Victims Without Tears: Democracy and the Politics of Pity

“We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.”

La Rochefoucauld

Pity is a perplexing, ambiguous, and painful subject. It brings forth deep questions about how we do, and how we should, feel about others—those with whom we trade, vote, pray, or meet simply in print or on television.

A philosopher could ask whether pity is a natural emotion or a sentiment of choice. He could ask whether pity is an emotion, a moral sentiment, or a cultural construct. He could more subtly query whether pity named and expressed is the same as pity originally experienced.

Even those who have little to do with philosophy agree that pity is perplexing and ambiguous. Common parlance recognizes significant individual and cultural variations in defining, expressing, and valuing pity. Everyday observation discloses those who ask for pity but don’t want it, and those who claim to extend it to others, while only using it to disguise their disdain for the pitied.

For almost a year, the national election dragged us back and forth over the burning coals of human needs, predicaments, and suffering, continually evoking pity without ever once mentioning it. Setting before us victims of AIDS, abortion, unemployment, broken and disordered families, destroyed cities, and much more, the campaign’s text detailed wrongs to be righted and problems to be solved, while its subtext pulsed with pity.

Indeed, pity occupies an ambiguous place in our democracy. Democracy evokes pity for the plight of the wretched among its citizens, yet in affirming the dignity of all, it denies that any of its constituencies, individual or collective, should be degraded by being made objects of pity, as kings and queens and nobles and priests patronized their subjects. In a word, pity is spawned by democracy’s care for its own sub-groups, while at the same time pity is barred from democracy’s official discourse. Committed to the equality of its citizens and its own powers to transform human life, democracy judges pity to be antithetical to civic respect.

The contemporary advocates of causes and victims—from both right and left—illustrate democracy’s ambivalence about pity. They represent the suffering of their constituencies powerfully, graphically, and predictably. They speak of cruel circumstances, broken treaties, violated rights, unrecognized sacrifices, and other legal, social, and moral wrongs; they claim that their clients’ conditions merit moral attention, reform, even reparation and special programs, but—for Heaven’s sake—not pity. Pity is thought an unfitting, insulting relation between equal citizens.

Despite this wishful ideal, pity continually surfaces in the victim-filled consciousness of the modern democratic mind. Since the formation of the enlightenment political agenda in the eighteenth century, politics has promoted the rational reform of society. Romanticism, redefining the heart, provided the elite with an ever-expanding sympathy, which in the course of nineteenth century reached out to more and more types of victims, real and fictitious. Transforming Christian charity, modernity fastened upon the brigand, the worker, the criminal, the slave, the peasant, the soldier, the orphan, the poet, women, gypsies, Greeks, Italians, Poles, Jews, and many others as fashionable objects of sympathy. Indeed, justly or unjustly, what group of democracy’s outsiders has not been made at some point the object of democracy’s popular sympathies? Even the suffering of animals (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, domestic animals—especially the dog and the horse—and in the twentieth, wild animals as well) has made a bid to win our ever more refined pity and our votes.

Even though pity can be as narrow and selective as it is arbitrary and capricious, it can be argued that it is the proper first expression of fellow feeling. It could even be defined as the root form out of which arise such fellow feelings as mercy, charity, sympathy, and empathy (which a friend defines as sympathy dragged through German literary criticism). It even prepares the way for the higher sentiments of compassion and love.

Pity itself rises out of and above primordial and confused feelings of revulsion, disgust, and fear of contagion that victims, the weak, spontaneously evoke in us. Pity corresponds to our sense of taboo and pollution, which (if Mary Douglas is correct) is born out of an immediate sense of things profoundly out of order: birds that can’t fly, fish that have legs, etc. By nature or circumstances, the people we pity are profoundly wounded, deprived of what the normal order of things requires, or even morally degraded. Among the pitiful are people who have minds that don’t or can’t think; legs that don’t stand; characters that can’t govern; mothers and fathers that won’t nurture; friends that don’t stay loyal; rulers who destroy them, and ideas and faiths that delude them. The pitiable, we sense with some mixture of intuition and feeling, are profoundly, pathetically, and obviously, what they shouldn’t be.

Pity can be lightning-quick in its grasp of what is abnormal, wrong, broken, self-defeating, destroyed, pathetic, miserable. Also, pity can grow over time and accumulate resonance by new experience and insight. It can be expanded through reasoning and speculation, and it can be deepened by prayer and meditation. Of course, it can harden and restrict. It can be distorted, fickle, and highly ambivalent.

