The Perils of Pity
It may seem like it comes from a good place, but here's why it's actually one of the most dangerous emotions out there.
Okay so, I don’t really want to start this blog with a dictionary definition—I’d like to explicitly apologize in advance to my 8th-grade teacher who told me never to do this!—but I want to save you a Google and cut to the chase.
This is what Oxford Languages provides as a definition for “pity”:
1. the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.
2. a cause for regret or disappointment.
1. feel sorrow for the misfortunes of.
I’ve revisited this definition quite often in the last few years despite knowing full well what the word “pity” means. I’ve compared it to other definitions and circled back. I don’t really know what I expected to uncover on the 20th or 50th search. But I’ve spent the last few years thinking a lot about pity—or, more accurately, it’s been chasing me, a sort of persistent, nagging, undefined impulse, pulling at the bottom hem of my jacket like a small child. I even alluded to it in a January blog in which I suggested that someone else tackle the subject for me, which then just led me to start collecting notes.
Initially, the itch coalesced around two pieces of COVID-era entertainment that I did not particularly enjoy: The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix chess show starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the surrealist, horror-lite movie from Charlie Kaufman. Both things had worthy elements, but they also deployed a device that has started to make me go blind with rage whenever I encounter it: the sad janitor trope.
This is a designation I’ve made up and is not limited to janitors, though they seem to be a favorite tool for writers who need a conduit for ~meaning~, whatever that ~means~. In this trope, janitors, maids, admins, and other members of the “working class” are used as representatives of moral good and innocence, and are almost always side stories to the main event. They also often end up dead. You are supposed to feel bad for them. You are supposed to pity them.
Here we have the fundamental problem with pity. In theory, it’s a net good on the possible spectrum of ways to see other people. (We’ve all felt pity. It’s only natural.) It’s empathetic. It’s compassionate. It embodies a powerful recognition that things can and should be different.
But pity is also an emotion of projection and inaction. As a social and political tool, it’s not nearly enough. It can give way to self-involvement and becoming mired in intangibles. Pity is borne out of a feeling of superiority. There is you, and the person you are pitying, and you are separated by the gulf that pity creates. You feel, but you mostly do not act.
Particularly in the last six years or so, as the American political system’s failures have swelled from a high-pitched drone to a sustained scream, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about who we care about, why we care, and how we care. And as I’ve thought more than ever about the fundamental difference between people who believe in and work for the collective good versus people who don’t, pity and its function in our world has begun to feel a bit like an armed bomb. It’s not enough to have compassion and to let it end there. The feeling without the effort is poison.
This is part of what infuriates me so much about cultural depictions of the people we’re apparently supposedly meant to pity. It matters, far more than I think we’d like to admit, how we frame the characters in our stories because those depictions inform how we see people in real life. What does such framing say about us, really? It says things we’d probably never want to actually say out loud. It’s an act of othering, which, if we want to really drill down on it, is at the core of all of human existence. Who do we see as one of us and who do we see as an outsider? Who causes us pity and who actually spurs us to change things, to see our own fate as intertwined with theirs? The answer to that can quietly pave the way for injustice, illuminating what we as a society might just allow to happen to those we consider “other.”
Something new about pity snapped into focus for me earlier this week as one of those horrific, apparently permissible injustices reared its ugly head. While in the throes of despair over the leak that Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, I read a piece by Adam Serwer in The Atlantic, which contains this passage on Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion:
“Alito’s writing reflects the current tone of right-wing discourse: grandiose and contemptuous, disingenuous and self-contradictory, with the necessary undertone of self-pity as justification. Alito, like the five other conservative justices, was placed on the Court by the conservative legal movement for the purpose of someday handing down this decision. These justices are doing what they were put there to do.”
This passage hit me like a ton of bricks. “The necessary undertone of self-pity as justification.” Self-pity is perhaps an essential piece of the puzzle that I’d been missing when thinking about why pity feels like such a domineering trait in our current zeitgeist. It’s not just politics, it’s culture too (and I’d argue not always, necessarily bad). We’re all prone to self-pity, and we live in an era in which self-regard and obsession and presentation in all forms are part of our standard operating procedure. Even when we look outward, it’s often through the lens of the self. That’s not really new or novel, but the way in which the right has wielded self-pity from a position of dominance is just another way in which they operate outside the bounds of reality and insist that it’s normal. Case in point: I’ve never felt so palpably that we are all just playing make-believe than I did this week. These are rules we made up. Why do they feel so immobile? Why do we stand for it? We’re supposed to keep living through sanctioned subjugation and murder? What the fuck?
The conservative stance is and always has been one of preservation. Of maintaining the status quo, and of self-pity over the possibility that someone or something might threaten their power. That other people might someday possess the means to survive and maybe even thrive. Pity is bad, but self-pity as a means of oppression is far more frightening. The right doesn't feel sorry for the people they aim to exploit—in this case people who can get pregnant—and they don’t even pity us. I don't pity them either.
The left, of course, is prone to self-pity too, and it’d be a lie to say it didn’t have a certain amount of utility in the fight. It’s a good breeding ground for rage and despair. It often leads to genuine, important acts of charity and community building. But it simply cannot take us all the way there. For that we need to transform “us” and “them” into “we.” Then we need to push beyond the vanity of self-pity and defeatism, and start figuring out how we’re going to tear everything down and rebuild.
Pity and self-pity are impulses that are rooted in the desire for connection, but they end up functioning as a way of distancing ourselves from others, quite often out of basic self-preservation and delusion. They fly in the face of the most necessary and powerful tool in the movement against forces of patriarchy, totalitarianism, and dystopia: solidarity. And we have never needed solidarity more than we do right now.
I don’t know what will happen with Roe v. Wade. I have to admit that despite the reality of the situation, it remains inconceivable to me on a certain, extreme denial level that it could be overturned. But I know it’s wildly different for my mom, a feminist activist of the ‘70s, who was 21 when it was decided. She texted me yesterday saying, “I haven’t been calm enough to ask until now, but how are you doing?” I told her I hadn’t reached out to her for the exact same reason, we exchanged anguish, and then I asked her—in an extremely “mom, tell me it’s gonna be okay” way—what she thought was coming next. “Who knows??” she replied. Who knows.
It is in these moments that pity, and self-pity, can enter the frame, and work their limitations on us. Right now, the only thing we know is that we’re scared, for ourselves and for others. But staying there, in our despair and our fear, is a trap. It is when we join forces with people and say that we are not going to be drowned in these emotions, that we are able to get up off the floor. That is what is needed to fight for abortion rights and every other right that we deserve as human beings. And if we do, maybe there’s still a chance that this pitiable country could inch forward instead of falling back.