“I pity you”
Do you know anyone who likes to be pitied? I don’t. I can’t imagine being okay with having such a weak, snivelling kind of emotion directed at me. The phrase “I pity you” seems to come from one of two places- either a disbelief that anyone could go from a normal life to a state like yours, or else a profoundly patronising perspective on you. I pity you for having such a lack of nuance in the way you view the world. I pity you for never having made anything of your life. I pity you. I pity all of you unfortunates.
And yet, those of us who hang around in places like this are regularly faced with situations where they have it a hell of a lot better than people they’re speaking with. If we don’t pity people, then what do we do? Ignore the differences in our circumstances? Merrily continue on, privilege-blind, secure in the knowledge that everything is actually fine while advising less privileged folks to buck up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start taking advantage of all the opportunities out there, because they ain’t getting pity from us?
I hope it’s no surprise to you that that doesn’t work either. That’s the argument of the MRA who thinks that if women want to be equal, we’ve gotta accept being punched in the face like a man, while ignoring the fact that, y’know, most women don’t have the muscle mass of most men. And that we’re already getting punched in the face quite enough, thank you.
Let’s talk about why both of these things are, frankly, godawful ways to go about interacting with others, and look into some alternatives. I’ve previously written about my feelings on the kinds of conversations I’d like us to have here. This post adds to that. If we’re having conversations, not debates, then how do we interact with one another?
What’s the matter with pity?
The problem with pity is that it is based on the idea that the person feeling them is in a position above and better than the other. That the person they are being felt for is somehow begging for them, has no discernable agency of their own, and definitely doesn’t have anything unique to offer. If I condescend to pity you, I cannot simultaneously see you as an equal. Pity always puts me above you.
Pity originally means feeling for others, particularly feelings of sadness or sorrow, and was once used in a comparable sense to the more modern words “sympathy” and “empathy”. Through insincere usage, it now has more unsympathetic connotations of feelings of superiority or condescension.
As a side-note, pity’s face-punching, bootstrapping friend suffers from the same problem, only more so. It states that it is not just you who could never be equal. Your entire way of being and of doing things is fundamentally unequal. If you can’t stand the heat, it says, get out of the kitchen. There’s no space for opening a window or installing a fan or air-conditioner.
Let’s put that false dichotomy to rest. We’re not dealing here with a choice between pity and bootstrapping facepunchers. Pity and bootstrapping facepunchers are two sides of the same damn coin, a coin fully invested* in maintaining the status quo, and I’ve no interest in either. There’s more constructive things to do with our time, and with our feelings towards others.
I say ‘constructive’ for a reason. The other thing about pity that makes it so useless is that pity requires no work. Pity doesn’t challenge us. It’s an “aw, that sucks” before we go on about our day exactly as we would before. If we’re going to have a social justice, anti-oppression blog here, we need to do better than that.
It’s time to talk about compassion and empathy.
Open the window and knock down that wall, ’cause this kitchen is too damn hot
Here’s my favourite definition of compassion:
Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.
See how much better that one is? Whereas pity- at best- means having sad feelings about someone else’s misfortune, compassion requires so much more of us. Compassion doesn’t require us to feel sadness. It doesn’t require any particular emotion from us. Compassion simply states that we are deeply aware of the suffering of other people, and that we want to do something about it. Compassion doesn’t sit around making sympathetic faces. It does its homework, finds out what’s been going on, and it rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. And compassion, in order to do its work, requires one more thing from us: empathy.
Empathy is another one of those words with a lot of different definitions which I am going to shamelessly cherry-pick from. When it comes to compassion, the kind of empathy to be striving towards is this:
[The a]bility to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions.
It sounds simple. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We do it all the time. Most of the more neurotypical among us have an innate ability to do it in our personal lives- we put ourselves in the shoes of our loved ones, understand why they feel the things they feel and do the things they do. Even when we don’t agree with them, we know where they’re coming from. We get them.
It’s not entirely unlikely that this innate ability to empathise with people close to us trips us up when we look outside our own circles. Once we get outside our monkeysphere**, we suddenly have to start working on a thing that normally comes naturally. The empathy that we need to show compassion- real compassion- to others takes hard work. It’s where we start having to learn about our differences and privileges, to put our own experiences aside and make a commitment to working towards actively understanding social processes and situations utterly outside our own experience. Where pity has sad feels and moves on, empathy and compassion demand that we will do our best to see the world from other perspectives, and will come from a place of common humanity and generosity when we do so. Where pity looks down on others, empathy and compassion’s demands for understanding require seeing each other as equals in an unequal landscape.
I like that. I can work with that.
**This post took about twice as long as normal to write because I popped over to Cracked to get that link. Don’t even pretend it wouldn’t have been the same for you.
- Compassion to self (heartsongsblog.wordpress.com)
- Teju Cole on the “Empathy Gap” and Tweeting Drone Strikes (motherjones.com)
- Pity (perpetuallights.wordpress.com)