The Limitations of Punching Up
The Best Satire Attacks All Sides
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Back in 2014, I was reading online reviews of the first book in my Internet Apocalypse trilogy, when I came across a reader who found the novel problematic. The issue, he wrote, was that my book satirized all members of society equally. I reread the criticism many times, confused how the equal distribution of criticism had somehow led to an unjust result. After all, I had always been inspired by dramatist George Wolfe, who said (paraphrasing) that the highest form of satire critiqued both sides of an argument. But increasingly I began hearing from some friends and writers that good satire only punched in one direction, specifically up. The concept is that satirists should stay focused on attacking only those in power or at least those typically associated with success and comfort.
Last year, Gary Trudeau put forth that argument when he condemned the slaughtered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, for what he called their near “hate speech.” Whether Hebdo’s various controversial cartoons typically involving Islamic fundamentalism were artistically valid or flawed gave way to Trudeau’s larger and generalized pronouncement that great satirists “always punched up.” The purpose of satire, he said, was to “comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.” Humor publications seemed to agree, and some I wrote for even included “punching up” requirements in their guidelines. So now, in 2016, with the release of Reports on the Internet Apocalypse, I wanted to examine what has become an accepted maxim for satire writers, and explain that despite its omnipresence and good intentions, the phrase “good satire always punches up” is not only false and ill-informed, but ultimately dangerous to the future of the art form.
By its very definition, satire is concerned not with identity or social standing, but behavior. Specifically, satire is a literary device designed to expose and mock human vice and folly. Accordingly, it is not satirists’ job to ensure the behavior being attacked is being perpetrated only by the highest members of society. Instead, satirists expose and explain all of humanity’s failings with humor.
Being careful with our definition is no mere pedantic point because adherents of “punching up” like Trudeau seem to be conflating satire with mere ridicule. Indeed, Trudeau declared “[r]idiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.” And who would disagree? Everyone knows you shouldn’t put a stumbling block before the blind or kick someone when they’re down. But by definition, satire is not mere ridicule, and the “punching up” rule should not be confused with valid prohibitions against victimizing the most vulnerable members of society. The downtrodden don’t need rules to keep them safe from satire because satire, by its very definition, is self-limiting.
Again, for satire to be satire it must attack not mere identity but actual vice and illogic. Being part of a minority, whether that’s being black, Latino, Jewish, gay, or any other oppressed class is neither a failing nor an affront to reason. If you go up to a homeless guy and roll your eyes, saying, “Hey, nice shirt!” that’s not satire, and no one has ever mistook it for satire. Same with polish jokes or dumb blonde jokes. Insult humor never professes to be exposing character flaws or wrongheaded thinking. And of course that kind of humor becomes especially unkind when directed at the disenfranchised. But by the same token, members of groups outside the ruling class are not exempt from satire when exhibiting flaws worthy of being satirized.
It is difficult to understand how this “punching up” position has become so entrenched given satire’s long history of critiquing the folly of those both within and outside of the ruling class. Take a novel like Don Quixote, one of the most revered books in literary history. Readers have understood the novel as a rebuke of a world so wicked that only an insane man has the capacity to see justice. But Don Quixote, weak, old, and with a troubled mind deluded by too many badly written books, is also an object of ridicule. His age and instability do not get him a pass. Cervantes takes great delight in wringing dark comedy out of Quixote’s wrong-headed sense of importance and nobility. Early in his journey, Quixote believes he’s come to the aid of an overworked and underpaid shepherd and demands the boy’s master pay him all that he is owed. Quixote rides off, thinking he has done a good deed, but all his bravado has really accomplished is getting the boy whipped until he’s near dead.
