Pity, compassion, and empathy

“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.

From Wiki:

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.

Pity, compassion, and empathy

6 thoughts on “Pity, compassion, and empathy

  1. 1

    Hey I really loved this entry, it made me re-evaluate my use of the term pity. My associations with that word would be along the lines of compassion and empathy, two things I believe in greatly and which I will no longer confuse with pity.

    1. 1.1

      I’m glad it made sense to you! I’ve had the idea to distinguish them rolling about in my head for ages, but it took a while to work out which words were appropriate for which concept. And I think it’s so important to work out ways to get away from conflating differing social situations and betterness or worseness of people and Just World theories and all that jazz.

  2. 2

    I like the evolution here… from the first empathy and compassion were in my head, and you reached for them.

    As for needing to act like men in order to achieve equality, those who think such are undoubtedly male. Equality is a two way street. We’ve something to bring to the table that is good and essential, and largely lacking. we’ve been out of balance for millennia, and the historical record bears it out.

    1. 2.1

      Exactly! It’s not just the people in oppressed groups that are marginalised and excluded. It’s our ways of being, of doing things, of existing in the world. We need to reclaim those as well and start creating our own playing fields 🙂

  3. 4

    You have constructed a lucid and convincing argument in presenting compassion as a more thoughtful, informed, motivating and sustainable response to suffering than is pity. Moreover, your motivation for penning this essay appear to serve a number of just and noble aims.

    Your reasoning, however, seems not to include or be aware of the initial necessity of emotion in impelling any of the subequent constructive actions you so skillfully advocate. Indeed, your assertion that compassion “doesn’t require any particular emotion” suggests either a lack of knowledge regarding a variety of underlying biological processes or, far more unlikely, deliberate ledgerdemain.

    In point of fact, compassion is not, as one may be excused for concluding from your arguments, created by some intellectual exercise, or being possessed of a “deep awareness” of another’s suffering. Similarly, empathy is patently not an ability “put oneself in another’s shoes”, “understand” where they are “coming from” or “get” them. These intellectual states, as it were, may be a *consequence* of empathy, but they are not its essense. Empathy is an emotional state where an observer, through unconscious physiological mechanisms, experiences the same emotion as is being felt by the person, group of people, or even the non-human animals that she is observing. It is *how* we might, only then, “get” another person, place ourselves “in their shoes,” etc. Our emotions teach us, as nothing else save direct experience can, and subsequently infor, motivate and “fuel” our compassion.

    Pity, circling back, is a an emotion – sadness – in a specific context. Voluminous research conclusively asserts that we experience well less than a dozen emotions: sadness, fear, joy, etc., with contexts and simultaneous expression of two or more emotions engendering the myriad of terms we use to define, describe, and communicate our emotional states (remorse, gratitude, jealousy, etc.)

    Pity CAN be felt, as it were, in error, for instance when for various (and often complex) reasons we err in our perceptions; but it can never condescend. Such self-satisfying gestures do occur often, as you wisely observe, but they give taint to and despoil what is an otherwise fine and positive emotion, contemporary unofficial connotations, derived as they are from tropes perpetuated in cliche popular entertainments (e.g. “I don’t want your pity!” or “Pity the poor and pass the caviar.”) not withstanding.

    Compassion, it would seem, originally blossoms from sorrow – which in this context is triggered by empathy – in combination with intention – here to take corrective action. Compassion, it does seems accurate to state, may not, once long practiced, require sorrow – it may in time transform into our most noble reflex or habit. But we may only understand when, how, and why to exercise compassion because we have been taught – by sorrow.

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