Playing the pity card

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By Tony Samson

Part of the effort to push back on the rhetorical excesses of leaders when they inveigh against certain personalities as well as economic projects cast in regulatory limbo is to invoke the dire consequences of the actions being contemplated.

When business personalities are involved in the diatribe, the ripple effects on the business climate and the ability to attract and retain foreign investments are laid out. The unreliability of contracts, the volatility of laws, and the resulting uncertainty of the business climate thrown to the mercies of a bad hair day are mentioned.

The threats to companies no longer able to carry on their business due to regulations imposed on them are confronted with the dire consequences of the move. The loss of jobs, displacement of talents, and the write-off of capital invested are highlighted. The messengers can be personalities with their own fan bases (and high approval ratings) to make their messages take root.

Playing the pity card avoids a confrontational stance. It lays out the collateral damage wrought by a course of action suggested by parts of speeches delivered in unlikely forums.

In our culture of avoiding confrontation, the appeal for mercy and, yes, kindness, is the first resort. Even in social settings, like a breadwinner leaving his family for another, the abandoned ones resort to an appeal — what will happen to us? Even in a teleserye plot such as this, the first reaction of asking for reconsideration evolves later (in the next three installments) into a gritty determination to shoulder on without the scoundrel’s support. Can the sequel of revenge be far behind?

The pity card, as those who play it will attest, is premised on the basic kindness of the object of the appeal. The prospect of a conversion and going back to a righteous path (such as economic predictability on which investors place their faith) assumes that the outburst was an aberration, open to be repaired. But, does such presumed “milk of human kindness” which Lady Macbeth disdained in her husband flow too in the one being importuned?

Do bullies in the schoolyard or the workplace, respond to appeals of pity? Doesn’t the argument that one was sick the previous day and couldn’t complete the report fall on the deaf ears of the bully? (You are not allowed to be sick.)

The pity card is really a sign of weakness. Rather than checking the arbitrary exercise of power, the appeal only emboldens the bully — is that all you an come up with? Also, the dire consequences laid out so carefully, complete with statistics on lost market value and the decline of direct investments, can invites an even harsher aggressiveness — do you think I care?

Sometimes, the unintended consequence of laying out the effects of an arbitrary assault even works to the advantage of the aggressor. It isolates the target of the bullying. Rather than eliciting sympathy for the victim’s dire straits, the bystander may just shrug his shoulders — not my problem. This victim-blaming is prevalent in the arena of sexual harassment where the aggrieved party is somehow seen as complicit — maybe she was wearing a plunging neckline.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2013 book David and Goliath, subtitled “the art of battling giants,” describes the famous battle between a shepherd and a giant warrior as not entirely as lopsided as it looked. The sun was in Goliath’s eyes and he suffered from poor eyesight to begin with. He was also stricken with some muscle dystrophy slowing down his movements. The slingshot was truly a formidable weapon (against wolves preying on sheep) and David had several stones at the ready. While this scenario seemed open to the possibility of playing the pity card (hey, he’s just a boy, you bully) and maybe just surrendering to a superior force, the fight still took place with no excuses made. And it was won by the seemingly weak side.

Playing the pity card worked with Gandhi and his passive resistance and hunger strike against a conscientious empire (and the help of mass media). But in the world of weaponized social media and the power of three branches of government, the pity card is merely a weakness… that needs to be overwhelmed.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.