Everyone Thinks They Are the Underdog

“Punching up” versus “punching down” is rarely so simple a calculus of power

David vs Goliath business concept with small man fighting big fist. Standing up to bullies and oppre...
Heart of Conflict

Some months ago, I got into a Twitter spat with a few moderately popular TV writers/comedians. It involved the subject of labor unions: specifically a growing rift within a certain writers guild, which at the time was having an existential crisis, with one faction wanting to halt organizing to prevent entire swathes of media workers from joining the union. I tweeted the names of a handful of screenwriters I liked who had unfortunately — whether unwittingly or not — cosigned that platform. My doing this appeared to irk some of the aforementioned writers and/or their friends, who made sure to let me know in no uncertain terms online.

If this all sounds terribly boring and convoluted, I promise that it was. But this quarrel at least was useful in solidifying for me a belief that I think can help explain many, if not most, interpersonal conflicts that take place on the internet: Everyone always thinks that they are the underdog in a fight.

For example, to the people with whom I was quarreling, I can imagine what my callout might have felt like: that an extremely prominent, influential, and drop-dead gorgeous Gawker writer (as my 8,000-odd followers attest to) was bullying comediennes who were all women of color, several of them Black — and an Asian woman, if you were curious — in an obvious instance of punching down. Why hadn’t I included the names of men or white people on my list of names that I said were “disappointing” to find endorsing a ticket whose main message was fear mongering about screenwriters being made a minority in their own guild? my critics demanded. But from my perspective, if I were forced to assign a direction, I would have said that I was punching up, since the subjects of my finger wagging were successful entertainment-industry creatives — and thus ostensibly possessed all the clout, connections, and tens of thousands of fans that that entails — whose most vocal advocates apparently sought to shut the door on fellow workers from a notoriously volatile, low-paid industry.

One might come to the generous conclusion that perhaps there was merit to what both sides were arguing. Maybe I didn’t need to give in to an unflattering impulse of sanctimony and name and shame those writers, some of whom might not have known what they were cosigning; maybe a few of those writers and their friends didn’t need to immediately reach for accusations of racism, as they did, to shut me down. I’ve accepted that it ultimately doesn’t really matter who was right and who was wrong. What mattered more in how this conflict played out was the way each side probably felt: targeted and maligned by someone holding presumably greater power, platform, or privilege. A victim, a scapegoat, an underdog.

As a general rule, we — as a culture, as a society, as a people whatever — love underdog narratives: David versus Goliath, Cinderella versus her cruel stepfamily, young Steve Jobs versus… I don’t know, his garage? This predilection is apparently borne out psychologically, with various studies suggesting that, at least when it comes to sports, most people root for whichever side is deemed the underdog in any given moment (unless their favorite team is also in the line-up). We want the small, the overlooked, the mistreated to prevail against forces much greater than them. We want to pretend, even for just the length of one match, that life is not wholly divorced from any concept of fairness.

Of course, in reality, underdogs do not come out on top all that often. Generally, the same incumbents remain; the status quo holds; true upsets of power and position happen rarely or incrementally. In spite of this — or because of it — the underdog sentiment has not just persisted, but has gained new life in recent years, crystallized in a comedy axiom-turned-now universally accepted cardinal rule: Never punch down, only up.

At some point in the past decade, “punching up” and “punching down” transcended the spotlit stage and joined the lexicon of “pop-political terms,” as writer Ben Schwartz penned for the Baffler in 2016. Suddenly, seemingly everyone revealed themselves to be not just experts on the precepts of humor — “comedy shows or segments that are legitimately funny always punch up,” a BuzzFeed News essay declared unequivocally in 2016 — but also self-assured adjudicators of power, sanctioned to mete out verdicts on which party in any given conflict really deserves a nice, rough clobbering.

But the problem, to bring it back to my earlier point, is that most people privately believe and/or publicly claim that they are the underdog, armed with a punch that can only point upward. This passage from Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot articulates this mindset:

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo: a Disney movie about a puny, weird-looking cirque elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, the ones who despised and tormented the weak and the ugly, were rooting against Dumbo’s tormentors. Over and over they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to the bullies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.

Fabulously famous pop stars (or comedians or movie directors) insist that they are victimized by members of the media elite, when that “elite” often consists of individual writers who are getting paid $0.30 a word and may not have health insurance. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, whose sole purpose seems to be tag-teaming with Sen. Joe Manchin to obliterate any hope of legislative progress, assumed the position of an underdog in response to immigration activists following her into a bathroom, ironically claiming that those activists need to be “held accountable” for their alleged crimes. Comedian Dave Chappelle, in his Netflix standup special The Closer, meta-illustrates the slipperiness of the punch-up-down dichotomy: after tossing out transphobic joke after joke, he ends by entreating the LGBTQ community to “please stop punching down on my people” — referring to Black people — using the same language that could reasonably be turned back against him for his punchlines.

Punch-up-or-down is not a reliable framework, primarily because “it’s not always clear how to measure the direction of a punch,” as Lincoln Michel wrote for Electric Literature in 2015. It only works if power and privilege can be accurately quantified — say, broken down into individual attributes and assigned points: +5 for being white, -1 for being saddled with student loan debt, +10 for having the ability to literally shape the law, etc. But, despite everything those privilege walk exercises supposedly taught us, power dynamics are not so categorically clear-cut. When recipe developer and food micro-celebrity Alison Roman spoke disparagingly about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen in the press, was she the kinda annoying white lady being rude about two Asian women, or was she the kinda annoying white lady who lost her New York Times column because she got into a fight with someone rich and famous and very online? In the cursed real-life events of the “Bad Art Friend” story, was Dawn Dorland a white woman weaponizing her tears to harass a woman of color, or was Sonya Larson a half-Asian woman weaponizing her race and her professional circle to discredit someone whose material she lifted? When you attack me, are you punching at a pitiable blogger for a website that has long clung to its underdog standing, or a writer with a large platform and one of the few remaining staff positions left in digital media, or (probably most accurately) someone who doesn’t really matter at all? The answer to these questions is: yes, no, maybe, sometimes, and all of the above.

To “own the moral high ground,” Schwartz wrote for the Baffler, “you have to play to the cultural low ground.” But moral high ground is no longer the only reward; online, there is clout and, increasingly, the money that follows. Reputations are burnished and burned, relationships formed and broken, and livelihoods made and lost over public perception. There are better-paved paths of monetized notoriety for those who loudly declare themselves underdogs, canceled, martyrs. Normal impulses — compassion for the less fortunate and admiration for those who dare face Goliath — have been turned into fodder for stagemanship and applause, efforts to reduce human friction into neat stacks of underdog versus top dog. There are other ways to judge conflicts, starting with the merits of the arguments, or how shitty of a person you have to be to say X or do Y. Punch up, punch down; sooner or later, we all get knocked out.