I know a lot of people who criticize the concept of punching up, a criticism most succinctly put as “whatever direction you’re punching in, you’re still punching people.” However, I think that “punching up” is actually a pretty reasonable guideline for ethics in comedy.
I’m going to assume, in this post, that we’ve all agreed that mean comedy can, in some circumstances, be ethical. I suspect the majority of my audience agrees with this, unless they object on principle to Scott’s blog post where he compared Amanda Marcotte to a Vogon. I’m also only going to talk about “punching up” as ethics for comedy– in my opinion, the concept is badly misapplied when you take it outside that area.
Reasoning With Vampires— a blog in which a woman copyedits Twilight– is pretty damn funny. Imagine that there was an identical blog, the same in every single post, except that instead of Twilight it was critiquing a twelve-year-old girl’s very first Twilight fanfic, which was solely read by her and her five closest friends. The first one seems to me to be fun, entertaining, good-spirited snark; the second seems cruel. Why?
Well, Stephanie Meyer is an adult, and the fanfiction writer is twelve. Stephanie Meyer’s book was professionally published, while the fanfiction writer posted it on Fanfiction.net. Stephanie Meyer has millions of readers and several movies adapted from her work, while the fanfiction writer has no readers she hasn’t personally met an the closest thing her story has to an adaptation is the time her best friend drew a picture of her OCs. Stephanie Meyer has written other books, while this is the first thing the fanfiction writer ever wrote. Basically: Stephanie Meyer has power; the fanfiction writer doesn’t.
That works for individuals, but not all jokes are about individuals. Can we have a concept of ‘punching up’ that applies to groups? I believe so.
Imagine a comedian who shows the audience pictures of drowning Syrian refugees and then makes fun of them for having such goofy expressions on their faces. (And not in a “ha ha isn’t it absurd to make fun of someone for having a goofy facial expression while they’re dying” way– the Syrians are the butt of the joke.) It seems to me that a lot of people would find that somewhere between cringeworthy and appalling. They’re literally dying! Why are you making fun of them?
On the other hand, if a comedian makes jokes about politicians having goofy facial expressions, no one would object.
Of course, there’s some problem putting “punching up” in practice. There are a lot of people who are like “I’m making fun of this misogynist by calling him a fat neckbearded loser who sits in his mom’s basement all day playing WOW! Punching up!” But that’s a problem with a lot of ethical rules. For instance, when we try to fairly represent people’s viewpoints, we’ll often wind up strawmanning people we disagree with and claiming the strawmen are a fair representation of others’ views. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to fairly represent other people’s viewpoints; it means that whenever you have an ethical rule, some people will try to break it and claim that they aren’t doing so.
It seems to me that mean comedy has to have some concept of “fair game”. Viciously mocking the powerful, particularly those of the powerful who have used their power to hurt other people, feels fair: they knew what they were signing up for when they became powerful, and at the end of the day they can comfort themselves with their gobs of money and social privilege; having a sharp joke or two directed your way is karma. But if you viciously mock someone who is weak, or if you look at someone going through a lot of suffering and then add insult to their injury, you’re not funny. You’re just a bully.