The Tyranny of Pity Manipulation

The Tyranny of Pity Manipulation June 17, 2016

It was the summer of 1990 or thereabouts. I was fresh out of seminary and ministering in the inner-city of Boston.

I was a little savvier than most, I had grown up in a housing project and had spent time in a foster-home. I knew what people are capable of. Still, I was a bit green, and I wanted to do the right thing. That’s why I got suckered by the phone call.

Her name was Monique and she said she was afraid for her life. She claimed to be holed up in the house of a drug dealer and she needed someone to help her, right then. I knew the address, it sure could be a drug house from what I knew about the neighborhood. Still, I was cautious. Then she threw some names at me, people she said she knew from back in the islands who would be known to people in my church. I made a quick call. Yep, the names were familiar. So I jumped in my truck to save her.

Looking back on it now, it seems pretty obvious that I should have called the police. It is far enough away in time that I can’t recall if I tried that, or if Monique had discouraged it for some reason.

Anyway, when I arrived she ran down the front steps and jumped in. She wasn’t what I had envisioned. I had pictured a vulnerable and needy woman. Monique turned out to be a large and imposing one. Later she proved to be someone who could handle herself in a confrontation.

Nevertheless, she cast herself upon the mercies of our church. A few phone calls to verify her provenance engendered enough trust for a single woman with an only child to open her home long enough for Monique to find a job and get on her feet. Again, I don’t recall her full story. All I can remember is she said she needed help, and she had very specific ideas about what that should look like, and she needed the help right then.

Even though my memory is fuzzy about the beginning of the story, the ending is as clear as it is painful to recall.

We told Monique she had to leave. If she didn’t, we would call the police. The last straw was the stolen credit card and the shopping spree she’d gone on.

Monique accused us of heartlessness. We were Christians, after all, and we should love her, no matter what. We told her we would call the police precisely because we were Christians. We were forbidden to do what we wanted to do to her.

But where would she go? she demanded to know. We informed her that that was her problem not ours.

And so, the adventure with Monique was over, at least for us.

I wish I could say this was the only time I’ve had to deal with this sort of thing, but its not. I could go on and on. I’ve got lots of stories and they all confirm the darkest theories about human nature.

It’s a Pity

Pity is a beautiful thing. Where would we be without it? It can bind us to people who need us but who may not be able to do anything for us in return.

But it is precisely because it is so powerful and good that it can readily be used as leverage against us. And we’re not altogether innocent when this happens. There is a measure of self-conceit and self-congratulations that gets mingled into even the most selfless act. That’s why we can get taken for a ride, as the saying goes, and enjoy the view as we admire our altruism. You get a happy buzz when you think about how wonderful you are.

I suppose you could say there’s some form of codependency between professional givers and professional takers. But let’s not go there. (My cynicism is starting to show.)

Why disillusionment is a good thing

A little disillusionment is healthy. Who wants to live in an illusion? And to be delivered from one, it needs to be “dissed”.

Nevertheless, the capacity for pity shouldn’t be allowed to die from over-exposure. That may be a worse than allowing yourself to be taken in the first place.

So, as I’ve thought about it, it seems to me that the pity manipulators all have a few things in common. If you can keep these in mind, you may be able to keep from being taken.

You must act now!

There ‘s always a false urgency to the pleas of a pity manipulator. The reason is simple. If you have time to reflect, you may discover what’s really going on. Worse, you may come up with an unwanted solution. Which brings me to the next thing to listen for:

You must do what I say!

For a pity manipulator there is only one correct course of action, the one the pity manipulator demands you take. If you pause to think or question, see: you must act now! Genuinely needy people don’t demand, they depend. But if you fail to act in the prescribed way, in the prescribed time-frame, prepare for this:

You’re part of the problem!

That’s right, it’s because of unfeeling, privileged people like you, that the world is in such a mess. There’s only one way for the world to be set right, it is by doing what I say, now!

If you don’t, it can only be because you hate (fill in the blank): poor people, ethnic minorities, immigrants, homosexuals, women, midgets, people with glasses, whatever (the list seems to grow with the years).

Perhaps the worst thing about this last tactic is it never ends. For one thing, there is no hope of absolution because you are ontologically guilty. It has nothing to do with ethics. It is because you are white, or privileged, or whatever, that you can never be absolved. But the other thing is this: absolution would end the leverage that gets the pity manipulator whatever he or she wants.

More bad news

There’s no way to win with the pity manipulator. These people are so turned-in on themselves, in my experience anyway, they’re unreachable. The only way to end the manipulation once it has begun is by finding that hard part of yourself that will not put up with cheats, liars, and thieves, and by announcing to the pity manipulator that the game is over.

And prepare for an earful of cursing, because that will be the only thanks you’ll receive for all you’ve done.

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