On Pity

1. Katha Pollitt’s excellent article on battered women contains this sentence:

That a woman might stay with her batterer because she pities him and wants to rescue him from his demons was a new insight for me.

Actually, I have found that pity is the first step in the creation of any abusive relationship. As a child, the children we were supposed to play with out of pity were the abusive ones. Because we had been so exhorted to pity these children, we then felt guilty and conflicted about noticing that they were abusive. And so it has always gone.

2. Pity is the first false step. The next ideologeme, also one I was taught early on, was “but they like you.” “I do not want to play with that person, they are mean.” “But they like you, and you should appreciate that. They are probably only mean because they like you and they do not know how to express it in another way. Be kind.”

3. I have heard this at work a great deal, too. “You are stronger, more competent and better published than he is, and he has had a terrible time in life, so put up with it and help him out. It is part of your job to put up with it and help him out.”

*

4. I could give many more examples, but this is just a blog post in a text I will develop into a novel and several essays one day. But when I was a child it was manifestly clear that one’s purpose in life was to allow pitiable people to be mean and perhaps manage their meanness to some degree, by helping to tame their demons or even slaying some of them.

5. I was told it would not be that way in college. I should stay in college as long as possible before getting married, when it would be that way again. I went to college early and stayed late.

6. The trees and rocks had not thought that way, and college did not, either. Reeducation did, however, and that was my big shock in life. Yet it was also pity which caused me to tolerate Reeducation. He is not as bright as you are, they said, but he could be wise. Be tolerant, and rein in your intellect so he is not scared.

*

7. Note the recipe: because they like you (or because they are “the best available at this time”) and they are to be pitied, let them do to you as they will.

8. It means in part: you do not deserve to be liked by anyone, and you have more than you deserve. It is a recipe for disaster.

9. Pity is always the first and most important step, and I note that pity, much though it is piously recommended, is a very poor substitute for self respect, actual respect for others, and decent politics.

Axé.

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37 Comments

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37 responses to “On Pity

  1. Thanks for your responses to me and my blog. I am going to write a book as you have suggested. I decided yesterday it would have the quality of Voltaire’s irony, and would be entitled, “Condemned by Chaos”. It would contain the kind of criticism you are alighting upon above, only anecdotally.

  2. O good! And, good title.

  3. historiann

    This is a great post. I agree–women are too often told, or even commanded, to pity the abuser. I wish I had read this before my “Anger” post yesterday, because I think they’re clearly linked. I’m sorry that I only saw your post today.

  4. I am glad you brought my attention to your post, because I have not been keeping up enough on blogs lately and I could have missed it. It is really brilliant, and really essential. Everyone read Historiann on anger, right here:

    http://www.historiann.com/2009/05/04/lessons-for-girls-number-one-anger/

  5. historiann

    Thanks, Profacero–and thanks for your comments on my blog. (I think you misjudge Fratguy–he was making fun of previous comment, which was rather concern-trollish about anger. Fratguy is a medical professional who works with a large number of patients in poverty, so he doubts that anger is public health threat #1.)

  6. Thanks to you, Historiann — and I get it re Fratguy! Apologies for my snap judgment there!

  7. Pingback: Lessons for Girls, numbers two and three: Opting Out, and On Pity : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  8. Great post, profacero, and really, really true. At some point in the process of becoming an adult, people make the assumption that because a child or adult is “pitiable” that that person is incapable of being a nasty piece of work.

    I wish I could take back the time I’ve spent being nice to people because someone had helpfully explained, “She’s not rude. She’s just shy and misunderstood.” Now my response is to stop trying to “understand” and just get away before toxic people like this do more damage.

  9. I first discovered this post via Historiann’s Lessons for Girls, and I didn’t get it. It tweaked something, though, about a long-ago relationship with a former employee which my sister had at the time labeled as abusive (I didn’t get that either). Over the last few days, however, your post has percolated around in my preconscious. Occasionally I would fall asleep or wake up with this guy and your post on my mind.

