The Least-Understood Basis of Morality…Comes from Stand-up Comedy

Most people think they’re good people. But most people tend to take a much dimmer view of other people’s morality.

Some people think they’re inherently bad people. For the most part, these folks are damaged by experiences — usually in childhood, but not always. They made a bad decision or bad decisions, and that colors their entire self-image.

Other people are entirely un-self-critical. They lack the awareness to understand that they are not the center of the universe, and that their actions, words, and deeds are not justified by their self-illusion that they are the protagonist in the movie that is their life.

And even people who have a more balanced view of their own goodness or the goodness of their decisions or actions still sometimes feel lost. If you’re anything like I was, you also might have noticed that religion (which is generally regarded by religious people as the fount of all morality) really has nothing to do with morality. There are good people who are atheists and bad people (like…really bad people) who are religious. There are ideas in religion that are immoral (and I can already tell that I’m going to lose some religious readers here, but bear with me a bit further please): that asking for absolution cleanses away sinful behavior, that prayer leads to morality, that going to a church or a temple or a mosque makes a person good.

(Atheists — you guys bear with me, too, please. I’m sure none of this is a surprise to you, but there’s still something I want you to understand, too).

What if I told you that the single most powerful guidepost for personal morality and for moral judgement is a simple phrase that is extremely well-known in comedy circles?

You ready for it?

“Punch Up.”

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

It means that good comedy aligns with power disparities. A good comedian punches up. Good comedy is funny because punching down is not funny.

Punching up is the comedian using the power she has on the stage to point the power of the satirical gaze on the right target: someone more powerful than the comedian, more powerful than the general level of the audience (though not always! It can sometimes be at the audience itself!). But it should never ever punch down.

A comedian who gets on stage and directs all her focus on a handicapped child with cancer would get booed off stage in short order.

Race is an uncomfortable reality in this country, and the best comedians deal with race in comedy deftly, by acknowledging racial differences, but poking fun along the power lines. Confining the discussion to your own race is fairly safe in that sense. If you’re making fun of your own race, you’re generally seen as okay in terms of comic terms, though you might be on dangerous ground when it’s seen as an invitation for the audience generally to use your viewpoint and stories to criticize people in your race when they themselves aren’t.

You see where this is going yet?

“Punch Up” is a compass.

And I’m here to tell you that any system of morality that doesn’t have something like “Punch Up” at its core is not worth having. Not worth considering, not worth adhering to, not worth spreading, not worth encouraging. In fact, we should take real steps to prevent those kinds of systems and structures from going any further, because if you’re not punching up, then you’re pretty okay with punching down.

Punching down prevents sick people from getting healthcare they need.

Punching down keeps elderly people working until they die because they can’t afford to retire with dignity.

Punching down is saying “Blue Lives Matter” because you dislike the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Before you fight me on this, you might want to look more carefully at the power disparity between black people and police. Police wield far greater power than black people do, and are afforded every benefit of the doubt by this country’s society, legally, economically, and in every other sense.

But right now? Something slightly less than a third of this country are morally lost. They punch down at every opportunity they can, because the guy who still leads them, who they like to pretend is a good person, has the exact opposite driving principle from the one I just described to you: he only punches down. He’s brave when others can’t fight back. He’s racist, he’s misogynist, he’s a million terrible things before bedtime, and so much of that boils down to the fact that he cannot and will not punch up, and if you want proof of that, find a picture of him simpering next to Vladimir Putin, and you’ll understand exactly what I’m saying.

So this is your handy compass. I invite you to pull it out when the people around you start looking at you funny and you start feeling defensive. Ask yourself, is what I’m doing right now punching up…or down? And then if you’re punching down…go take a break. Mumble an excuse, get out of there and go think about things.

Your job — your basic monkey job — is to look out for others. But not everyone. You need to look out for the people who need it, and they don’t owe you politeness, gratitude, or anything else. You, on the other hand, owe it to yourself to be a good person, and that starts with standing up for the people you might not have been standing up for.

Once you do that…once we all do that…then we’ll be on the path to that promised “more perfect union.”

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