We must first realize that the idea of “punching down” creates two categories of speech: Speech that critiques the deemed powerful (punching UP) and speech which critiques the deemed weak (punching DOWN). Lets begin with the primary assumption: There is speech that is morally praiseworthy and speech that is morally blameworthy. I don’t think most readers would disagree with such a premise. But there are a few other questions involved.
Who decides who falls into the punching down group? On what criterion do they make this judgement and is it coherent? Should speech be judged by the power relations between speakers or the content and context of that speech? Does categorizing an entire group as the “Punched-down” create its own problems? Lastly, what is the practical effect of this meme?
As this meme originates from the American Left, the question of “who decides” is clear. On what criterion do they evaluate? That is determined by a smaller sliver of the growing academic (what I call authoritarian) left. The criterion by which they decide who is “up” and who is “down” is based on an identity politics that is becoming rampant among the academic left. Viewed through their lens, anyone who is a minority in the US (ie. not white) is being “punched down” to in nearly every social interaction in which they are criticized. Despite the fact that power positions are fluid (one might be an assistant manager at work, but a religious patriarch at home) the ideology which decides who’s “down” and who’s “up” is deaf to such nuance. It further ignores the fact that Religion is a source of power as is out and out violence. A real world example is that of Bashar al Assad. His Alawite sect is a minority not simply world wide, but even in his own area of influence. Yet, he and his sect control power because they control violence, via control of the state army, and retain this power through the unity brought about by religious affiliation. This is a perfect example of why we should not judge who is in the “weak” position based off of nothing more than where they fall, as a whole, in the internal power struggles of the US. Further, simply because an individual is a minority here, does not negate that they may be a vast majority in other parts of the world and the power of their ideologies does not stop at borders. Lastly, to confuse or conflate the criticism of the actions and ideas of a speaker with the race of a speaker is profoundly unhelpful.
Next, by defining a minority group as a monolithic whole and letting only its loudest members serve as spokesmen, the framework behind “punching down” disenfranchises the smaller minority within that group: its dissidents and reformers. If to criticize a minority is to “punch down” no-matter-what, then internal dissidents must be silenced as well. In fact many uses of the “punching down” meme have been used against such dissidents when they criticize their own minority group. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali springs to mind.) Aside from being a blatantly contradictory use of this meme (how does a minority within a minority punch down?), it highlights the probability that this meme is not used to protect minorities, but is instead used to police speech that does not conform to the ideals of the authoritarian left.
We can also see a sinister side in the way “punching down” is used in practice. Many who employ the phrase begin by saying something like “I believe in free speech, but the writer was punching down.” This is to confer a negative moral judgement upon the writer and the implication that while they can write this, they shouldn’t. If the writer has just suffered violent reprisal for their thought and writing, the phrase also implies that the writer had it coming. You know this is the case when sentences surrounding the meme include words like “provocative”, “incendiary”, or “offensive”. The only logical use of such a statement is to “chill” speech the in-group does not like. “Yes, you can technically say things that our framework doesn’t approve of, but you shouldn’t and will be castigated if you do.” I leave the entirety of Twitter as evidence of this fact.
The meme also creates some deep ironies for its creators. While being vocal defenders of women’s rights, gay/trans/queer rights, etc., they fall into contradiction when faced with minority groups that have long histories of misogyny and homophobia. Yet, the slightest criticism of these tendencies from outsiders to the group, or even dissidents within it, is met with the charge of “punching down”. These champions for the protection of women and gays jettison these concerns without a second thought. This internal contradiction is explained away by the hierarchy of oppression. For example; Muslims are more oppressed than white women and gay men, so that trumps any concern that those same Muslims may also oppress women and gay men.
The last thing I wish to highlight is that beyond the contradictions this creates in the phrase’s users, it also causes them to engage in a vile slight of hand. When the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were gunned down by two religious fanatics for the mere drawing of cartoons, many said the cartoonists were “punching down” towards these Muslims. That murdered cartoonists could be accused of “punching”, via a cartoon, the men who came with guns and killed them is absurd. But that the moral blame is shifted, through use of this phrase, to the cartoonists is absolutely depraved.
In summary then; this is a meme created by the authoritarian left intended to chill speech that doesn’t conform to their confused and contradictory framework that denies the power roles of religion and violence, ignores the fluidity of power positions in different situations, marginalizes dissidents within said minorities, becomes useless when issues conflict (race v women, race v gays, etc.) and at worst, causes one to become a moral cretin.
So let it be said: Those who wish to inflict violence against a peaceful population are the problem; the “UP” as it were. Those who use or dictate the use of violence and the willingness to implement it amongst an otherwise peaceful populace are the ones who should be “punched up” to. Anyone claims that those with intent to murder and harm the innocent are the powerless, have lost their claim to moral clarity.
“Punching down” should be abandoned by those who use it and ridiculed by those who know better.