There is No Such Thing as "Punching Up" or "Punching Down"
life isn't that simple
I found this to be a bizarre aside in a remembrance of Norm Macdonald by Rob Harvilla from The Ringer:
Bad-faith assholes eager to say the worst, most hurtful shit they can think of were always eager to claim him as a truth-telling warrior, but that’s the greatest dishonor of them all. His philosophy was never Say anything. Hurt anybody. Fuck you if it hurts you. He took comedy as far as it would go, and your full-body cringe was guaranteed, but he took you with him. When he punched, he punched up. And nobody hit harder.
… really? Wasn’t Macdonald canceled not that long ago for making rape jokes and crude references to Down syndrome? When people complain about “punching down,” isn’t a famous white male comedian making light of rape and intellectual disabilities precisely what they mean? Wasn’t he an articulate critic of the identity politics from which punching up/down sprang? I’m not out to cancel Macdonald myself, and conveniently for me I’m not required by social or professional incentives to pretend that things offend me when they don’t. But whatever else was true of Macdonald, he was not afraid to make people from protected identity classes his targets. (You might consider this video to see his willingness to transgress liberal norms; the Weekend Update stuff is pretty tame, but there’s plenty there, and you could look at the moment at 4:40 for a glaring example.) He also explicitly rejected “identity-based” comedy and the turn towards socially conscious humor. Vociferously, in fact. Again, in what world are old white guys allowed to be seen as punching up when they’re slamming Nanette? That is exactly what the punching up/down ideology mandates against. Harvilla has mangled the whole concept such that I wonder why he bothered to invoke it at all.
It’s true that Macdonald wasn’t an advocate for offending for the sake of offending. But… who is? Andrew Dice Clay says that he never intends to hurt anyone’s feelings. Neither did Don Rickles or any other comedian know for toeing the line of the offensive, and yet this has not functioned as an effective defense when they have been criticized. The notion of a comedian who prizes offense in and of itself is a strawman constructed to make Macdonald look progressive in relief, which is precisely the kind of insult Harvilla thinks he’s denouncing.
What’s actually happening here, it’s pretty obvious to me, is that Harvilla was very fond of Macdonald and his comedy, but Macdonald was (no matter how Harvilla tries to dissemble) antagonistic towards the politics that Harvilla and essentially the entire digital media share. Macdonald’s death thrust him into the public consciousness and demanded commentary. And so Harvilla experienced some cognitive dissonance, and his brain resolved the tension by making Macdonald out to be something he wasn’t. That allowed Harvilla to preserve his Twitter Good Guy card while letting him praise his hero, and in a style that did not violate his publication’s DEI policies. (Of all the many #Content sites that have gone woke, I find The Ringer’s to be the most nakedly phony, a totally insincere performance of corporate diversity politics that exists only to avoid social indemnity.) He seems almost embarrassed by the attempt and barely tries to justify the claim, but of course that’s how the Ringer branded the piece. You can forgive Harvilla for clumsily working with the communicative tools his professional and social class have given him. But the bigger issue is simply that the whole frame is broken, it’s always been broken, and it’s amazing that it has endured this long.
There is no such thing as punching up or punching down. The entire notion is an absurd pretense. For it to make any sense at all, human beings would have to exist on some unitary plane of power and oppression, our relative places easily interpreted for the purpose of figuring out who we can punch. That’s obviously untrue, and thus the whole concept is childish and unworkable, an utterly immature take on a world that is breathtaking in its complexities and which defies any attempt to enforce moral simplicity. Power is distributed between different people in myriad and often conflicting ways; when two people interact, their various privileges and poverties are playing out along many axes at once.
