For the Uninitiated: Punching Up


Punching up: is a term for deploying powerful techniques of criticism and rhetoric to critique and dismantle power structures, rather than to harm people disempowered relative to yourself.  Source: Geek Feminism

‘Punching up’ is a concept that originates from an unwritten rule of comedy, in which the idea is to make fun of powerful people and institutions rather than people who have been disempowered by their acts.

This is an especially popular ‘rule’ amongst comedians who attempt to tackle edgy or taboo topics.  For example, a comedian attempting to address a declicate topic such as Islamiphobia or rape culture is likely to ‘punch up’ by ensuring that it is the perpetrators of the crime that are the butt of the joke, as apposed to the victims.

‘Punching up’ has become an increasingly popular concept within modern social justice movements, in part because it helps them to define and legitimize their own perception and understanding of the ethics behind their activism and goals.

The ethics of flooding the Twitter mentions of a celebrity who said something sexist are different from those of flooding the mentions of someone from a disempowered group who said something snarky about your sexism. Reddit User.

Critics note three particular problems with the utilisation of ‘punching up’ as a technique within modern activism.  Firstly, it is virtually impossible for groups to agree on definitive criteria for assigning reasonable victim or aggressor status.

Especially within groups with opposing beliefs, priorities or interests this can allow false dichotomies to be established and consequently a context where people believe it is acceptable for them to behave in an overtly aggressive (sometimes even illegal) manner because they are (or are championing) the ‘victim’.

Not only can this proposed ethical framework be utilised to justify the ‘victim’s’ own actions, it can also be employed to insist that the ‘aggressor’ target has no right of reply, or even right to defend themselves.


The problems inherent in utilising the concept of ‘punching up’ within a social justice context ultimately means that it is possible for passive aggressive bullies to appropriate the framework to justify extreme and overtly unethical behaviour, whilst at the same time scaring any potential critics into silence (see also: quantum superstate feminism).

At it’s worst it means that some people genuinely believe that they have the right to assault someone in front of a group of onlookers and demand that the perceived ‘aggressor’ target in this ‘power dynamic’ has no right of complaint or defence because, you know, equality n’all.

I kind of like to think that, while I know my success in life is the result of a fortuitous mix of luck and hard work, I’m not punching anybody. Redit user

Next | Born to Reign Over Us?


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