Condescending Compassion

"The sympathy extended to a victim is deceptive. People love the victim only when they can feel superior to him or her. [...] It is a human reflex that makes you feel better about yourself when you can help someone weaker, a victim. That works as long as the roles are clearly defined."
Natascha Kampusch, in the epilogue of 3,096 Days

Condescending Compassion is when a person feels themselves magnanimous enough not to hold someone's 'faults' against them openly. They can't help being a commoner, idiot, a mutant or simply wrong so it would simply be rude to treat them badly because of it. Instead, they resort to the much better idea that they should be sympathetic or even friendly to that lesser being, but of course they won't really take them seriously. In a way, the condescension or even pity is likely well intentioned, but if the target of this attitude realizes it (and they probably will) then they're naturally likely to be quite insulted or hurt.

May factor into Black and White Insanity or Windmill Political. Compare and contrast Heteronormative Crusader. Often runs in the background of White Man's Burden or Save Our Students plots, which explains why some viewers find those stories offensive and others find them inspiring or heartwarming.


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    Comic Books 
  • Common in the works of the German cartoonist Ralf König. A good example is a show-within-a-show-within-the-comic. The protagonist is a film critic with a Condescending Compassion bias. He show the audience a movie where this is built into the narrative. The comic start with the film critic ranting about how movies these days are naive and shallow when it comes to homosexuality, making horrible mistakes such as portraying gays as capable of happiness and meaningful lives. Then he shows his own favorite movie. It's about gays getting beaten to death and falling in love with each other as they lie dying in the hospital. After the movie, he feels so sorry for the poor, poor little homos that he pretty much has a nervous breakdown.
  • In one strip of The Feeling Prince Charles Had, a heterosexual character talks to a homosexual and holds a little well-meaning rant about how he thinks it's okay to be gay, ending with his wondering when we will ever get rid of homophobia and start treating homosexuals as equals. The reply: "Maybe when you no longer feel you need to give me permission."

    Comic Strips 
  • This comic Strip from Joaquin Lavado (Quino) is titled "They are Just Like Us." Here comes a translation:
    This "globalization" issue allows us to realize that the people of other races and cultures fall in love, Just Like Us.
    And, like us, make love, and children are born of that love. Children that they love and care about, just like us.
    And they need music to express themselves, dance and have fun, just like us.
    And they weep in sorrow with tears like our own, and laugh with joy with loud guffaws, just like us.
    They even rent the same movies that we see and eat the same fast food with the same soda we drink here.
    What does all of this demonstrate? That they, though seeming so different, are just like us!
    It's so easy to say, "They are just like us!" How long will it take for us to even begin to say "We are just like them"?

