Monday, August 07, 2006

Political Pity and its Discontents

Hannah Arendt, a clear-minded, unsentimental philosopher, regards pity as “the perversion of compassion.” Pity, because of its traditional perception as the “spring of virtue”, has proved to possess "a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself”[1]. By pitying the suffering of a certain group of poor, oppressed people, those who pity it view their pitiable objects as meriting exclusivity. This exclusive ownership over this particular suffering gives rise to a superseding feeling of beyond-moral indignation and pain, that fancies itself outside accountability to the basic norms of humanity. Pity defeats universal responsibility, becomes, as Arendt says “boundless”, and I would add, bottomless: pity for the deprived and oppressed poor led to the blood bath that was the French Revolution.

The authentic language of pity extols cruelty as the means for restoring humanity. “Par pitié, par amour pour l’humanité, soyez inhumains! ” is a sentence “taken almost at random from petition of one of the sections of the Parisian Commune to the National Convention” , and the remarkable thing about it is that it is “neither accidental nor extreme”.

As an example Arendt focuses on Robespierre, the great pitier of the French multitudes. Initially motivated by “the passion of compassion”, his compassion degraded into pity as soon as it found an open public sphere for its expression. As emotions and suffering welled over, he responded by losing a capacity for maintaining considerations of friendship, singularity, moral leadership or principles. “The evil of Robespierre’s virtue was that it did not accept any limitation”. The “pity-inspired” virtue, unleashed in Robespierre’s chaotic rule of terror, shook the foundations of impartial justice and its underlying principle of law, “the application of the same rules to those who sleep in palaces and those who sleep under the bridges of Paris”.[2]

Arendt counters the ravages of political pity by presenting a challenging and constructive alternative in solidarity. Solidarity, anchored in reason, is capable of universality. Aroused by suffering, just like pity, it is nevertheless clear headed and tough-minded, maintains its power in cooler, abstract passion. This translates into the ability of solidarity to pursue the ideal of justice that will include the rich and strong as well as the poor and weak.

Political compassion is solidarity which, unlike the hot, bubbling sentiment of pity, is cold and aloof and can carry on its commitments to the “noble ideas” of humanity: greatness, honor, and, dignity. Dignity, in the public as well as in the private sphere, maintains and is fertilized by individual compassion and political solidarity[3].

Once the model of the symbiosis between pity and boundless bloody revolutions was established, it was adopted and emulated in later generations. Revolutions and rebellions can be genuine uprisings, or they can be stimulated by political agitation. One thing they have in common, and that is the period of intense incitement that precedes them, with a view to ferment and arouse in people as much of the exclusive pity reserved for their own kind.

When the pity-generating propaganda reaches a certain critical mass, it takes over the minds of people, suspends their natural historical political pity as valid an explanation as any of the others put forth by abilities for compassion, and becomes a warrant for wanton bloodshed and genocidal agendas. Hannah Arendt’s comprehension of the ravages of pity helps explain, to a certain extent, the appeal of genocidal organizations to some of today's pundits as they attempt to decipher the meaning of Palestinian Hamas, Hizzbulla, and other so-called martyrs.

One such example of exclusive pity for one nation transformed into sheer cruelty to another is this (via: Andrew Sullivan). Here's an excerpt::

For we have seen pictures of little Israeli girls writing hateful greetings on the bombs to be dropped on the civilian population of Lebanon and Palestine. Little Israeli girls are not cute when they strut with glee at death and torment across the fronts.

 He refers to these pictures.

Little Israeli girls are as sweet and as innocent as any Norwegian or Lebanese girls or any other little girls. What's written on the shells? "To Nassralah - with love". Nassralah, who called for the extermination of all Jews in Israel, in whose name katiushahs are lobbed at their houses, at their little bodies, at their futures. They wish him dead? How do little girls know what death is? They know that these shells are meant to stop the evil man from murdering them.

How can an author, a person of morality and understanding, utter such ugliness at little Israeli girls? Because, dear reader, he has fallen a victim to that brutal, exclusive pity which Hannah Arendt warns against. He has been taken over with overwhelming pity for one set of little girls so that no space whatsoever is left for little Israeli girls.

When little Israeli girls are killed by Nassaralah's death rain from the sky, when little Israeli boys and girls are shredded to pieces by suicide bombers, can Jostein Gaarder spare a tear for them? I think not. His pity for the Lebanese overwhelms his universal morality. He has stepped into the realm of beyond-morality. We all know what dragons lurk there.

1,2,3: Arendt, Hannah, The Vita Activa, The Portable Hannah Arendt., Edited by Peter Baehr, pp


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