To be pitiless, surely, is bad.
We don’t speak of someone as “pitiless” if we’re trying to express admiration for them. “Pitilessness” is never something we extol as a virtue. The only time being “pitiless” is ever described as a positive trait is in the context of sports, where we sometimes use words for otherwise undesirable traits to characterize a particularly fierce or dominant performance. “The pitiless pass rush tormented the opposing quarterback.” But even that analogous use in sports talk underscores our more general disapproval of pitilessness. We wouldn’t praise that football team for being pitiless off the field.
The list of near-synonyms for pitiless would include similarly negative terms — cruel, unfeeling, unkind, scornful, sociopathic. Yet for all that we still regard “pitiless” as wholly negative, its opposite is no longer usually seen as a positive. Pity itself is viewed as suspiciously condescending or arrogant. It has come to be viewed almost as a form of contempt.
This is reflected in the most prevalent use of “pitiful,” which is usually used these days as a rough synonym for “contemptible.” To say that something is pitiful is to condemn it as worthy of scorn. The original sense of the word, in which something described as pitiful was perceived as inspiring pity, is rarely employed any more.
This is a problem because pity — both the thing itself and the word we use to refer to it — is a vitally necessary thing. There are nearly 7 billion of us humans shuffling around on this planet and almost all of us are pitiful. We require pity from one another and we ought to inspire pity in one another. A world in which we are less capable of offering that pity, or not permitted to offer it, is a less hospitable world.
But the necessity and appropriateness of such pity does not in itself ensure that it will be any more welcome. The air of condescension remains.
And that may be unavoidable because, in fact, any given expression of pity, in word or deed, is an instance of inequality. Every discrete instance of pity always involves an imbalance of power. The one who has pity bestows it on the one who is pitiful. The act of pity corrects that imbalance and puts both parties back on equal terms, but in doing so it inevitably also highlights the prior inequality.
In this sense pity is akin to forgiveness — a kinship reflected in their also sharing the near-synonym “mercy.” Forgiveness also always occurs in a context of imbalance and inequality and likewise also entails an implicit acknowledgment of that imbalance. An offer of forgiveness can thus, like an offer of pity, encounter a hostile reaction. Mercy can sometimes seem like a bitter pill to swallow.
In the big picture the imbalance of any given particular situation doesn’t amount to much. Not for anyone who remembers the rest of life beyond that single instance. Overall, each of us will sometimes require mercy and sometimes have the chance to offer it to others. When one takes that larger context into account there’s no longer any reason to be hostile toward an offer of pity or to be arrogant about making the offer. The big picture keeps us from the absurd predicament in which extending mercy is forbidden as arrogant condescension while withholding it is seen as some kind of favor.
Such absurdity is the inescapable conclusion of a framework that condemns all pity as arrogant condescension. The proper response to such pitiable absurdity is to pity those who are caught up in it.
In defending and advocating pity here, I also need to challenge a popular confusion as to what pity means. It is not an emotional or visceral sensation in which one’s stomach is “strangely warmed” as tears well up in one’s eyes. I am speaking of pity as a rational, dry-eyed conclusion. Pity should be as arithmetically precise as the Golden Rule. The question of whether or not another requires pity from you is simply this: Would you want to be in their shoes? If the answer is no, then pity is an appropriate response.This is relatively simple and obvious when the recipient of pity, the object of the love of which pity is one necessary form, is the victim of injustice or deprivation. It’s a far more difficult and complicated matter when the potential object of that pity is the perpetrator of injustice.
In the first case, pity compels us to act by meeting the needs of the needy and by using whatever power we may have to correct the injustice that was done, or is being done, to them. (Including, of course, ensuring that we are not ourselves complicit to that injustice.) That’s pretty simple, if rarely easy.
But what does pity compel us to do in the latter case? This is far from simple, in part because the perpetrators of injustice are far less likely to be receptive to pity or to mercy in any form. And it’s more complicated because the forms that pity and mercy need to take toward such a person — an oppressor, a predator, a bully, a bigot — don’t correspond with the squishy emotional sentiments we tend to associate with “pity” and any other form of love. To have pity on the perpetrator of injustice requires us to act against them — to convince or compel them to stop what they are doing, to rethink, reconsider, repent and restore. That may, in turn, require measures more forceful and coercive than simple persuasion.
If it seems odd to think of condemnation, criticism and opposition as forms of pity or mercy, then think again of the Golden Rule. Ask again the essential question: What if it was you in their shoes? What if it were you who had become the bully or the bigot or the oppressor? Wouldn’t you want your own bullying or bigotry to be confronted and opposed so that you at least had a chance for redemption and liberation?
Pity and the empathy of the Golden Rule always involves some act of imagination, and the imaginative act I’m describing here seems paradoxical. What if it was you who was an awful person? Wouldn’t you want others to do whatever they could to convince you not to be an awful person? I suppose one answer there would be to say, No, because if I were an awful person then I wouldn’t want to change.
But I don’t believe that’s true even of the truly awful. I don’t believe that such awful people — bigots, bullies, predators, robber barons and oppressors — are happy being who they are. Have you ever met a happy bigot? I haven’t. Not one. And it’s so hard to find, one rich man in ten, with a satisfied mind. I’ve known some awful people who worked awfully hard to convince others and themselves that they’re happy, but the sheer effort makes all that work unconvincing.
In any case, it just seems cruel to allow a bigot to remain a bigot or to allow a bully to remain a bully. It seems pitiless not to pity the pitiless. There’s a rough justice to it, I suppose, but God’s bodkin, man, use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?
And that, of course, is why pity for the pitiless doesn’t really require a leap of the imagination for most of us. The most awful bullies and bigots may differ from the rest of us in degree, but not in kind. I do not have to imagine what it might be like to be pitiless or cruel or hateful or predatory, I can simply remember.
And I can remember, also, what it was that helped me to become less so: Others who took pity on me.
Freely you have received, freely give. Sometimes that means compassionate sharing with others in need ,and sometimes it means pointing an accusing finger and standing in the way.