    Films — Animation 
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: Kyle and Cartman are facing certain death.
    Cartman: All those times I said you were a big dumb Jew, I didn't mean it... you're not a Jew.
    Kyle: (irritably) Yes I am! I am a Jew, Cartman!
    Cartman: No, no, Kyle, don't be so hard on yourself.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Bitter Tea Of General Yen includes scenes of missionaries in China. They are all extremely condescending towards the Chinese people, and they all think they're savages who should be pitied and shown the Christian way of life.
  • The Breakfast Club: This is Claire's attitude towards the unpopular kids in school, particularly Bender. Her popularity and friends influence her to be mean to those "beneath her," and much of her conflict stems from hating the fact that this is so.
  • In But I'm a Cheerleader, this idea underlies the film's setup, starting with the intervention confrontation at the start of the film. Megan comes home from school to be confronted by her parents, her boyfriend, some of her female friends and Mike, a self-described ex-gay staffer from a residential therapy program called True Directions. On her arrival at True Directions, Megan is put through an intense session led by camp director Mary, who strives to break down Megan's insistence that she isn't actually a lesbian and her presence there is a mistake. Megan is actually reduced to tears by the end of the session. It becomes clear that Mary thinks True Directions' program is attempting "therapeutic" intervention.
  • In a film called Hate Crime, the mother of a young man convicted of murdering a gay man decides that the Christian thing to do is to offer condolences to the mother of the gay man. She says something to the tune of "Well, after all, your son's bad choices weren't your fault." Bitch gets slapped.
  • The gentile teacher at the beginning of The Hebrew Hammer implores her all-Christian students to be respectful of Mordechai's different faith and practices, although that doesn't stop her from throwing a few jabs at Jews into her speech.
  • Played with by the protagonists of Inception as they write the story of the Dream Within a Dream. Their target is a young heir who they intend to manipulate to make a certain business decision. There is some resentment between him and his dead father, with the father's last word to him being "disappointed". The protagonists resolve this by giving him a fake epiphany....
    Son: I know, you were disappointed because I couldn't be you.
    Father: No... I was disappointed... because you tried
  • In the movie The Ledge, the Christian antagonist openly feels sorry for the atheist protagonist's "empty life without God" as well as for his gay roommate (he mistakes them for lovers). This doesn't sit well with the protagonist, who then decides to seduce the antagonist's wife in retaliation.
  • In Mammoth, believing prostitution to be horrible, Leo keeps feeling sorry for Cookie. He does this in a way that's actually shaming her and would emotionally damage her if she internalized it.
  • The main conflict in The SM Judge is about how the prosecutor and others are trying to cast Magda in the role of the poor little victim who everyone should feel sorry for-never mind that the prosecutor himself is the only one having a real harmful influence on her life. Ironically, she didn't get any help when she hated herself for being a masochist or when she got abused for real by her previous husband. Nope, the pity comes only after she has turned her life around so that everything is going great.
  • The War: A new teacher comes to town and she's not prejudiced in the slightest bit. She thinks it's wonderful that dumb black children have to sit in the back of her classroom while the bright white children get all her attention. That's what makes life "a bowl full of cherries" for her.
  • X-Men:
    • X-Men: The Last Stand: The quest by Angel's father to help his son is a classic example, only fueling the son's self-hatred. As he caught his young Angel trying to cut off his own wings, he reacted with revulsion to the fact that his son was a mutant. He then dedicated his life to trying to "cure" his son from being a mutant.
    • X-Men: Days of Future Past: Played with when a nurse tells Mystique that she feels sorry for the blue-skinned woman she saw on TV, because it must have been such a shame to be born looking like that, but she's unaware that she's talking to the woman in question.
  • An attempted - and failed - aversion resulted from the making of the 1932 black comedy/horror film Freaks. Director Todd Browning wanted to show sideshow performers to be, if not exactly ordinary, then at least well-adjusted and confident, and not in need of the other circus people to feel sorry for them or protect them from persecution. But he was forced to cut large portions of the screenplay by the film's producers (partly for censorship reasons and partly because the studio just wanted a shorter film), with the result that the freaks are pictured more as Noble Savages (they are even - sympathetically - referred to as children) and then as near-villains when they take their revenge in the climax.

