Pity for the pitiless

Pity for the pitiless September 13, 2011

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.

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  • Beatrix

    Hagsrus – no.  As I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m agnostic.  I’m guessing I know a lot more than you do about human evolution.  I have no investment in the issue.

    That being said, there are questions about aspects of micro (on a celular level) and macro evolution which are…. intersting, and nothing else.

    My position on evolution is basically this:  I have no issue with the concept at all; but anything that makes Richard Dawkins unhappy can’t be all bad.

    As for the “drunk” thing – aren’t you sad.  Dear, I’ll drink what I want.  You can take the puritan out of the church, but you can never… well. 

  • Beatrix

    Sure.

  • Hagsrus

    “I’m guessing I know a lot more than you do about human evolution.”

    I wonder why you would guess that?

    Yes, by all means drink what you want, but do you ever post sober?

    “aren’t you sad”
     
    Why, bless your heart, I’m generally pretty happy, but thank you so much for being concerned.
     
    Sleep well.

  • Beatrix

    I can give you the whole lowdown on basic evolutionary and cultural junk from Australopihecines (have pity for the Austalopithecines!) to Mesopotamian agriculure. 

    I’ll post as I like, lady (or…. beta man? But I think woman).  If I choose to post high as a kite on ketmaine, speedballs vodka, it makes no damn difference; I’m right, you ain’t.

    Sleep well, old duck.

  • Beatrix

    Lori –“Not sure why German voters couldn’t have been deceived. It happens here with some regularity.”

    Sure, whatever.  The Bosch voted in the National Socialists, but they got someone else.  Honestly, unless you’re claiming that Hiltler, Roehm, Goebbels and Himmler were sitting in a room somewhere together rubbing their hands and chuckling:  “Ya!  Vee fooled zem!  Zey foted for uns because they zink vee are left vink, but actually vee are proto-Reaganites! Hahahaha!” – then I really think you’re bing daft.  Is your position that the Nais were claiming to be socialists, got elected as socialists, but somehow, secretly, weren’t?  When did you come to this conclusion?  It’s one that would interest most historians, I think.
    Hitler was a fascist, and fascism was left wing.  It’s in the tite.  If that disturbs your weltanschauung – good.  That should be disturbed.  As leftists you are, by definition, wrong about very many things. 

  • Beatrix

    Lori –“Not sure why German voters couldn’t have been deceived. It happens here with some regularity.”

    Sure, whatever.  The Bosch voted in the National Socialists, but they got someone else.  Honestly, unless you’re claiming that Hiltler, Roehm, Goebbels and Himmler were sitting in a room somewhere together rubbing their hands and chuckling:  “Ya!  Vee fooled zem!  Zey foted for uns because they zink vee are left vink, but actually vee are proto-Reaganites! Hahahaha!” – then I really think you’re bing daft.  Is your position that the Nais were claiming to be socialists, got elected as socialists, but somehow, secretly, weren’t?  When did you come to this conclusion?  It’s one that would interest most historians, I think.
    Hitler was a fascist, and fascism was left wing.  It’s in the tite.  If that disturbs your weltanschauung – good.  That should be disturbed.  As leftists you are, by definition, wrong about very many things. 

  • P J Evans

    What a wonderful case of projection!
    Has your shrink written it up for future researchers?

  • Beatrix

    Evans – “Except that was Goldberg’s argument. And a boatload of history and political-science professors have shredded his book (and whatever Goldberg uses for thought processes), as being WRONG.”
    No, it isn’t, and no, they didn’t.  Look, you haven’t read the book, and you don’t know his arguments, or even have any idea what he’s trying to say.  Don’t pretend otherwise.

  • Beatrix

    Evans – “Except that was Goldberg’s argument. And a boatload of history and political-science professors have shredded his book (and whatever Goldberg uses for thought processes), as being WRONG.”
    No, it isn’t, and no, they didn’t.  Look, you haven’t read the book, and you don’t know his arguments, or even have any idea what he’s trying to say.  Don’t pretend otherwise.

  • Beatrix

    Haggy – “Please don’t reply if you are still drunk (the word you used originally)” –   as well as being a silly old wench with only one literary reference, to Just William, of all things, which you seem to find omni-applicable*, you are a liar; a defamatory liar (albeit in a very stupid, petty sort of way).  I never said I was drunk.  I’m honestly not sure whether you’re trying to annoy me or whether you’re really just an immensely prissy old puritan.  I mentioned once that I wasn’t entirely (or maybe I said completely) sober. I didn’t use the word “drunk”, because that would have been an exaggeration.   And that was days ago.  A couple of drinks wear off quickly, dear.  I’ve got no booze in my system today.

    Christ, you must be fun to have around.  I mean, surely one of the joys of hating wicked fundamentalism is that you don’t have to be one of life’s purse-lipped hall monitors forever.  But actually, that is how I think of leftists.

    *yeah, I clicked on your head-picture and read a handful of comments.  You were stalked for all of 5 minutes, ms. Bott.  I remembered the “thcweam” thing.  Thcweamingly witty, that was.

  • Beatrix

    (BTW, “stalked” is sarcastic.  Somehow I feel the need to point out the painfully, grindingly obvious on this site.  Trust me, if I ever do take up stalking, it… it won’t be Haggy Bott.  I do have a boredom threshhold.)

