The very first quote the reader arrives at in the first chapter of No Pity sets the stage for everything that will follow. It is a quote fraught with connotative difficulties for the typical reader: “Pity oppresses” (Shapiro, 1993, p. 13). Though most people doubtlessly feel that pity is not exactly the most positive of emotions, it is arguable that most of those people view pity as oppressive. Oppression is the enforcement of the will of the stronger over the weaker, after all. The connotative implication of pity is charged with empathy and empathy rarely enters into the realm of oppression.
For the rest of the book, author Joseph P. Shapiro proceeds to reveal—with remarkable simplicity and empathetic insight—how every iconic fictional character suffering from some form of biological disability (is there really any difference between physical and mental disabilities?) ranging from sweet little Tiny Tim to nightmare fuel Mr. Freddy Krueger reinforces the reality that pity is an oppressive emotion. Even more amazingly, Mr. Shapiro illuminates for the reader through examples using real life analogues to those fictional icons exactly how expressions of empathetic pity can be oppressive even when they are as seemingly benign as the assumption that “a man in a wheelchair cannot get around to do his job” (Shapiro, 1993, pp. 19-20).

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Ultimately, Shapiro’s portrait of what he terms a new civil rights movement specifically for people with disabilities illustrates that connotation is everything. Pity carries connotations of empathy, yet can prove under the right conditions to be every bit as oppressive as a lack of pity. Likewise, acts and codes that seem to imply an entirely benevolent sort of compassion can, under the right conditions (or, perhaps, wrong conditions might be a more apt description) come to be viewed as acts of malevolence wrought by a code unwittingly lacking in compassion.

  • Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times, 1993.