Writing satire: Are you punching up or punching down?

If you or your students are going to be writing satire, it’s a good idea to ask this question:

    • Is this satire punching up or down?

I don’t believe in ever censoring a writer’s work (student or otherwise), but it’s important to make young writers aware that they have an audience. In theory, if they were to publish this piece of satire, how might that audience react? If the satire is perceived to be “punching down” people might take offence. Satire is generally better received when it’s viewed to be “punching up.”

What does this mean? Everyone in society has differing degrees of power, that may vary depending on the situation. In most cases, humour that is directed from a person of lesser power to a person with greater power is seen as acceptable. (This is “punching up”.) Humour that is directed from a person with greater power to someone with lesser power is not generally as acceptable. (This is “punching down”.)

Now, this also depends on how hard the punches are. There could be circumstances where light-hearted “punching down” might work. But writers should be cognizant of potential issues that may arise when punching down.

I tend to think that most of the humour on the Daily Bonnet is “punching sideways.” I’m Mennonite, religiously and culturally, so I’m basically poking fun at myself. Sometimes I’m making fun of myself in a very general way, but in other cases it can be quite specific.

For instance:  Mennonite Man Mows Lawn Only Slightly More Frequently than He Shaves. Here I’m writing about myself directly. I don’t shave or mow the lawn as often as some might think I should. Too busy writing and marking I guess…

Self-deprecation works well. This excellent video dissects the humour of comedian Ellen Degeneres and demonstrates how her humour makes her likeable. The main takeaway is that her jokes rarely have a loser. They may be self-deprecating, but they don’t often leave anyone feeling bad about themselves.

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