  • Anonymous

    ” I do have a boredom threshhold.)”

    Yes. Almost everyone who engages with you is rapidly bored. I was >.>

  • Anonymous

    ” I do have a boredom threshhold.)”

    Yes. Almost everyone who engages with you is rapidly bored. I was >.>

  • Beatrix

    We can’t all be as scintillatingly witty as you, EvilKate.  God, I haven’t heard a comeback that good since 7th grade.

  • P J Evans

    My local paper was conned into printing his opinion pieces:
    He can’t write worth shit, and he doesn’t reason any better than he writes.
    That you think he’s wonderful tells me all I need to know about your reasoning ability.

  • Donalbain

    No.  I said that it would be accurate to call Franco a rightist.  I
    don’t like Franco, so I’m not particularly pleased with the fact; and
    indeed, history is never so pidgeonholed.  But yes, if you have the
    remotest interest in ideas, and how they work out on the historical
    stage, then you have to take things to their conclusions and so, as I
    define the right, Franco, a severe reactionary, exists in what I would
    have to acknowledge as the rightist sphere (not that all rightists are
    reactionaries, by any means).  But Hitler is one of yours. 

    No. Hitler is not one of mine. Hitler is one of the NAZI’s. I am not a NAZI, therefore he is not mine.

  • Donalbain

    Noone, Goldberg or me or anyone, is saying that the left leads to the Holocaust;

    But you DID say that the left ALWAYS leads to evil. And yet the only evil you were able to point to was the fact that Muslims exist.

  • Anonymous

    You finished 7th grade? My apologies, I under-estimated you.

  • Anonymous

    You finished 7th grade? My apologies, I under-estimated you.

  • Hagsrus

    Oh dear, I really did tread on your poor little right-wing toes, didn’t I! 

    Just to prove I’m willing to play your game:

    I’m right, you’re wrong.

    Do you believe me any more than I believe you?  

    Pointless, isn’t it!

  • Beatrix

    Donalbain – no, I’m afraid that’s completely garbled.  I didn’t say “the fact that Muslims exist” is evil (good Lord); I would have said something along the lines of it being a terrible thing for Europe to have admitted huge numbers of Muslim immigrants and deliberately made few efforts to assimilate most of them (rather the opposite).

    The left leads to many forms of evil.  The most extreme examples would of course be the millions upon millions of human beings murdered by communist regimes, wherever they have taken root.  But even the less extreme left leads to a destruction of freedom, responsibility, prosperity and personal happiness.

    And I wasn’t calling you a Nazi.  I was calling the Nazis leftist.  But you did understand that, didn’t you?  So why pretend you didn’t?

    PJ Evans – I assume you’re talking about Goldberg?  Well… I heard a rumour he doesn’t think much of you, either.

  • Beatrix

    But you did lie about me, didn’t you?  You said I said I was “drunk”, emphasized that I had used that very word, when of course I hadn’t.  Don’t you feel bad about that?  About being a liar who defames people?  Or don’t you have any morals?

    Thuth a thilly old thod.  And thorta thleathy.

  • Beatrix

    But you did lie about me, didn’t you?  You said I said I was “drunk”, emphasized that I had used that very word, when of course I hadn’t.  Don’t you feel bad about that?  About being a liar who defames people?  Or don’t you have any morals?

    Thuth a thilly old thod.  And thorta thleathy.

  • Beatrix

    EvilKate – stop it, you’re killing me!  Were you Dorothy Parker in a former life? 

  • Beatrix

    EvilKate – stop it, you’re killing me!  Were you Dorothy Parker in a former life? 

  • P J Evans

    The Nazis weren’t leftists, any more than Obama is a socialist (or a liberal).
    Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
    Now if I were to call you a fascist, I might be close to the truth.

  • hagsrus

    I’m practicing to be a right-winger like you. Have to lie and defame and abandon all morals for that!

  • hagsrus

    I’m practicing to be a right-winger like you. Have to lie and defame and abandon all morals for that!

  • You know, usually people who work at being obnoxious (such as your OMG SO COOL “neut-thingy” schtick which people like you think is LOL SO FUNNEY) are, in my experience, the kind of people who, because they happen to be versed well in some things, believe they are versed well in all the things and try to arrogantly shove that oar about where-ever they can.

    SSDD. Seen it all before, haven’t been impressed 15 years ago, am not now.

  • Beatrix

    See, that’s not an argument.  That’s just saying stuff.  “Fascist” just means people you don’t like.  I might as well call you an ewok, for all the engagement with ideas involved.

  • Beatrix

    I don’t think it’s “LOL so funny” and “OMG SO COOL”; I just think you have a really long, stupid, pointless (or is it a reference to a sci-fi thing?  I usually don’t get those) hard-to-remember pretendo internet name, and I can’t be bothered typing it out each time I respond to some incoherent defamation of yours.  Hope that helps.

  • Beatrix

    Thelf-confethed old Thleazebag.

  • Hagsrus

    Yes dear, whatever you say dear.

    I think this thread has exhausted its possibilities of amusement so I’ll see you elsewhere, no doubt.

  • davis

    Forgiveness is for your sake, not the one doing the harm.   Not to forgive causes harm to you.