  • In The Baby-Sitters Club series, Stacey is this toward a new girl in one book.
  • In Lois Bujold's Mirror Dance, a scene at the end comes when the beautiful, powerful, and highly competent and respected mercenary officer Elena Bothari-Jesek reports to the short, crippled, morbidly obese Lord Mark, about destroying the records of his horrific experience of being repeatedly raped, tortured, and even forcefed over a period of days while Mark lies there as everyone else is busying themselves carrying out the terms of the happy ending Mark had arranged for them. When she places her hand on his arm and expresses her pity, the result is a Crowning Moment of Awesome. "Don't you dare pity me. I won!"
  • In 3096 Days and I Choose Life, the autobiographies of Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne, they both spend the last part of their books discussing this trope. Both women were kidnapped as kids, and after they got free they experienced that people tried to reduce them to a victimhood-role that was basically there for these people to feel better about themselves at the victim's expense.
  • Don Quixote in the first part of the novel give us The Barber and the Curate, two Moral Guardians, and in the second part Loony Fan Sanson Carrásco, whose sincere desire to help that poor fool, Don Quixote and cure his madness is sabotaged by this attitude, rendering all of them into Threshold Guardians. Also, all three do things to help him that could be easily described as "crazy."
  • In Pride and Prejudice, when he receives news that Lydia has eloped with Wickham, the rector Mr. Collins decides that it would be a good idea to write to Mr. Bennet and 'console' him and his cousins on their misfortune. These condolences primarily come in the form of a self-righteous lecture about what a wicked and shameful girl Lydia is and how she's brought ruin on them all through her wicked conduct.
  • In David Weber's The War God's Own, this is the attitude of spoiled young Sir Vaijon of Almerhas when first introduced. Things go to hell when he meets the protagonist, who is of a race that Vaijon considers the lowest of the low and has been personally chosen as champion by the patron god of Vaijon's military order.
  • Lampshaded in The Tamuli. Throughout The Elenium the protagonists have been Elenes who are very pro-Styric despite the wide-spread anti-Styric attitudes that exist among Elenes, and stand up against Elene racism on the matter. However, in The Tamuli they finally get to see the great city of the Styrics and the shock of seeing Styrics living ordinary, normal lives like Elenes, as equals to Elenes, instead of the downtrodden, victimised people they're used to seeing, makes them realise that they'd been courting condescending compassion all along. Being good people at heart, they're able to confront this ugly side of themselves and overcome it, but it's a shock to the system when they're first exposed to the reality of the type of compassion they'd previously been feeling.
  • Harry Potter:
    • This is how the non-Death Eaters tend to treat Muggles. The Muggle Prime Minister is frustrated by Fudge and Scrimgeour treating him like a child instead of an equal.
    • Hermione's treatment of House Elves also has more than a bit of this. Their Blue and Orange Morality makes them eager to serve humans, and they're offended by such notions as "freedom" and "payment". They like working for kind, understanding humans better than mistreatment, but they still (with only one exception that we see) prefer mistreatment to freedom, to the point where they literally consider it a Fate Worse Than Death. Hermione, believing that she knows what's best for them and that they'll like freedom "once they've got a taste of it," attempts to trick them into freeing themselves. They do not take it well. Dumbledore, by contrast, treats them kindly and respectfully and gladly agrees to pay the one House Elf who asks for it, but does not suggest freeing the majority who don't desire it.
  • In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, this is one of the attitudes that (nicer) civilians of the Solarian League have towards non-league 'neobarbs'.
  • In Warbreaker, Vivenna tries to be understanding towards the prickly Jewels after learning that she lost her Breath to one of the Returned. Jewels responds that being chosen to give your Breath to a god is an honor for her people, and that her sacrifice helped save her family from starvation, and thus she really isn't interested in Vivenna's pity.
  • The "Smug Marrieds" in both the novel and films in the Bridget Jones series either passive aggressively shame/pity single peers (mostly women) when they aren't asking "How's Your Love Life?" or making "tick tock tick tock" sounds when reminding Bridget about her biological clock.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Occurs on Community in the episode "Early 21st Century Romanticism". Britta makes friends with a lesbian pretty much for the sole purpose of having an excuse to smugly brag to everybody about what a progressive and tolerant person she is. At one point, the rather naïve and sheltered Annie curiously asks her some questions about her friend, and Britta uses this opportunity to condescendingly lecture her on her "homophobia" and how it makes her a lesser person. It turned out that Britta's "lesbian" friend was straight, thought Britta was a lesbian, and befriended her for exactly the same reason. Neither girl was very happy to find out the truth.
  • In an episode of Fringe, a doctor with a paraplegic son was killing other paraplegics in an attempt to find a cure for his son's condition. When the son found out, he was not only horrified by the murders his father was committing, but incredibly hurt that his father didn't accept him the way he was.
  • An episode of Saved by the Bell had Zack dating a paraplegic girl. He was very considerate to her, but to such an extent that he slid into this trope. She called him out on it and broke up with him, but by the end of the episode he'd learned the error of his ways and they'd reunited (at least temporarily).
  • In season 9 of How I Met Your Mother, the front desk clerk Curtis constantly and repeatedly pities Ted for being single at a romantic location and during a wedding.
  • In Red Dwarf, Lister indignantly refutes Kochanski's insinuation that he is homophobic by citing his drinking-buddies status with a gay crewman who he describes as being just one of the boys. The fact the crewman's nickname is Bent Bob doesn't seem at all incongruous to him.
  • In Highway To Heaven, a bar patron is highly offended when his efforts to buy a drink for a man in a wheelchair, just because he is in a wheelchair, are met with "No, thank you." He thought he deserved brownie points for "being nice to a cripple."
  • House addresses this a few times in the mentality of doctors and their patients. Cameron previously was married to a man who she knew was dying of terminal cancer, and their marriage naturally only lasted six months. She finds herself likely attracted to the miserable, depressed, crippled House, and makes several advances on him. Eventually House spells it out that what she feels for him isn't love, it's pity, and that he's not going to go into a relationship based on something like that. Likewise, Wilson's repeated failed marriages are attributed by House that he's only attracted to women who are "broken," and then loses interest when they get back on their feet. Again, it's implied this is a major reason why Wilson and House are friends, since House is so damaged that Wilson just can't fix him no matter how long they're together.
  • In a The Daily Show bit just after Obama's election, Larry Wilmore got all excited about finally getting the chance to exercise his "black liberal guilt" by condescendingly praising other races for basic accomplishments like being hardworking and having cute children.
  • The first episode of Adam Ruins Everything points this out as a contributing factor to why various charitable giving operations don't help like we think they do. Adam asks his student-for-the-day Emily what she visualizes when thinking about a citizen of an African country. What she comes up with is a string of stereotypes of rural African communities before stopping and realizing how condescending she sounds. Later in the episode it is implied that this contributes to the attitude that poor people can't just be given money directly because they might spend it on things they don't need.

