I recently watched Hannah Gadsby’s comedic tour-de-force, Douglas. It is sharp and provocative – but wonderfully insightful. In the course of her performance, Hannah explains that she applies to her humour the principle of ‘punching up’.

It is an approach employed by comics when deciding who is a legitimate target for ridicule and satire. The idea is pretty simple, it’s fine to take aim at someone who is more powerful than you – but never those who are relatively weaker. The operating assumption is that the powerful are unlikely to be harmed by a bit of fun at their expense, while the weaker have suffered enough without having to cope with a comic’s insults.

The idea of ‘punching up’ seems to have taken on a life beyond the world of comedy. More generally, those who stand higher up the ladder of power and privilege are now expected to accept, without retaliation or reproach, whatever comes their way from those located on lower rungs of the ladder. Sitting at the top are cis-gendered, white men, like me. If we complain, then this is just evidence of our ‘thin skin’ and an inability to take a serving of what we have been dishing out for millennia.

It is easy to identify who is currently at the top of the ladder. However, beyond that point, working out the relativities of who is ‘up’ or ‘down’ becomes increasingly difficult. After all, there is no natural hierarchy of power, privilege, disadvantage or subjugation.

Instead, positions change as the wheel of history turns – with some groups ascending at one point only to see their position reversed at another. For example, consider the case of the Aztecs. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, they commanded an empire built on the conquest, enslavement and ritual sacrifice of those who fell under their sway. Yet, today, their descendants are a dispossessed people with an extraordinarily resilient culture that has survived centuries of attempted suppression by their colonisers.

So, who gets to ‘punch up’ (or be ‘punched’) is relative to time and culture. The role of being a priestess can be at the apex of power and influence in one setting but marginalised in another. A banker can be reviled as a ‘usurer’ in the past only to be celebrated by future generations.

However, that’s not where the relativities end. Conduct that is condoned in one case will be condemned in another – even though the things done are identical. For example, what is praised as being ‘forthright’ in a man has often been criticised as ‘aggression’ in a woman. Asymmetry of judgement also applies in the context of ‘punching up’. Behaviour that is justifiably condemned in a powerful person is often excused or ignored if practiced by a relatively powerless individual.

So, what are we to make of this? First, let’s acknowledge that there are some individuals and groups who have been systematically marginalised, over such a long period of time, as to deserve the opportunity to ‘even things up’ in any contest. Only those blinded by prejudice would deny this to be so.

However, this is not to say that relative historical disadvantage should excuse anything done – just as long as it is directed at the relatively powerful. A person fighting a stronger adversary may pick up a stick to ‘even the odds’ – but it would be wrong for them to attack an unarmed person with a firearm. To do so would involve a disproportionate use of force.

Likewise, I think it wrong to belittle or vilify a person (any person) in a deliberate attempt to wound them with words. That is not comedy – it is abuse. Comics make a person uncomfortable as a way of drawing attention to an issue of underlying importance – but their aim is not (and should not be) to harm. To do otherwise is to adopt the stance of the bully … which is wrong whatever one’s relative position in life.

I realise that it is easy to recommend restraint when one belongs to a powerful or privileged group – as I do. However, I am not a supporter of relativism in ethics (or elsewhere). To wound another – willfully or recklessly – is wrong.

The fact that it occurs as a result of anger or frustration might explain such behaviour – but it does not justify it. I know that this will be a view unpopular with those who have a taste for revenge – who believe in the proverbial ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. However, I prefer the position of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote that:

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”

Yes, great wrongs need to be made right – but justice cannot be produced by injustice.

So, does this load the greater obligation onto the shoulders of those who have traditionally been on the wrong end of the stick? On the contrary, those of us who enjoy the greatest power and privilege should accept the greatest obligation to act ethically … not least because we have the capacity to do so.

We should begin by recognising and redressing the disparities of our day; we should acknowledge that we did not earn our privileged position – but were simply lucky enough to be born blessed with opportunity. It is not out of guilt, but with a sense of justice, that we should seek to redress historical and contemporary sources of inequity.

Perhaps then the urge to punch will eventually be assuaged, and something better – that could never have grown in the soil of anger and resentment – can emerge to see the light of day.

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