Guest post: On punching up

Guest post by Bruce Everett

I’ve always had a lingering suspicion about the rule to “never punch down/only punch up”. What started out as a heuristic for comedians seems to be apt at morphing into a kind of social contagion along the lines of what Bertrand Russell wrote about in ‘The Superior Virtue of The Oppressed’.

Yes, people are oppressed to varying extents. No, that’s not good. Neither is taking advantage of people’s social standing to enact sadism for shits and giggles. Conflict occurs across the power differentials. That’s not disputed.

But in practice, and especially in groups of people, this rule doesn’t always seem to work so well.

For one, it appeals to people’s sentiments and naturally, people forget why the rule exists and just try and wing the spirit of it, whatever the fuck that may be. Eventually you can wind up with things like “the most oppressed in the room can do whatever the fuck they want, including not putting up with any doubt that they are the most oppressed in the room, which is LITERAL VIOLENCE!”

Pretty soon after things metastasize this far, without reference to any material fact you wind up with people in unassailable positions, irrespective of whether or not they as an individual or as a member of a social group, are actually most oppressed, effectively with license to do anything to members of any other oppressed group. And when they actually do “anything”, people act all surprised and then make excuses.

I can’t help but notice this also seems more pronounced when the person on the receiving end is a woman, and the person dishing it out is a man. Maybe that’s just my biases.

Then there are the pile-ons. The first step is for the purported or actually most oppressed person to have a go at someone who may very well have actually done something wrong, who may actually be an oppressed person themselves… and then a bunch of usually white, upper-middle class shits will come along and harangue the person on the receiving end for “punching down”. Never mind if they’ve just condescended to someone more disadvantaged than them – they’re doing it in alliance with The Most Oppressed, so all’s good.

“Oh, it does feel ever so good to be able to condescend to someone less advantaged than me, and for it to make me such a good ally, Tarquin. This system licenses it!”
“Oh, I know. It’s especially good when I do it to old feminists. It’s like calling them “bitch” or “feminazi”, but without the fear of being seen as a sexist pig. Just be sure to bring someone along who is able to punch up first – you only need to bring one of them. #TokenismYay

Even people who are aware that social justice causes/activist circles attract narcissists like ants to a picnic, will fail to realize that the mere prospect of the status of unassailability within such a milieu is all that much more attractive. There is inherent vagary in “don’t punch down” and don’t think for a second narcs won’t weaponize it if they can.

“Which way’s down in this case?”
“I’m not sure. Better be cautious and assume the shouty person knows.”
“Oh, yes. And we’d better not doubt them, because that’d be punching down too!”
“True. We must signal our support by following through when their voice is too hoarse to repeat themselves!”
“Oh dear, they just kicked the shit out of that lesbian.”
“That’s not good. But remember, we can’t expect people to be perfect in their activism and it is difficult to be a activist and suffer from the social stigma of Morgellons at the same time. Perhaps if we give them more time and attention in future, this kind of thing won’t happen again. We need to love them more!”
“Yes. Is it time tell the lesbian off now?”
“Of course. But I don’t think we use the word “lesbian” anymore.”
“[At lesbian] DAMN YOU… THING!?! You provoked them! How would you like to be a Furry with Morgellons? Non-human animals are the most oppressed group!”
“You’re such a good feminist, Tarquin. #woke

And of course, just addressing this is practically impossible. The terms of the problem preclude discussing it from any angle other than that of the outsider.

And there’s the bait and switch between strict and equivocal definitions as the last barrier. For decision making within the group, the definition is equivocal, and made up on the fly for the convenience of whoever is in power. For criticism from outside the group, any questioning of “don’t punch down” is defined into literally excusing abusing disadvantaged people – end of story.

I can’t think of any solution other than to step away and start again once this shit takes hold. At least, not outside of groups that allow you to clear house with elections. Even then, that’s hard and requires the opportunity to organize.

I don’t envy people who don’t have the option to walk away.

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