history, the answer is probably yes. Absurd and cruel policies demand absurd responses, and public humiliation can be an effective method of political resistance. In other words, we should all try to be a bit more like Egg Boy.
A quick survey of last year's political controversies in the US proves this point. During the family separation debacle of 2018, left-wing protesters launched public harassment campaigns against White House officials and others judged to be responsible for the cruel policy of breaking up families at the border. Tactics like heckling were condemned by right-wing pundits and center-left Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, who stressed “unity” in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms. But for all the hand-wringing, these actions proved pretty effective. Homeland Secretary Kristjen Nielsen was confronted by protesters at a Mexican restaurant on Tuesday, June 19; the following day she stood by Donald Trump as he signed an executive order ending the controversial policy—a decision that Nielsen was reportedly a major factor in.
It’s impossible to say whether the protesters’ shaming of Nielsen influenced her views—after all, the administration may have been responding more to the massive waves of bad publicity and negative poll numbers. But if those confrontations played just a small part in Nielsen’s decision-making process, they were well worth it.
A similar case study occurred just a few months later. In September, at the height of the battle over Brett Kavanugh’s Supreme Court nomination and allegations he had sexually assaulted a woman when they were both teenagers, activist Ana Maria Archila dressed down Republican Senator Jeff Flake in an US Capitol Building elevator. "What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court. This is not tolerable,” she yelled at a visibly shaken Flake. Kavanaugh, of course, was eventually confirmed to the court, with Flake voting for that confirmation, but the Arizona senator did acquiesce to the demands of protesters by slowing down the process and allowing an FBI investigation to take place. As in Nielsen's case, it’s unclear if Archila’s words influenced Flake, but that confrontation certainly didn’t hurt the anti-Kavanaugh cause.
As for the idea that in-your-face protests would harm the larger anti-Trump effort, that doesn’t seem to have borne any fruit: In the midterm elections, Democrats won their highest margin of victory ever among women, possibly partly in thanks to the Kavanaugh furor, and decisively took back the House.
Many of the Republican incumbents who lost in 2018 were the victims of a slightly milder form of public shaming at town hall meetings. Virginia Congressman Dave Brat was heckled and shouted down at one such event after he voted with other Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. New Jersey’s Tom McArthur was booed and called “a killer,” a “weasel” and an “idiot” at a town hall where the crowd repeatedly told him he had “blood on his hands.” California Representative Darrell Issa was accused of dodging questions from protesters and even hiding on his office’s roof to avoid them. By January, Issa, McArthur, and Brat were out of office.
Of course, the left doesn’t have a monopoly on this tactic. In 2010, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson yelled “YOU LIE!” at Barack Obama during the State of the Union, and a series of contentious town halls helped fuel Republican victories in that year’s midterms. If you have anger on your side, you’re likely to do well in elections, and it appears not to hurt if that anger spills out in dramatic ways.
Why does egging, or shaming, or heckling, a politician “work”? Sometimes it can serve up a kind of humiliation that weakens a public figure’s standing—being booed by your own constituents is never a good look; Fraser Anning is now forever the guy who got egged.
In some cases, harassment or the threat of harassment might convince an official on the fence to change their mind. Would polite discourse have persuaded Nielsen and Trump to reverse family separation? Maybe, but it’s clear that getting in their faces worked just as well.
Some Democrats have argued that the left should “go high” or be the “adults in the room,” but this would amount to unilateral disarmament. Trump, who famously decried Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s calls for incivility toward Republicans, also asked attendees at one of his rallies in 2016 to “knock the crap out of” a protestor and later praised Greg Gianforte, the Republican congressman who body-slammed a reporter.
Heckling and even eggings aren’t actual violence; they’re more shows of disrespect than threats. And publicly shaming politicians and powerful officials is different than harassing ordinary people like abortion doctors. We can and should still condemn actual violence like the sort encouraged by Trump.
If Trump is defeated in 2020 by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, they will need to be prepared be checked in much the same way from opponents on both the right or the left. If they want power, they should know that heckling comes with the territory.
But more importantly, funny or odd public disobedience could actually embolden those who might not be politically active to pay attention. It also allows citizens to feel, even at the most basic level, a measure of control over their political situation in a time where politicians seem bought and sold by powerful, moneyed interests. If more people felt they could participate in solitary or group actions to help keep politicians “honest,” we would see the political landscape change. We all need to understand that politicians are not some rarefied species living in another world. They’re flesh and blood just like the rest of us—close enough to touch and splatter egg on.