Take a college class with an adjunct instructor. Social justice norms demand that the instructor holds the power in the relationship, that his is the hand of oppression. But in fact this profoundly misunderstands the contemporary university. Adjuncts are terribly-paid at-will labor who often lack the most basic workplace protections; students at most schools now are simply customers and are afforded the deference typically given to customers. Certainly most college students have the ability to provoke the kind of bureaucratic panic that can prompt a department to drop an adjunct. It’s just so much less risky to do so than to invite student protest and angry parents, regardless of what the argument is about. Instructors are still in charge of grading, of course, and enjoy at least nominal authority within the classroom itself. So they have their own form of power. We could attempt to develop some sort of facile points system to determine whether adjuncts or students are more powerful, and who is punching up at whom when once complains about the other. Or we could instead choose to act like adults and understand that there are many different kinds of power and many different valences to each kind and that trying to arrive at a punching up/punching down binary amounts to a childish refusal to acknowledge the moral world’s irreducible complexity.
Consider the following video of Macdonald.
If “punching down” has any coherent meaning at all, Macdonald was punching down here. After all, Norm had the level of career success and fame that enabled him to sit in that chair and pass that judgment. The comic who stood before him had vastly less power than he did by any criteria. And Macdonald dressed him down, to the point of viral humiliation, in defense of Christianity, certainly an institution at the heights of cultural power and of Western authority. So wasn’t Macdonald guilty of punching down in this space? I suspect many would say no, that’s ridiculous, the guy volunteered himself for judgment. But then, American Idol and Simon Cowell were regularly criticized for mocking people like William Hung, holding them up for ridicule in ways that touched on racism and ableism. Here’s a woman who says Cowell mocked her disability, which any social justice boxing connoisseur would call punching down. So that defense of Macdonald for tearing into the guy won’t fly. And movie reviewers are frequently accused of punching down, despite the fact that they are in the business of rendering judgment, usually of the consumer products of giant corporations who are vastly more powerful than the critics themselves. What are the rules here? Honey, there are no rules; there are only targets.
My own defense of Macdonald’s treatment of that guy? My defense is that Macdonald was correct, that his judgment was sound, that the things he said were an accurate reflection of the deficiencies of that comic. The relative power between them makes no difference. Why would it? Who cares who has more power? Norm was right.
Do works of satire punch up or punch down? I can find no intelligible answer to that question that does not depend entirely on the eye of the beholder. Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers have been commonly accused of punching down by satirizing the imbecilic and the lower class, but their targets also tend to be the kind of uneducated white people that we now consider permanently valid targets. (Poor white people can only be punched up at, never down at, no matter what the power and affluence of the puncher, because they are perceived to be Trump voters - even though most of them don’t vote at all and plenty of them still vote Democrat.) Sasha Baron Cohen’s forgotten 2016 film Grimsby is a broad farce parodying the excesses and idiocy of toxic masculinity. Ah, punching up! Masculinity is on top, in our patriarchal system, and so this satire of stupid machismo is punching up, and thus Good. But no. In the act of mocking masculinity, Baron Cohen also mocked Hispanic people and disabled people and more, and so it’s punching down, and thus Bad. Why does the mockery of minorities override the central satire of buffoonish white men? No idea! The rules change constantly. Or, more accurately, the rules change conveniently.
Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant Parasite is the kind of complex and multilayered work that defies any cheap categorization of this type. I would argue in fact that its great genius is its refusal to fit comfortably into the populist revolt-of-the-downtrodden narrative many commentators tried to force on it. But no work of art can be so delicate and singular that they will not try to make it lay down in this Procrustean bed, and so now I learn, chastened, that Parasite punches down. All of that brilliant commentary on class, the well-crafted performances, the symbolism - all worthless, in the face of the incisive analysis of punching up or punching down. There are only two choices. Shame. If only the Constitution didn’t mandate that art must operate on a facile binary designed to make smug liberals feel assured that their mockery is always righteous, that of their opponents always bigoted.
What if - what if - “punching up vs. punching down” is a totally artificial construct that bends to accommodate whatever the person invoking it wants to believe? There is one rule: people I like are punching up, people I don’t are punching down. There is no deeper meaning to be had here. It’s just another tool for the overeducated and very online to dismiss stuff they don’t like. So perhaps we might just jettison the entire juvenile business. Of course it sucks if some rich asshole mocks a homeless person for being poor. It also sucks if a merely affluent person does it, if a middle class person does it, if a working class person does it, or if another homeless person does it. That behavior sucks because it’s wrong to mock poverty regardless of the relative power of the person doing the mocking. This is how adult morality functions; coherent moral judgments are based on acts and the intent that drove them, not on tendentious designations of who’s more powerful than who. It’s fine if you want to try to pick on people your own size, but you will never perceive such things with real clarity about who’s as big as you, because no such clarity can exist in this moral universe. Instead you should concern yourself with how you conducted yourself during the fight, whether you acted with honor and compassion. And then you should ask yourself whether it was right to pick on anybody at all.
