Why do we punch down?

Punching down shame is a form of bullying. It means we’re shaming someone for something they either cannot control or cannot explain, or both. We call it punching down because it’s unreasonable and inappropriate. And yet, it happens, at scale, and all the time. The question is, why?

The answer is that punching down shame gives the shamer something they want.

For example, and this is a big one yet completely straightforward, the punching down shame industries like dieting, cosmetics, personal hygiene products, and some pharmaceuticals shame people for being the way they are, promise that they can buy products to get rid of their shameful attributes. This is a lie, but it is profitable.

The first variation on that theme is “shaming as a distraction” from something that the shamer doesn’t want to deal with. For example, poverty and inequality. Poverty and inequality are huge problems, and rather than deal with them, we shame poor people for being poor. Shaming children for not having lunch money is kind of the worst example of this but they abound. And by directing the attention on the victims of these scourges, attention is drawn away from the people in power who actually should be addressing them.

The second variation is creating a space for shaming to occur naturally, and making money off of that designed and manufactured shame. That’s social media’s business model, and the latest perfect example of this comes from the ongoing Spotify/ Joe Rogan scandal. It’s particularly clear that corporations are profiting from shame when they try really hard to distance themselves from accountability.

Finally, it should be mentioned why we *don’t* punch down. We don’t punch down to actually correct someone’s behavior, since by definition of punching down, we know they cannot, or at the very least we won’t understand their explanation of whether they have a choice, because we’re not listening. In other words, there is nothing to be gained from punching down shame except the satisfactions profit made or power maintained. That’s why people who punch down never admit to doing so.

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