Monday, 28 July 2014

Punching Up and Down

A little maxim I seem to be reading more and more frequently goes something along the lines that "It is a fine and proper thing to punch up but one ought never to punch down"

Clearly this is not intended as helpful advice to budding pugilists; indeed, it is not referring to punching in the literal sense at all. In actual fact, the punching involved is very much of the verbal type, with the advice intended to refer to who we can legitimately target with our criticisms and our condemnation (and our humour, though that is not so much under critique here) with the thrust being that we must never take aim at those less privileged than ourselves but can freely take pot shots at those more privileged.

The metaphor is not one I like at all. Whether viewed directly or by way of analogy back to the business of actually physically striking another person I find little to love in this idea.

Surely, in either case, it is not the size of the target but the justification behind the blow we intend to land.

I would certainly hope (to reverse the metaphor back) that no-one would suggest that the acceptability of delivering a real physical punch depends critically upon the physical mass of the person you are punching. That kind of mentality reminds me of my adolescence and the oft-repeated mantra "it is ok to punch a man but it is never ok to strike a woman". No! It is NOT ok to strike ANYONE, regardless of gender and regardless of your relative body masses, UNLESS there is sufficient justification (self defence, perhaps?)!

So surely it also goes, in just the same way, with a metaphorical punching? It is simply NOT acceptable to "punch up" unless there is something objectionable that warrants it. Yet if the same objectionable behaviour or attitude is exhibited by someone deemed less privileged why on earth should we give it a free pass? Moreover, is it not somewhat insulting to grant those a free pass? As if somewhat condescendingly we somehow do not feel that they can be held to the same standards.

The real issue I have with this idea is that it smacks of politically gerrymandering exchanges and yet another tool to adopt to stifle debate and response. After all, what is being appealed to here is a deliberate manipulation of dialogue to allow one side a chance to strike a blow (punch up) against a target we will, at best, allow only to passively defend themselves and certainly never take aim in return.

It is not about whether the target is bigger than you, it is about whether they deserve to be punched in the first place.

Thanks for reading


PS: Whilst this venting was not related to "don't punch down, punch up" in relation to criticisms of jokes I must make comment on a blog piece I read relating it to rape jokes ( The blogger claims that rape jokes are funny when the butt of the joke is the rapist but not when the butt of the joke is the violated party and this is because of punching up (good) vs punching down (bad). I think the blogger misses the point here. Regardless of your views on rape jokes, the difference between these two categories is not the level of privilege of a perpetrator vs a victim it is the very fact that one party has committing a terrible wrong and the other party has been wronged against.

If you are "punching" someone, rich or poor, meek or mighty, UP OR DOWN on the grounds that they have been wronged against then your punching is out of order regardless of what angle it subtends from the horizontal.


  1. I've never heard the phrase used in any context other than when referring to comedy. In that by "punching up" the comedian is, potentially, pricking pomposity whereas "punching down" will simply, more often than not, appear to be bullying. In other words it's about talking truth to power. However, in the context of social and political criticism it, like you said, makes no sense.

    1. thanks Dorian.
      I have seen tis broader use quite a lot the last month or two. PZ Myers Pharyngula entry on the Benson/Dawkins joint statement on online bullying is a case in point where a number of commenters used the punching up/down metaphor in these kinds of contexts.

      You are correct with comedians,however. At the very least it can look as somewhat picking on a weak target