The Problem of Pity

I’d like to briefly introduce and talk about pity. Consider this the start of a conversation far from finished. Particularly in this small space, I’d like to talk about images that evoke pity.

Photographs are often used to display suffering that evokes pity from viewers, and that pity creates a distance, an ‘other.’ However, I’d like to think about ways that  photographs of violence and suffering could be used to create situations and contexts of recognition.

Pity is a passive reaction that perpetuates uneven distributions of power. By this I mean that pity allows people to feel sorry for other people, somewhere else, who are worse off than them. Being able to feel pity is most often a luxury afforded to people with more means and resources and life situations. While pity solidifies distinction (“I feel sorry for you, because I am better off than you”), a deliberation aiming for recognition in order to make judgments creates moments and situations of solidarity. I think that there are more productive responses than pity.

Susie Linfield argues in her book Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence that photography provides opportunities to recognize and engages issues of human rights, violence, and suffering. She argues that while a photograph may be “created by a person of relative privilege, it might nevertheless foster ideas of human connection and a vision of a less unjust world” (237). Much of Linfield’s book works to provide support that viewing images of violence does not necessarily participate in the violence; instead, it can connect people in ways that develop mutual understanding, and the foundation for a performative deliberation that allows for both solidarity and judgment.

However, these potentially productive interactions are not productive when they provoke pity from the viewer. Linfield begins a chapter of her book (chapter 5) with a photograph of a child, Memuna Mansarah, and her father. Both are victims of civil war, and each lost part of their right arm. In responding to the typical reactions to the photograph, particularly pity, Linfield quotes Pascal Bruckner in The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt as claiming that “pity becomes a form of hatred when it is the only basis for the image we have of the far off ‘other’” (Linfield, 128). Part of this is because “pity creates a top-down relation in which on person’s power is predicated on another’s weakness; this unequal relationship then presents itself in the maddening guise of generous virtue” (128).

Images of violence often evoke pity, which leads to charity, not deliberation. Linfield turns to Hannah Arendt as well to engage the problem of pity as she explains how “above both pity and compassion Arendt placed solidarity, which, she rightly noted, is not a feeling but a principle through which men and women create a ‘community of interest with the oppressed and exploited.’ Solidarity!” (Linfield, 129). The primary point here is that this community of interest is not invested or motivated by a feeling of pity or compassion, but of recognition (see: About The Blog Name) that allows for deliberation. This creates the conditions of solidarity.

So while I don’t want, in any way, to discourage an ethics and politics of care, I do want to think about the ways in which care – when it comes in the form of pity – doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. Perhaps we can move away from an ethics and politics of pity and towards an ethics and politics of recognition and response.

Maybe instead of feeling pity – feeling sorry for someone – we can cultivate means by which to hear their stories, to listen, to recognize, and then to respond. Maybe we can respond not only to their immediate problem (which does often call for response) but also to the systemic causes of that problem, which make the pity a response in the first place. Maybe it even means questioning our own modes of living, and being, in relationship to that of others…

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