On one level, it seems to show empathy for another person. You’re showing an awareness of their suffering.
But on another level, it’s tied to keeping them down. Subjects of pity are seen as lost, stuck, disempowered. We might feel sorry for a friend who’s hurting, but we don’t pity them. It carries a sense of inequality.
Pity is the emotion of rich Victorians seeing the suffering of the poor even as they judge them.
Pity recognises someone else’s suffering, but it doesn’t build a bridge. It raises a barrier between the person who’s pitied and the the person who pities.
If ever there was a book that highlights this, it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The characters in that book spend a lot of time on pity. Frankenstein pities the lost, the hurt, the vulnerable. He doesn’t see them as agents equal to himself.
This is reflected in the way he views the whole story. It’s not about what other people want and need. It’s never about empowering them or trusting them. It’s all about his actions and their consequences. People’s fates depend on him.
And this is his downfall. He never considers the monster’s point of view. He pities his creation rather than empathising with it. He raises its hopes and then shatters them. He keeps the monster’s destiny in his hands, but won’t consider how it will react.
Which leads to more destruction and more people for him to pity. And of course, the person he really feels hurt for is himself.
Most science fiction has lead characters who are reasonably sympathetic. It’s therefore strange to realise that the original sf story doesn’t. His inability to properly empathise with others makes it hard to empathise with him.
Pity poor Frankenstein.