    And then I got it!

    Thanks. This is good stuff. It is hard to see someone as abusing you when they have positioned themselves as your victim.

  10. Wow. And here I was told to be “compassionate” to everyone a la Buddhism; then I was told not to; then I thought maybe if I could be compassionate towards my abusers I could learn to be compassionate towards myself (since I was told this is part of my problem).

    But I think it’s a fine line between compassion and pity, and I never thought about it the way you put it re: women and abusers. Food for thought.

  11. To be truly compassionate, you must not just understand and empathize with the person in trouble. You must also model for them compassion for the self. That means no violence to yourself, no excessive sacrifice, no loss of integrity or dignity. And no violence toward them, which means no pity, because pity is condescension, which is violent.

    Does this sound Buddhist enough?

  12. Pingback: Vade Mecum feminista « Diario de un padre

  13. That means no violence to yourself, no excessive sacrifice, no loss of integrity or dignity. And no violence toward them, which means no pity, because pity is condescension, which is violent.

    Such important lessons. I was certainly never encouraged me to think this way, and it’s been a long slow process of learning it. On-going process at that. Thanks.

  14. Belle — yes. I learned it from a man I had some conversations with long ago, somebody with a bad situation who had already learned people would tend to pity him and it would be unpleasant. He told me how painful it was to be talked to out of pity. And then I do all this prison work and work with the poor and I can have normal interactions with all these people because it is out of solidarity, not pity, and solidarity bespeaks a whole other dynamic.

    I remembered this. Then earlier this year I made friends with a woman with whom I empathize but whom I also pity. This did not work well and it was partly because of what she was projecting into me but also because I had the expectation that, since I was being generous to her, she would not be rude to me. That was some kind of violent projection, because of course she is rude to everyone, and generosity is not generosity if it is not free. So I had done to her what that man years ago did not want done to him. (That’s not to excuse her for being screwed up and rude, of course — I’m just saying my pity did neither of us any good and it involved condescension and projection, which I hate people to do to me, and there I was doing some.) So I learned: NO PITY.

    *

    Msphd – you know, the common misconception in our culture seems to be that you have to be compassionate towards someone else first. I suppose that would work as well as anything if we understood compassion and did not confuse it with pity. I find it easier to begin with myself because compassion is freeing and supportive whereas pity feels convoluted and oppressive.

    Undine — yes, these are the misconceptions drilled into me, too.

    Doc Righteous — I’m honored you had this post in your preconscious!!! That sort of thing happens to me, too… but yes. More and more I realize that positioning themselves as victim is actually one of the FIRST things abusers do.

    I learned to my amazement, when I got out of my abusive relationship, that it was COMMON at that point for abusers to position themselves as victims. What I have realized since, thinking about that relationship and how it started, looking at other mean people and their activities, and listening to how people justify them, is that actually positioning themselves as victim (in a subtle way) is one of the FIRST things abusers do so as to get a foothold in, and get people to make allowances for them.

    My ex: “I was beaten as a child, I this, I that…” all woven in subtly, in the conversation of a bright, active, upbeat, smart person….

    An abusive employee: “I have always been discriminated against by class, race, sexual orientation, gender, politics, looks, country of origin, everything…” also woven in, but started from the first day, so that by the time ze started hir abusive behavior people already wondered whether ze were reacting to something bad that really had happened to hir on our campus, what they could do to help…and then later, what they could do to protect themselves from a spurious lawsuit….

    I have more examples but my point is, they start in with the I am a poor victim thing FIRST, in ways you don’t even realize, to soften everyone up.

  15. I think that there are exceptional ppl who can make out of their victimhoods something that intrasubjectively spurs them on to new and better things. My intellectual development was quite firmly founded upon my victimhood and would not have taken place apart from this.