Pity repeatedly arises to meet the victims who swarm before us: “What a shame! “A waste!” “Mercy be! Such a sorry sight!” “God bless them.” “Spare them their misery.” These spontaneous interior expressions seem too archaic to utter aloud. An interior monitor silences us. We now suffer guilt for recognizing that such a degrading feeling as pity for others still prowls about within us. Aside from a few formulaic prayers, the great majority of us pray for mercy only quickly and in private. Wailing and lamentation is no longer heard in public; it is far more studied by folklorists than practiced by widowed women.

Yet we cherish pity. We want it, we give it, we believe it should be given. We have friends, often called whiners and teary-eyed people, who build their lives upon pity’s solicitation. However much forbidden, pity is always present to keen ear and eye, and conscience. We disguise our pity under such acceptable names as empathy, compassion, or caring.

Pity’s Hierarchical World

Pity, we are told, arises out of a sense of superiority and displays itself as condescension. It neglects injustice and is indifferent to reform. Pity belongs to an older, hierarchical order of society. It is a proper sentiment for a world composed not of equals but of superiors and inferiors. Pity was at home in a world filled with pain, anger, resentment, jealousy, and violence; pity was the opposite of honor, and it was a sister to mercy, grace, pardon, forgiveness—that whole complex of unacceptable sentiments and actions with which modern democracy (a secular order of equal individuals) has no truck. Pity belongs to a world divided between the weak and strong. Darwinian, Nietzschean, this cruel world requires the weak to show their throats to the strong. Where the many must ask for pardon, clemency, mercy, and pity, the strong choose who is to be fed, defended, and spared. Democracy has no place for pity, even if it is the foundation of fellow feelings, as well as a sentiment that religions in general and Christianity in particular urge upon believers. In new democratic societies individuals and groups should be assured their dignity by virtue of the equality of each to each. Pity implies inferiority. Ominously, in a society of equals only the state executes and offers clemency.

The eighteenth-century ideologies out of which democracy arose rejected hierarchical society. These ideologies asserted that (to use Kant’s formulation) humanity had reached its majority. Humanity should care for itself: provide itself the goods, rights, and opportunities required for its happiness. In democracy—theoretically, at least—the people affirm their own rights, calculate their pains and pleasures, make contracts, and are the source of their own welfare.

Pity became increasingly obsolete in the nineteenth century as human technology increasingly dominated nature, the state took control of society, and democracy spread. Pity lost its objects and thus its meaning when orphans, widows, criminals, the poor, blind, deaf, insane, and all those once considered the inevitable victims of society and nature were transformed into objects of spreading reform. Philanthropy became a question of institutions and public policy. The new lords of state and industry offered work and opportunity in place of pity and alms.

In contradiction to certain liberal theorists, there do exist many individuals and groups who deserve pity precisely because of their inability to define and to pursue their own happiness. They may even choose (perhaps ultimately for reasons beyond their own control) suffering, and society can do nothing about it. Sometimes only pity, good will, and prayer are appropriate. Indeed, there is suffering so pitiable and pathetic, so unamenable to reform, that our quarrel about it must be with nature or God.

Politics can’t measure all human suffering and tragedy. There are historical processes, circumstances, and tragedies that cannot be reversed. There are people and situations that lie beyond the pale of reform. There are even things too rude for our empathy.

By remaining silent about pity we forget how miserable the bulk of humans still are. We forget our ties with that older world where dirt, accident, disease, and injustice ruled and misery abounded. Being silent about it helps us sustain the modern fiction that society is composed of autonomous, self-developing, and self-fulfilling economic individuals who, granted their rights and treated fairly, can reach (if only vicariously through their children) happiness on this earth.

But our silence will not displace pity from our lives, any more than taboos against sex and death banished them from our lives. It will take something more powerful than cultural and political fiction to deny pity a place in human transactions, for it goes to the heart of human perception. As long as there are radically asymmetrical relations between individuals, between groups, and between humanity and God, we will perceive the world through elemental emotions like anger, resentment, loyalty, gratitude, and pity. We will continue to trade in pity, even if it be only in hushed tones and with clandestine gestures.

Despite the claims of campaign politics and the utopian expectations that underlie our democratic societies, there is much about human life that escapes our understanding and evades political control. The small worlds of our political discourse do not contain the vast universes of human feeling and action, nor do they transcend or supersede religious views of the meaning of life. Without denying the great strides of modern science, understanding, and justice, there is still much about the human situation which is unalterable.

When the unalterable brings suffering, it’s pity we want, but pity that we will have none of.


  • Joseph Amato

    Joseph A. Amato is a noted teacher, thinker, and author. He is the author of Victims and Values: A History and Theory of Suffering.

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