In a superb piece Frankie Boyle raises the question of what counts as punching up:
You might have imagined that routines "punching up" against the big targets of the day would have to involve the international banking system; the arms industry; or even just the fact that the entire world is about to disappear screaming under boiling waves. To the well trained ear of the English middle classes, an authentic target is more likely to be something like "star signs".
Although "punch up, don't punch down" is a principle of some comedians, it's one I too try to follow, albeit no doubt imperfectly. Punching down is mean-spirited bullying and, when it takes the form of attacking the unemployed or immigration (pdf), it is economically ill-informed blaming the victim. Richard Murphy on the other hand might have his faults, but he is to be admired for punching up.
It's in this context that I found Brendan O'Neill's complaint that identity politics has created an army of narcissistic cowards so irritating. "Narcissistic cowards" is a good phrase. But isn't it a better description of big business? It's narcissism to believe that you have the skills to control a big organization from the top down. It's narcissism to believe that you deserve to earn hundreds of times more than your employees. It's cowardice to hide corporate crime and incompetence behind libel laws, PR flummery and advertising budgets. And it's cowardice - in the form of years of being scared to invest - that has given us mass unemployment and stagnant real wages across western economies.
Rather than punch up and attack the big targets, however, O'Neill punches down at student politics.
So much for my instincts. There are, however two caveats here.
One is that punching down does sometimes hit deserving targets. Death threats against Peter Tatchell are to be deplored - though those of us who remember the Bermondsey by-election savour the irony of the rightist and centrist press being so solicitous of Mr Tatchell's well-being. And those beneath us are sometimes guilty of racism, sexism, religious fanaticism and bigotry. These things can't always be blamed on poverty: Josh Parsons (who in being a racist, Chelsea fan and Ukipper has achieved the perfect hat-trick of cuntitude) went to Millfield.
Secondly, what counts as punching down? O'Neill and his like probably believes that he's punching up because he's oppressed by the "PC brigade". When Simon criticizes Osborne's austerity he's punching downwards intellectually, as are many critics of Iain Duncan Smith. This is acceptable because he's punching up politically. But what about when some Ukip candidate is ridiculed for an idiotic statement? Is this reasonable punching up against a politically influential movement, or bullying a hapless inadequate?
These caveats mean that the rule "punch up, don't punch down" has many exceptions. Despite this, I'm going to try to stick to it. One justification for doing so is simple cognitive diversity: whilst there's never a shortage of people willing to punch down, there often is of those willing to punch up.