    However, for most ppl, I do think that a socialist solution — that is, of demystifying victimhood — would work the best. Actually, in a way, it was what my intellectual development was destined to discover — that life, and the system that is designed to hold it into a particular place, is not perfect, but rather the product of human design, and therefore subject to human faulty assumptions, and human error.

    But really, victimhood ought not to be so mystified as it actually is. Ppl should be able to say, “I got an injury to my psyche,” in exactly the same way as they might say, “I was in a car accident,” or “I fell down and hurt myself badly.” There should be no shame in it.

    I do have the feeling that a lot of wingnuts are just some of life’s more extreme victims who have developed a hard narcissistic shell to protect themselves from this self-knowledge, and its culturally attendant feelings of shame.

  16. Jennifer — agreed. And actually I know lots of people who, although they have been stopped from developing into what they could have become due to injuries of various types, difficult circumstances and so on, do not turn into wingnuts or meanies … not major shamans either, but they do use the injury as an opening to compassion as opposed to sadism or something.

    I had two thoughts today while wandering around.

    1. Reeducation. I am so angry at it, or have been, because of what it set in motion. Yet really I think the problem was just that I overburdened its capabilities, right off. It wasn’t ready to meet someone like me, and instead of realizing this and saying so, it tried to (a) rise to the occasion — which made it hate me, and (b) tried to pull me into its weird circle, because its weird circle was all it could see.

    2. Shame. I keep having these weird discussions about race with a friend here, a white local who grew up poor. I rant and rave about Yankee academics who come down prepared to freak out, and who do freak out, because there really are shantytown equivalents and so on here, and some high schools still have segregated proms, and so on. And yet these same Yankees also exhibit huge amounts of race prejudice and racialized fear — which they deny and cover with theory, all while STILL not being capable of walking down the street like a normal person. I rant and rave to this guy because I know he’ll agree with me that these Yankees are weird. However his response is always that HIS family never had slaves, and so on, so the whole issue has nothing to do with HIM.

    And I say well it has to do with everyone in the whole country, because we all live here in this system, and he doesn’t grasp that. He doesn’t grasp it because it is actually kind of a sophisticated concept. But what I realized today is that, also, he is of the class who has historically always had to take the fall, take the abuse, for what the whites in power (nationwide, not just here) put in motion, and he has the accent for which people are shamed because it is seen as an accent of racists (western Louisiana + a Mississippi twang), so of COURSE he feels guilt tripped and has to keep on saying it wasn’t me it wasn’t me it wasn’t me.

  17. The kind of denial of one’s own suffering that makes one stupid is a consequence of narcissistic blistering. I used to think of it as narcissistic bruising, which also offers an analogy in a way, since a bruised area can often lose its sensation as well. But the blistering allusion is more apt. And maybe there is some medical analogy that is even better than the one I have chosen. But the inability to see another person’s perspective, along with the denial that one could possibly be guilty for anything — anything at all — seems to be a feature of such narcissistic blistering.

    One simply cannot feel that which one ought to feel because of the injuries that one has already sustained.

  18. And it is funny that this is precisely what Reeducation projected into me. It assumed that because I was not histrionic I must be numb due to secret pain.

  19. It must be a common projection. I suspect my parents saw me that way — the quietitude: “look, she’s torturing herself by reading philosophy books! she must be in a lot of pain! We need to tear down her defences to make her feeling something again!”

  20. Yes — should have realized this, for I gave Reed. far too much credit. I’d heard the thing about studying as self torture all my life and never listened because it was so obviously silly and never came from trustworthy sources, anyway.

    But — Reed. was a licensed professional so I had certain expectations it was hard to believe it could not meet. My illumination for the day was that it did try, but did not know how, and that is why it became abusive … and I kept demanding of it a level of skill it did not have, and when this failed thought the whole problem was me, and that is how I participated in the creation of an abusive relationship with it instead of just realizing AHA, this person isn’t really competent, time to move on (not that I am not saying it was not Reeducation’s role to recognize and acknowledge that better than it did).