Franz Kafka routinely skewered both oppressors and the oppressed in his fiction. While The Trial exposes an arbitrary and byzantine justice system, Kafka’s greatest attacks are reserved for Joseph K, the victim of that injustice. Kafka mocks K’s groundless sense of self-importance and hypocrisy. In one scene K grandstands, claiming the justice system is obsessed with sex, and in the next, he misses a meeting with his own lawyer to court a sexy maid. Elsewhere, a group of accused rise when K enters the room which he believes is a sign of respect before he learns they rose from pity, believing K to be a hopeless case. Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist also takes shots at characters on both sides of the power equation. The story, which involves a performer who captivates audiences with long fasts, condemns the amoral and capitalistic practices of a cruel circus that treats the “artist” worse than a caged animal once he falls into obscurity. But by the story’s conclusion Kafka explains the protagonist is not an artist at all, and deserves no acclaim. Starvation is his natural state and his art required neither training nor discipline to perform. Even a desiccated wisp of a man, abused and forgotten by a cruel system, is not safe from Kafka’s critique when that character has flaws to expose.
Or far more recently, let’s look at the great “Celebrity Trial Jury Selection” skit from The Chappelle Show. There, Chappelle satirizes a black juror seemingly incapable of convicting any black celebrity whether it be Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, or R. Kelly. Chappelle mocks those in the black community who required an unreasonable level of proof to secure a conviction — including testimony from R. Kelly’s own grandmother personally identifying Kelly on the sex tape of him urinating on a minor. And yes, in the same skit, Chappelle also masterfully skewers a justice system so corrupt and racist that it naturally has given birth to skeptical black juries. In the spirit of the George Wolfe quote above, Chappelle has satirized all aspects of the argument and delivered ridicule wherever he found folly. He did not dole out disproportionate mockery based on his targets’ social standings. He did not only punch up. Good satire punches up and down. It punches anything that needs a punch.
Sure, criticizing multiple groups or sides of an argument at once can be complicated, but if your target is so clearly evil (corrupt politicians, fallen preachers, criminals) I’d argue you don’t need a tool as wonderfully illuminative as satire. It’s like those moments on The Daily Show when the Republicans would do something so off the rails obstructionist that Jon Stewart would simply play a piece of video before looking at the camera and exclaiming, “What the F*ck?!” Of course, Jon Stewart has created some of the greatest political satire in the last fifteen years, but I doubt he’d point to those moments as the show’s highest achievements. Contrary to Mr. Trudeau’s words, that’s not satire at its best; its satire at its easiest. The kind of satire anyone can achieve. Just look at Twitter. Is there anyone online who can’t sarcastically reply to Donald Trump’s latest racist, sexist tweet? Surely, that can’t be the standard by which we judge satire.
And Twitter, along with the rest of the Internet is relevant to this discussion. In our current technological world, we can TIVO out commercials, download individual songs from full albums, and subscribe only to sites that deliver the news we want to hear. In short, we’ve become tyrants to our own experience, creating comfortable, personalized worlds. We’ve not only become accustomed to comfort, we’ve become hostile to discomfort. But satire trades in that discomfort. It relies on visceral reactions to create moments of reflection that lead to deeper understanding.
Just look at the most famous example of satire in the English language: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift attempted to stir English apathy towards the plight of the starving Irish by proposing the consumption of Irish babies. First off, it’s not entirely accurate to say this piece “punched up” by critiquing the cold English ruling class. Instead, some have argued that the impetus of the piece was to criticize charity groups who at that time had incredibly convoluted and impractical proposals for dealing with Irish poverty. If that’s true “A Modest Proposal” would be punching sideways at best.
But more importantly, the notion of eating babies is meant to make readers uncomfortable — to make them reflect on what’s causing the discomfort and what can be done to stop it. Perhaps, that’s a reaction we’ve lost the stomach for these days, but if you’re reading “A Modest Proposal” and shut down at the mention of infanticide, odds are slim you’ll reach the point of illumination. The deepest lessons learned are often those the hardest going down. That is a vital source of satire’s power, and I hope we never grow so fond of our comfort that we lose the chance to learn about all sides of an argument. If satirists are doing their job, they’ll attack wherever there is illogical or bad behavior to be found, and we’ll be glad we kept their hands free to do so.