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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

In Defence Of Indefensible Pity?

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

I have seen many artistic lefties grow wrathful over those who say they pity Theresa May in the past few days.

This strikes me as odd.

Not, I stress, because I am not an artsy leftie. But because I am one.

I find it odd because of Richard III.

Theresa May; official portrait (source linked)

We know Richard to be evil. He is a murderous, scheming villain, and a hopelessly inept king. And yet, well-played, he is pitiable - deprived of society by deformity, mocked and feared until he chooses "to prove a villain," then unable to rule once he has the power he desires.

Our pity is not forgiveness. We do not condone Richard's warmongering or Oedipus' incest. But we sympathise. We understand an individual's human pain is pitiable, despite their deeds. We are not required (except in the most stridently Christian works*) to forgive those deeds.

This is the essence of compassion. One Robin Hood ballad memorably has the hero taunt a bishop who earlier refused him pardon by repeating his cruel words "no pardon, no pardon/no pardon I thee owe," then take his money and force the bishop to dance. But this is a medieval bandit's approach (or that of equally strident Christian works where sinners are unforgiveable and unpitiable**).

Richard III; official portrait (poor thing)

We can be compassionate to other humans onstage. We can pity the fear of the bigot, the all-sacrificing ambition of the politician, the secret schemer's plots coming undone, while still despising their actions. But drama reinforces a moral position. It's why it matters when people do sexist, racist, or elitist productions that reinforce the status quo.

So it's pointless - and arguably morally wrong - to have compassion at the heart of our onstage art if we cannot - or should not - extend this compassion to humans in our lives. To pity a human, but not forgive or forget their crimes and sins. To see them, not as monsters to destroy, but villains to vanquish and to pity.

I am open to being persuaded on this point; that some things move a person beyond humanity. I am certainly not arguing that pity for someone should outweigh judgement for their actions, and acting on that judgement.

But, for now, my objective is to work out why my instinctive position is a defense of pitying the indefensible.

Because pity is what we owe all our fellow humans. This pity is the foundation of human rights, not rage. When we deny our opponents and enemies even our pity, we begin to deny their humanity.

And that is a dangerous road.

*The example that springs to mind is the Marriage of Figaro, where - despite her husband's attempted infidelities and general awfulness - order is restored when the Countess forgives him, being a good 18th-century Christian woman. I can remember better examples, where pity and forgiveness happen even without repentance, but not said works' names.

**The example that springs to mind here is Don Giovanni, which ends with a strident ensemble declaring that his fate (being dragged into Hell by the statue of a guy he murdered a few days before) is the fate of all sinners.


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