  21. Yes, the giving of too much credit is a problem. We can have high expectations — especially if our own point of view has been put down for much of our lives (as is the common female experience). It tends to raise our expectations of those around us — in a way to compensate for not being permitted self-belief (but this is all entirely socially conditioned and unconscious — and it applies to males who have been brought up in an authoritarian way as well).

    I wonder, though, whether the expectation that others should acknowledge their limitations to us is based at least in large part on a non-pejoratively styled naivety — the presumption that we all have access to expressing a childlike awareness of others, trust, and honesty in relation to others — that we fortunately did not outgrow?

  22. It may be that in part but in my case I think it mostly comes from growing up in one of the most privileged towns in one of the most powerful states in what was one of the world’s very most opulent countries at the time (still is, but not to the extent it was). Therefore there were really good doctors, dentists, teachers, auto mechanics, everything, and everyone was very relaxed, competent, and professional. We just had access to all of this because of insurance and so on, and I got the idea that that level of expertise was normal.

    Then I guess I also use strategic naivete as a sort of challenge to people, too — to try to get them to rise to the occasion, or to come clean if there is something they are hiding. But in the case of Reeducation, I honestly did not consider the possibility that it was just incompetent.

    Other people I knew, did. I, however, had read much of that M. Scott Peck book as my first assignment, and it cowed me! Ah, well.

  23. I think you are right in the above. The strategic naivety and so on.

    I also had a privileged upbringing, in which you could bring some problem or other to the attention of the authorities, and they would actually do something about it. Wow.

    Also, as I may have hinted on my blog, my experience of what was socially framed as masculinity was more along the lines of independence of spirit and extreme risk taking. It had little to do with the way masculinity is framed as patriarchal control and management of women, as it is today. Not denying that sexism was there, but it was a different emphasis entirely.

  24. Yes … I know there have been certain advances but overall it seems things have regressed since then.

  25. Pingback: On Handling Emotional Bullies: Open Thread « Professor Zero

  26. You know, I think the universe brought me to this post because just today my partner and I were having a discussion with VanGoghGirl (our daughter) about one of her relationships. A girl that she had been friends with since elementary school has been treating her quite poorly for several months. She is so arrogant and racist and condescending that few people are willing to include her in their social circle. We’ve been encouraging VanGoghGirl to stop reaching out to this girl and trying to maintain the friendship, because it was completely one-sided. We’re trying to explain that attempting to be this girl’s friend, because you don’t want her to be completely friendless, just isn’t healthy. She seems to think that tolerating this girl’s hurtful behavior is being nice to her. However, I want VanGoghGirl to see that putting up with this treatment isn’t really being nice to herself.

    I think some of what’s written here will help me figure out how to get her to see that her “niceness” is really pity and how that isn’t a solution to the problems with their relationship.

  27. We have a new APAAP (Abusive Person [who is] Also [an] Assistant Professor) and ze really tries to play on heart strings. The key is to understand that these people are emotional black holes. Playing on heart strings is just to get you concerned, so you will try to help out, on the theory of throwing a lifeline to them so they can get better. That way they trap you with pity and so they can keep sucking your blood. This is why only to be friends with people with whom you actually feel good. If you’re acting out of charity, visit prisoners or something, do it with the poor.

  28. Pingback: Lessons for Girls 7: It’s okay if not everyone likes you | Geeky Mom

  29. happydog

    I found this tonight after having to deal with someone yesterday in a very abrupt and decisive manner. I was worried that I was being not-nice, which is typical of me. This gave me a lot to think about. Thank you.

  30. Z

    Thanks, Happydog! (I just looked over this and wow, it did take a lot of thought, I should re-study perhaps.)

