Protest Pity!

Posted on 10 January 2009. Filed under: Advocacy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Whether you’re Deaf or hearing; old or young; poor or rich; have muscular dystrophy or not; gay or straight; male or female; have disabilities or not—chances are, you would never want someone to pity you. Yet, too many of us think pity is okay as long as we do it to someone else. Meaning someone who leads such a pathetic life that they “deserve” pity. And, not so incidentally, charity.

Jerry Lewis is someone who perpetuates pity against all people with disabilities–and, yes, against Deaf people and Autistic people as well, even if not all identify as having disabilities–every time he runs his annual telethon for people with muscular dystrophy on Labor Day weekend. For his annual task of attacking the dignity of millions of people, Jerry is about to receive a humanitarian award.

There is now an on-line petition campaign against Jerry’s humanitarian award. If you already know you want to sign it, then skip the rest of this post and follow this link to the petition signature page! (Be sure to use the Comments line to explain, in your own words, why you support the petition. This will vastly strengthen the impact of your signature.)

Not sure yet? I will explain more about the petition and why all Deaf people, Autistic people, and people with disabilities should sign it. But, first, I will share a few words on why we all should take a stand against the destructive force of pity where ever we find it–whether it’s perpetuated by Jerry or by someone else (see “Protest Pity“). Then I will talk about why Jerry does not deserve a humanitarian award (see “Protest Jerry’s Pity-a-Thon“). Last, I will explain about the humanitarian award and the effort to protest it (see “Join the Petition Campaign!“)

Protest Pity

Those of us who are Deaf, or who are Autistic, or who have muscular dystrophy, or who have disabilities, all know first hand how pity can damage lives. It undermines our efforts to seek out access to our environment; to full, independent lives; to our basic human rights; and to our fundamental freedoms. People who “pity” us don’t think about things like supplying us with closed captions (for Deaf people), or a quiet, dim environment (for Autistic people with sensory issues), or ramps (for wheelchair users). People who pity us are more interested in putting a quarter or two in our begging cup (because, surely, we must have one, don’t we?) so they can go away feeling good about themselves. Never mind whether our lives are truly improved by the charity they bestow upon us. Because, unlike empathy, pity doesn’t really have anything to do with providing the kind of help that people necessarily want and need to receive. Pity, and the charity it triggers, is really about the giver and their need to see themselves as kind and generous. By definition, it is never about the recipient.

Pity can frequently masquerade as more benign emotions such as “sympathy” or (better) “empathy.” But unlike empathy, pity dehumanizes the target. We feel empathy with our equals: empathy implies that we identify with the pain of someone we perceive as being mostly like ourselves. Empathy also implies that we believe the target deserves all the same kind of support we would want for ourselves if we were in the same situation. But we feel pity only for people we perceive as being, not just different from us, but beneath us. Maybe even contemptible, or less than human. Empathy binds people together and drives people to fight for things like justice, equality, and human rights. Pity separates us and stratifies us into “superior” beings (people who should never be pitied) and “inferior” beings (people who should be pitied, or who should be passive recipients of charity).

When we empathize with someone, we recognize their fundamental dignity. We may not necessarily share all their values and interests, but we acknowledge that they deserve to have access to all the same services, human rights, and freedoms that we do. If someone we empathize with is denied the right to informed consent to medical care (because they are denied the interpreters they need to understand the treatment options being offered to them), or the right to read an important brochure on HIV/AIDS prevention (because it is not available in Braille), then we become enraged on their behalf. We take as a given that they deserve the same things that we do. And we stand in solidarity with them when they fight for their human rights.

However, if we pity them rather than empathize with them, then it doesn’t occur to us that the barriers they face to full participation in society are a travesty of justice and human rights. Instead, we simply say, “How sad that they have disabilities.” Then perhaps we throw a few dollars in their general direction so we can move on and forget about them. Pity does not inspire people to support enduring equal access to the environment. It only inspires short-term, feel-good charity.

Protest Jerry Lewis’ Pity-a-Thon

If pity is such a terrible thing, then why do some people, like Jerry Lewis, do so much to encourage it? It can be tempting to fall into the trap of promoting pity for two reasons. One, too many people still confuse pity with its more productive counterpart, empathy. Two, pity does happen to be very effective at luring people to donate millions of dollars, in charity–which can do a lot of short-term good, even if the pity itself can do so much harm.

Hence, Jerry’s annual “pity-a-thon,” which has raised enormous amounts of money to support medical research. However, many people question whether the harm caused by Jerry’s pity-a-thon justifies the ends. They point out that events such as Jerry’s telethon can generate massive amounts of pity that last well beyond the event ends, with all its destructive implications. Last year, dozens of Deaf people, hearing people, Autistic people, non-autistic people, and people with various disabilities wrote about why they oppose Jerry’s telethon: you can read those blog posts at And in case you were wondering: yes, there are people with muscular dystrophy who don’t like Jerry’s telethon either.

Join the Petition Campaign!

So what about Jerry’s upcoming humanitarian award, and the petition campaign protesting it? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it will give Jerry Lewis its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 22, 2009. This is largely for his work raising money by entrenching negative, stereotyped attitudes toward people with disabilities. Most people with disabilities do not oppose the need for more medical research into muscular dystrophy, or for services for people with muscular dystrophy. What we object to is the destructive means by which Jerry raises these funds.

Read and sign the petition at Please be sure to use the Comments line to explain, in your own words, why you support the petition. This will vastly increase the impact of your signature (because it shows you feel very strongly about this subject.)

If you’re on Facebook, you can join the Facebook group organizing efforts to protest Jerry’s award at

(If you’re not in Facebook yet, it’s pretty easy to set up an account for yourself, and it is free.)

Please do blog the petition campaign (be sure to link to the petition and to the Facebook group!) And please do twitter it as well.

You can increase the visibility of this blog post by “Digging” it–go to, then click on where it says “Digg it” (if you don’t already have a Digg account then you may need to create one, which takes just a few minutes).

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