The Hollowing of Pity

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

“Immersed in Thought (Lonely)” by Jakub Schikaneder

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1 comment
  1. lly1205 said:

    Really enjoyed your article, and I am happily surprised to see so many references to Nietzsche around WordPress lately!

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