  31. Z

    OK, this is weird and interesting, a year and a half after this post. Reminded that Pity is the Near Enemy of Compassion. I think my compassion for J. was tinged with pity. She had been so mistreated. And I let her run sort of roughshod over me because of this, seeing her as wounded.

    *

    Jennifer, above:

    “But the inability to see another person’s perspective, along with the denial that one could possibly be guilty for anything — anything at all — seems to be a feature of such narcissistic blistering.

    “One simply cannot feel that which one ought to feel because of the injuries that one has already sustained.”

  32. Z

    Here is a really, really confused note I drafted to my ex, two or three months before he became ex. It proves that pity is a bad thing.

    “Anyway, sorry to keep harping, but i think it actually is important. I hope you won’t think ‘she’s just in one of her moods’ — (that’s another sexist thing, by the way, form of discounting what women say).

    “I made a serious error in 2004. It was on that Sunday that you were freaking out and I called your friend to ask her to help you. I had tried to break up because I couldn’t see how to share the life you were leading and also maintain my health.

    “I then relented because it felt so bad to see you so hurt. That was the day I decided I’d do it until you got your green card. But it is unpleasant, I go into these states of exhaustion and frustration which do nobody any good.

    “I really do understand that that life, is your life, and that you love it. This is why I don’t know what to do. I want to take care of my work, recreation, and health, but I made a commitment to doing as you wished until you had your green card and could relax.

    “I know it would be sensible of me to enjoy your activities more, and I keep trying to talk myself into it. But I just want be up earlier, and hang out more in gym/library and out of town. I can’t get around this.

    “DEEP BREATH. I am afraid that if I act on these things, I will meet someone else with a lifestyle more compatible with mine. That hurt you even more.

    “Much of my energy over the past two years has been concentrated on alleviating the pain of the ‘train wreck’ you claimed to be living. This assumed that my life had to come second, by definition, and that ‘train wreck’ alleviation was my responsibility.”

    I actually thought this was rational. I did not think I had the right to break up. This blog was about three months old when I wrote this note.

  33. Z

    And I mean, NOTICE that. Notice how I am aware of how unhappy I am in the relationship, and of how uninterested this person really is in me, but that I have given up the right to leave and am not aware (yet) that I can take it back.

    *

    I put my own needs to the side in favor of ministering to others, or negotiating with them, because I was trained to it specifically, early on. My mother was very ill and not in very clear touch with the world, and one had to negotiate with her about reality; emotional violence was extreme if one failed or if one seemed to be too much in reality; this was considered rational and proper.
    Added to this was the idea that one owed her — one cost too much money and so on.

    *

    The idea that one cannot leave because one is in debt peonage, and must just shrink oneself and wait until the storm is over, is my key error.

    The idea that one is less by definition, deserves less by definition, should be grateful for just anything by definition.

  34. As a child, the children we were supposed to play with out of pity were the abusive ones.
    They are probably only mean because they like you and they do not know how to express it in another way. Be kind.
    …when I was a child it was manifestly clear that one’s purpose in life was to allow pitiable people to be mean and perhaps manage their meanness to some degree, by helping to tame their demons or even slaying some of them.

    Another word for this is “duty.” Which, you’ll notice, bears a strong linguistic resemblance to “doody.” Both of which stink, especially if dumped on our shoulders.

  35. doublevez

    2. Pity is the first false step. The next ideologeme, also one I was taught early on, was “but they like you.” “I do not want to play with that person, they are mean.” “But they like you, and you should appreciate that. They are probably only mean because they like you and they do not know how to express it in another way. Be kind.”

    Post Modernists use this all the time on women who correctly point out that trans women are not women, and we not only should not pity them, but recognize what they are doing is no different than some white person putting on Black face.

  36. Z

    The next ideologeme, also one I was taught early on, was “but they like you.” “I do not want to play with that person, they are mean.” “But they like you, and you should appreciate that. They are probably only mean because they like you and they do not know how to express it in another way. Be kind.”

    — My God, that is so true.

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