Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Punching down" and other moral inanities

In the ever-widening world of PC word taboos, there is "punching down", as in one should not "punch down" (i.e. verbally attack or make fun of folk who are less privileged or empowered than oneself). It sees to have originally started in the field of comedy, so the origins of the term probably has some connection to punch line (though possibly not). But if it did, it has rapidly lost any such connection.

Clearly, the notion of "punching down" is deeply connected to the idea that entertainment, culture and literary effort should be moralised in a very particular way. In particular, with a very particular set of rankings. If one meant the point literally, then no comedian earning $X amount annually should ever make fun of any earning $<X annually. The more money you make, the fewer people you could make fun of.

Obviously, that is not what is meant.

If not, why not?

Because we are dealing with entire categories of people who can allegedly be ranked in terms of privilege. This is problematic in so any ways that it is hard to know where to begin. For example, social advantage can play quite differently in otherwise similar societies: the common (and tedious) American assumption that their particular set of social advantages/disadvantages are shared by everyone does not actually work for the rest of the Anglosphere, let alone anyone else. (This is nicely discussed here.)

The second, much bigger problem, is that the proposed categories are way too crude to bear the moral weight being loaded onto them. SF author Larry Corriea zeroes in on this little difficulty:
I only say that because I grew up with all that fancy Portuguese Dairy Farmer Privilege, where I got to have an alcoholic mother and a functionally illiterate father (who is way darker skinned than Tempest), where I got to spend my formative years knee deep in cow shit at 3:00 AM, so that I could later work my way through Utah State (only after getting a scholarship for my freshmen year because I knew a whole lot about cows), to then spend my adult life working corporate drone jobs of increasing difficulty and skill requirements, all while writing on the side while I supported my family, until I could make it as a professional author.
Lecture us more about privilege, Tempest. It’s fascinating.
A comment on Reddit:
The entire punching up/down concept appears to be nothing more than an attempt at a caste system.
Has a certain amount of truth to it. As is so often the case within the PC-universe, we are dealing with a word-obsessed vulgar (very vulgar) Marxism of very broad categories which are nevertheless highly moralised. Comedy is a particularly poor vehicle for such crude categorising, as it so depends on context.

In the specific case of satire, the entire approach is even more wrong-headed as the essence of satire is surely targeting absurdities wherever they lie.

Part of what is going on here is a public discussion about good taste. But, as that is an "elitist" conception, it has to be passed off as "concern for the oppressed/underprivileged/disadvantaged" for people who cannot seem to make a substantive moral judgement if it is not on the oppressor-oppressed axis (from the three-axes model of political discourse). This post seems to be groping towards "folks, it's just bad form". By comparison, this post really cannot get out of the oppressed/oppression rut, to the extent that not getting labels right is "oppression".

One has to live in a very open and tolerant society if issues of labels are matters of "oppression". In fact, it is a rather indecent moral inflation, given the amount of serious oppression that exists in the world today. (Overwhelmingly, of course, outside the West.)

One takes it that satirising Christianity would not be "punching down", but satirising Islam  apparently is, or is likely to be, or something. (Even though Christians are far more likely to be subject to religious persecution in the world today, just not in the West.) This is some of the crudest categorising of all, given the great diversity of perspective among actual Muslims/people of Muslim heritage (Islam being both a religion and a civilisation). As this post alludes to, bundling Muslims/people of Muslim heritage together gives aid and comfort to genuinely oppressive religious forces (who are, as I have said elsewhere, the Nazism of our times).

Murderously oppressive, as instanced in the recent murder of Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger and writer Dr. Avijit Roy; the murder a few months ago of a Bangladeshi sociology professor, Professor Shafiul Islam, who opposed full-face veils; previous murders of (warning--violent images), and assassination attempts on, atheist bloggers and writers: all murders in a single Muslim country by people who think words terribly important--because they want to control public space, to control what can be said--and are very willing to murder to do so.
Torchlight procession in honour of slain writer and in protest at his murder.

There is another indecent moral inflation which struck me when I came across the term "punching down". That is conflating words with violence. If one makes words terribly, terribly important--particularly if one starts using terms which allude to violence ("punching down", "micro-aggression")--then that has the effect of minimising the difference between words and actual violence. The effect is to lower the moral weight of actual violence--moral weight not being an indefinitely expandable resource, given human cognitive limits and time constraints.

It is the difference between saying "you just don't kill people over words and cartoons" and "but we have to consider the particular words and cartoons". No, actually we don't. And that the more PC you are, the less you get that is a sign of how political correctness's serious over-weighting of the importance of words actually degrades, rather than elevates, moral understanding.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. ya the idea that more successful people should not have as much say as less successful people seems likely to yield less success