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Is Pie-Throwing Ever Morally Justifiable?

I can’t find anyone who approves of what happened yesterday, when news titan Rupert Murdoch suffered a near-shaving-cream-pie in the face during a hearing before members of Parliament in London. Everyone seems to agree that the pie-thrower, “activist” Jonnie Marbles, is a dumbass. We even seem to agree that Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, is a badass. (If you’re late to the story, Wendi personally lunged at Marbles and smacked him on the head. Sadly, no black eye was administered.)

While near-unity prevails on this particular incident of pie-throwing, however, the practice of pie-throwing in general yields divided opinions. For instance, when pundit Thomas Friedman got a couple of pies thrown at him while he was onstage at Brown University in early 2008, a lot of otherwise sober people approved. Blogger Matt Yglesias called it “funny,” and other bloggers had similarly amused reactions.

Being a conscientious journalist, I’ve watched a lot of pie-attack videos in the last 24 hours. One thing they have in common is that they’re not funny. And I don’t just mean that I don’t find them funny. Watch a few of them. Here’s Anita Bryant getting pied. Here’s Bill Gates getting pied. Here’s Ann Coulter getting pied. Does any of them make you laugh? Does anybody in any of the videos laugh? Invariably, the response of the gathered crowd is alarm followed by disgust. A whiff of chaos, of a broken social compact, is in the air. Everyone is shaken.

(Check out TNR’s video history of famous people getting “pied.”)

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.

The point of pie-throwing, though, isn’t to cause fear. (That’s merely a side effect.) It’s to degrade and humiliate. So can it be defended on those grounds? After all, some windbags deserve a bit of deflating. That’s why pie-throwing pioneer Noël Godin of Belgium has been hurling pies for 40 years. Anyone whom he deems self-important is a target.

But here, we get into concept versus reality. As a concept, throwing pies at pompous bores is pleasing. As a reality, it’s not pleasing at all. It’s one thing to parody, to tease, to lampoon. Jon Stewart throws metaphorical pies at hypocrites and fools several days a week. It’s another thing to see a face distorted and dripping with foam or custard as the person sits blinking and trying to take stock of what happened. Just watch Anita Bryant weeping.

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 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.

Now, part of me wants to see Jonnie Marbles kicked in the groin by Wendi Deng and then stuffed into a giant pie. OK, not really. We’re back to the notion of concept versus reality. In the real world, I don’t want to see Marbles deprived of dignity. 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 is a special correspondent for The New Republic.