  • Nanne Grönvall's song "Fördomar" (Prejudice) plays this for laughs. The whole song is about the protagonist bragging about how she's a perfect Mary Sue who does not have any prejudice whatsoever. The first verse is simply about how great and open-minded she is in general. The second verse is the Alice of this trope, expecting gratitude from gays for not despising them. The rest of the song goes downhill from there with blatant racism (against blacks and whites), sexism (against men and women), ageism (against young people and old people) and so on.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Defining characteristic of the Tau attitude toward other races. Depending on the Writer this may be presented as a marginally better alternative to the Absolute Xenophobe Imperium of Man, or much, much worse because at least the humans are honest about how much they hate you.

    Video Games 
  • In Dragon Age II, Sebastian tries to sell Merrill on the Chantry by talking about its work caring for orphans and widows. Merrill questions why orphans and widows need to be cared for - in her own clan, they are treated just like everyone else.

    Visual Novels 
  • Katawa Shoujo plays with this trope in a few ways. Being a game about disabled love interests, it's easy to fall into this, and is the cause for some bad endings. Especially Hanako's.
    • Ironic in one way, but this is basically the real life playing out of the "sympathetic bigot" part of the trope. Not knowing led to ignorant pitying, but once the creators actually began researching and talking to people they developed a more nuanced portrayal of the people involved (for example, the main obstacles in the characters lives are rarely their disabilities but their emotional/psychological problems - which can stem from their disabilities but don't necessarily have to.)

    Web Comics 
  • In Homestuck, Cronus believes that one of his best qualities is how he doesn't nearly make as big a deal about the fact that he's a seadweller as he could and that the others should be thankful he's such a progressive guy. After all, he could lord it over them, but he actually stoops to their level to see them as equals (and reminds them of it constantly)! What more could they possibly ask for? Kankri also has a tendency to fall into condescension, even though he expressly argues against that kind of thing.
    • This in general is Beforus' hat. It's a culture that is based around babying those with "lower" blood colors like they're helpless.
  • In Something*Positive, Dahlia (who is wheelchair-bound due to spinal damage) often has to suffer the well-meaning 'sympathy' of people who constantly pity her for her lack of legs, especially people who seem to think that just because her legs do not work she must also be mentally retarded.

    Web Original 
  • This Cracked article, "5 old timey prejudices that still show up in every movie", argues that this attitude from white people is why there are so few non-white protagonists of blockbuster movies. And especially not in a relationship with a white female character.
    Again, we can blame the studios all we want. But they've learned from hard experience that for the most part, if they don't play to our prejudices, we simply won't go see their movie. (However, this experience may be out of date, as films with non-European protagonists generally do fine if they can get into theaters in majority-ethnic-European societies.)
  • Discussed in The Tuesday Zone's review of Call Girl of Cthulhu, specifically as it relates to the protagonist's Nice Guy Syndrome.
    First of all, the main character—who we are 100% meant to sympathize with and support—just referred to women as things. Second, note that the main character desperately wants sex and only interacts with two women before this conversation: his roommate, whom he condescends to because he could only have sex with someone he loves, unlike her, and the titular call girl, whose line of work he disrespects but attempts to tolerate. He paints prostitutes, apparently reflecting on how he respects their bodies more than most clients or some hogwash like that, but doesn’t realize that he’s judging them and their line of work in a snobbish way as a result. He thinks he knows what their bodies are good for better than they do.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Steven Universe episode "Keystone Motel", Sapphire treats Ruby's anger as insignificant because she knows it will eventually fade. This trivialization of her emotions only makes Ruby angrier- especially because her hurt feelings are entirely justified given the circumstances. Sapphire later admits that by doing this, she was only escalating their fight.
    Steven: But [Ruby] seems really upset.
    Sapphire: That doesn't matter. She can't stay mad at Pearl forever and she can't stay mad at me forever, and then she'll come back and see that I'm right.

Alternative Title(s): Pitying Perversion, Condescending Pity