I really like the maxim, which apparently originated in stand-up comedy, that you should always punch up:
Jokes are funny when they mock the powerful. They are not funny when they mock the powerless. […] Jokes are not funny when they have victims. Some of the tricks played by PR would be funny if they didn't have victims. But they do. They have victims. And so they're not funny.
I’d go further. Jokes that punch up are comedy. Jokes that punch down are bullying. And while it certainly holds true for comedy, I think it’s a good rule of thumb that applies to every aspect of work, life, and culture.
For example, journalism is commonly held as needing to speak truth to power. I agree with this need, and I wish more journalism took this mission more seriously. And what else is it but punching up? Journalism that punches down - that holds up people in power and denigrates the less powerful - is mere propaganda.
I think it holds true in business, too. An organization that makes a product that hurts vulnerable people in service of giving people with power more wealth and resources cannot be ethical, and ultimately is doomed to fail. Conversely, if a product is designed to democratize and empower people who have been overlooked, it may succeed; sometimes we call this kind of punching up disruption.
And, finally, in life. I don’t have a litmus test about failure and success here, because it’s life, and I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate people on those terms. But I do strongly think that traditions which maintain the status quo over distributing civil rights are not worth having; that there’s a choice between, for example, supporting the police (incumbent power) and the vulnerable (movements like Black Lives Matter); that afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is a fundamental value that doesn’t need to be left up to organizations to serve. While success and failure are not the right measure of a person, I know that I’d rather have people in my life who believe in fairness and civil rights than people who believe in maintaining tradition and the existing order of things. Community over individualism, every time.
I love “always punch up”. And I think, to be quite honest, we could all do more punching.
Edited to add: it turns out I also wrote about this a few years ago. So consider this post additive!