The more time goes on in this never-ending woke production of The Crucible, the more I come to believe that the animating spirit behind it all is moral simplicity. People desperately want to believe that the world is simple, that good and bad are easily sorted, and that they are always on the right side of that ledger. I write at length here about the meaninglessness and lack of direction that compel people to define themselves in reductive ways. Well, no self-definition is more reductive and childish than defining yourself as good and righteous, and our culture has created an exquisitely intricate set of constructs to enable people to think of themselves as the good guys. Why do figures like Glenn Greenwald inspire greater anger in liberals than conservatives like Bill Kristol, despite the fact that the liberals share objectively more in politics and policy with Greenwald than with Kristol? Because people like Greenwald, who do not slot comfortably into binary culture war antagonism, trouble the moral simplicity of Good vs. Bad. They force people who wander around through life convinced that they are the good ones to consider the possibility that they can never rest easy in Good because human life defies such a simplistic status. The 2016 Democratic primary prompted an ugly war in the party because Bernie’s criticism of the Democrats undermined their confidence that they were on the right side of a blissfully uncomplicated two-side divide. They wanted to be permitted to partake in a Manichean struggle between MAGA and the righteous progressive forces, or if you prefer between MAGA and the hypocritical self-righteous liberal snowflakes. And Bernie’s acid critique of the Democratic party upset that simplicity, so they hated him. They hate anyone who threatens their sense that the entire world is a movie of their life in which they are the white knight who slays the dragon.
The thing to do is to not allow them to maintain this belief. I think it’s a sacred political duty to insist to these self-aggrandizing liberals that no, the world is not simple, no, you are not the protagonist of history, no, all of your heroes do not share your boutique collegiate politics, no, you don’t get to rest easy that you’re one of the good ones. You must remind them that they live in the confusing scrum of history like all the rest of us, and all of the trite political shorthand they’ve developed for good people and bad is just bullshit Twitter signaling for the already convinced.
And you shouldn’t let those like Rob Harvilla invoke that bullshit to draft people like Macdonald into their cause. Cause, you know, that Norm Macdonald, he was a complicated guy.
For me, the concept of punching up/down is useful in very limited contexts, when it helps us to consider *what* we’re mocking exactly. For example, when people made fun of the NYC mayoral candidates for thinking a house in Brooklyn costs $100,000—I’d call that punching up in the sense that it’s mocking how wealth makes people oblivious. But if someone calls Trump fat or Clinton ugly, that’s not ‘punching up’ despite their positions. It’s not like I cry about it, but mocking someone’s looks, even if they’re the most powerful person on earth, will never be punching up.
When people decide who is punching up based on the identity of the target vs. the speaker, I’m in total agreement with Freddie—it’s impossible. Plus, the whole concept of punching up, as we use it today, makes people lazy and cruel. It has become a green light to be a bully, as long as you’re targeting ‘bad people’ such as Trump supporters.
You can really tell that for some writers, a switch flipped when they realized they could be sadistic assholes if they picked the right targets—and they found it really fun and exhilarating, and never looked back.
I very much agree with your broader point about the undesirability and unworkability of the "punching up/punching down" framework, but I especially love how quickly people like Harvilla who claim to subscribe to it will either change the rules or ignore reality to justify their own tastes. Another great example is the reaction to the more recent Chappelle specials and his jokes about trans people. People who loved Chappelle Show at its heyday needed to assure themselves that they had always been good guys but Chappelle had changed, so they adopted the line "he used to punch up but now he's punching down." But as Jesse Singal noted in a Substack post, during the period that Chappelle was supposedly "punching up", one of his most popular running bits was "crackheads are funny because of their willingness to totally debase themselves for crack."