Often times, you hear discussions of the “direction” that someone “punches.” While they may be talking about their street fighting—be it in real life or the iconic video game series—it’s more likely they are talking about the direction that one focuses ones critiques, be they erudite and mellifluously composed blog posts or fucking dank memes dunking on some idiots who deserve it. Left and right directionality is used to refer to someone’s political views, whereas the up/down is used to refer to someone’s clout, power, and visibility. One should aim to punch upward and to the right, though the latter is often not appreciated or wholly misunderstood.
The idea that one should “punch up” is not especially controversial. Any long-time fan of YouTube darling h3h3 will hear Ethan Klein refer to the concept on a number of occasions, especially in context of how their rapidly rising fame over the last few years have made it difficult to “punch up” and thus why they have drifted further from the reaction videos that used to be one of their channel’s staple. The Papa—that’s Papa John for the uninitiated—has blessed them with enough self-awareness to understand the importance of this. They also were wrongly targeted by—and fortunately won—a copyright infringement and defamation lawsuit from a creepy predator of a man whose video they dunked.
Ethan, as clever a comedian as he may be, also serves as an example of how the political left/right punching can be misunderstood. But first, it’s important to understand the person he is. Unlike some of the other anti-PC YouTubers, Ethan has expressed time and time again a desire to be progressive. He’s, with some awkwardness but clearly good faith, spoken out on subjects like transgender issues. His wife, Hila, has spoken about how important feminism is to her, which Ethan seems to highly respect.
The problem is that Ethan politicizes what is ultimately more anger than anything—anger that often even comes from a place quite possibly to his right. Ethan mistakes social justice as being a “far left” topic, when in reality it is an active subject among all of the greater left-wing and involves everyone from centrist Clinton worshippers to Anarcho-Communists.
That’s not to say it’s best to view these actions through the lens of “punching right,” though. If they are, it is not much, and they are punching more down than anything. Ethan often recognizes that he is the much maligned “cis white male,” though he does not understand how attacks along those lines are often punching down.
As a queer trans woman myself, I know how much the world can wear you down as society finds new and exciting ways to devalue and dehumanize you for who you are. The anger that “SJWs” manifest is often hard for people who don’t experience that first-hand to understand. That’s not to say that a lot of the most extreme anger coming from people under the banner of social justice is productive. Anger can be channeled into productive ways. Discomfort is productive. Used well, anger can make someone reflect on their actions.
One of the reasons I’m perhaps more patient than most with Ethan is that on some level, even if I cringe at my good faith naivety, I feel I can relate to him. For a period of time, back when I was deeply depressed and desperately trying my darnedest to be happy as a guy, I ran a subreddit focused on the “ShitRedditSays” community that angrily mocked redditors for their displays of bigotry. My perspective was not that they were wrong to do so, but that they were bad progressives, so to speak. However, I was wrong to be so critical. SRS affords people a community where they can punch up viciously without experiencing anyone punching back down at them.
Of course, that is an isolated space for people to express that anger and not a place where that anger regularly interacts with the real world. It’s understandable when someone is met with hostility that they react with defensiveness and attempts (however righteous or not) at justification. Things get messy. However, while some extreme tactics are genuinely deserving of condemnation, it’s important to realize this anger is from desire to “punch up,” and it is crucial to have that awareness when evaluating these sorts of behaviors.
This is the exact reason why the attempts to equivocate stuff like “white people are the fucking worst” with actual racism directed at people of color is so off-base: in the context of directional punching, the former is punching up and the latter is punching down. The key takeaway here is that while social justice can rightly be viewed as a left-wing phenomenon, the nature of identity politics is such that one almost always winds up commenting either “down” to a marginalized group or “up” to the group that is not marginalized.
The irony of all of this misunderstanding, of course, is that the “far left” is attacked for being so “extreme” that it alienates “moderates” (read: people who were mostly going to vote Republican one way or another anyway) and thus is effectively throwing marginalized groups under the bus. This is insincere bullshit coming from neoliberal talking heads designed to stall any meaningful progress, not for marginalized groups but anyone but the ultra-wealthy.
A lot of Ethan’s self-professed beliefs outside of social justice in particular sound somewhat reminiscent of the folks at Chapo Trap House. His aesthetic isn’t far from the typical Dirtbag Leftist either. Given most of the hosts are cis white men, they routinely have to deal with misplaced left-punching criticism under the guise of poorly applied social justice principles. When Ethan maligns the “far left cult of outrage,” he fails to realize that sort of “cultish” behavior is often used to punch left more than to punch right.
This left-punching from largely Democrat-voting people is one of the biggest impediments to the progress that so many people on the Left want to see realized. Something that should be as obvious as guaranteed, quality healthcare for everyone is framed as “too idealistic” in a time when people are pushing for a repeal of Obamacare because of ballooning healthcare costs that something like Medicare For All could ameliorate. Ensuring minimum wage is fair and livable gets turned into “wishing for a pony.”
The dangers of punching left are thus wholly quite different than punching down—they’re macro, they’re societal. Punching left keeps us from moving forward in ways we should as a society to make sure that we should take care of everyone. Punching down in many contexts is little more than bullying that is exploiting the struggle of someone’s lesser place in life against them.
When in doubt, try to interpret something vertically, rather than horizontally, as the immediate negative impact of the latter is far greater. So often when you see someone being “ridiculous,” you’re seeing them at their worst. While it’s great to goof on someone like Peter Daou who is having a meltdown and playing the victim despite having his mediocre WordPress site endorsed by Clinton, the last thing someone posting about how “men are trash” needs is a lecture about how that’s sexist when the reason she is saying so in the first place is likely to be from a lot of punches down from men.
There’s nothing wrong with humor or criticism, but when analyzing your own actions or making decisions, the lens of directional punching provides a useful tool to evaluate the morality of your actions. By focusing on punching up and punching left—and making that upward when there’s any doubt—one has the weight of justice behind their memetic antics.