Pathological Pity

by Timothy Lane   3/9/15

I found the October 2014 issue of Imprimis today (it had gotten buried among a lot of other mail). The issue consists of an article by William Voegeli (adapted from a speech at Hillsdale), “The Case Against Liberal Compassion.”

Voegeli points out that liberals continue to portray themselves as the kind-hearted ones and denounce conservatives as cold and heartless. Since this is very easy to believe given that liberalism is based on limitless government welfare, whereas conservatives point out that everything has a price and sometimes the price is too high, the smear remains a popular delusion.

But there’s a problem, pointed out by Mitch Daniels a few years ago and noticed, even by liberal activist E. J. Dionne, over the failed startup of the Obamacare website: If liberals really are as kind and compassionate as they claim, then they should be as upset by government waste and failure as conservatives are. After all, every wasted dollar is a dollar not made available for actually helping the poor and other victims.[pullquote]…liberalism is really about moral preening, not results.[/pullquote]

But there have been some explanations for this, in fact going back to Rousseau in Emile. As many people have observed (Thomas Sowell has written about this extensively), liberalism is really about moral preening, not results. The point is to advertise themselves as kind and compassionate (which, as already noted, they do every chance they can). But this leads to an interesting result.

Just as many conservatives have pointed out that liberalism can’t solve problems if they’ve all been solved, and thus has an incentive never actually to solve problems, so it also turns out that this is an emotional as well as practical concern. Liberals want to show how much they pity the victims of society — and how much more can they do so if there are more victims, and they’re especially bad off? So they have an incentive to support programs that are supposed to help the poor etc., but in reality they don’t want to help them. They want the poor to remain poor, and indeed perhaps even to be poorer, in order that they can show how much they pity them.

Some will recognize the similarity of this to what has been called “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” — the desire to inflict harm on others for the purpose of helping them out. (An early appearance of his notion appears in the Moliere play The Misanthrope/) No doubt liberals were quite ready to believe Richard Jewell was guilty of this in the Atlanta Olympics bombing (he wasn’t, as it turned out). But projection by liberals is never a surprise.


Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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25 Responses to Pathological Pity

  1. Misanthropette says:

    Common or shared understanding of the definitions of words is the heart of debate over this issue. Without laborious background concerning religion, I have a different definition of charity than most of my Catholic family members. Charity is not a government function or activity. It cannot be. Government, and in my world, large institutions (like the Catholic Church) do not perform what I have come to understand is “charity”. Therefore, the debate is fruitless, pointless and too often devolves into division.

    However, I find many devout adherents to various mainstream religious institutions and progressives (those two groups are not mutually exclusive) define charity quite differently, and appear to focus on the object-recipient, not the subject-donor, which is my focus. The subject-donor is and must always be an individual engaged in a self-sacrificial, true personal deprivation of some commodity or possession: money, time or effort motivated by a desire to draw closer to God, or to obey the commands of God.

    Progressives, even religious progressives believe charity is object-driven: amelioration of poverty (not the conditions which create poverty) accomplished through various public and/or private means. So, you see, how can one debate these people when we have in mind separate ideas? I do not believe what government does through “compassionate” policies is “charity”. It is economically and politically motivated and is never personal to the progressive.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Charity can be done through a church, just as it can be done through other organizations. The key is that charity is voluntary. To a good Christian it is a moral obligation, but it’s still the choice of the donor how much to contribute and where to send the money. You’re quite correct that the key to charity is the mindset of the giver. Forced charity is not charity. This is why Scrooge felt he had a large overdue “bill” after the ghostly visitation; the money he had paid in taxes for workhouses didn’t count as charity. Dickens understood this, but too few people today realize this.

      • Misanthropette says:

        I’m not sure I agree any longer that charity, the kind Jesus preached, is delivered through “church”. Of course, the charitable function is wholly contained within the private not public sphere, but is it “collective”. What are those donations but individual acts of self-sacrifice?

        After years of witnessing my “charity” being used to accomplish objectives which I vehemently opposed, but being commanded to give, I came to understand and believe that the further one moves away from the individual act of giving, the less likely one can term something “charity”. My understanding of Jesus and his commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” means taking the time, resources and effort to do for your neighbor yourself. Perhaps it is the corrupt state of the non-profit sector, but I do not view many of them as worthy recipients of my property or labor.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          The essence of charity is voluntary action. Without that, it’s simply obedience, not love (which is the root motive of genuine charity).

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Do not forget sympathy and empathy which in turn may lead to compassion.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Well, I see those as the motivations for voluntary charity.

              • Misanthropette says:

                I suddenly remembered a scene from one of my favorite films: Miller’s Crossing, possibly one of the Coen Brothers best films of all time and (how appropriate on this of all days!) At the end of the film, Tom Reagan and Verna’s brother Bernie are in the hallway of the apartment building climactic shootout. Tom, having already been duped by Bernie once, points his gun and Bernie again begins his pathetic plea, “Look into your heart! Look into your heart!” Tom replies, “What heart?” and shoots him dead.

                I think that’s where society stands with regard to the entire “charity” industry. Tired of being played for dupes, put upon by corrupt and self-interested liars, most people are opting for personal acts of giving. I believe that kind of charity, real charity will proliferate while the fake, false “charity at arm’s length” will decrease. In truth, the non-profit industry has brought this upon itself.

                Since this is St. Paddy’s Day, here’s another of my favorite lines from that excellent film with the most underrated screenplay of all time:

                Eddie Dane: “How’d you get the fat lip, Tom?”
                Tom Reagan: “Old war wound, it acts up around morons.”

  2. Anniel says:

    Timothy, I don’t remember where I read this, but “pity” is a selfish act since it makes the person pitied one who is the “other” rather than a fellow sufferer in need of empathy and compassion. There is an element in pity that also sets the sufferer apart as perhaps “deserving” their fate. The term moral preening seems to beautifully describe this.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      In Atlas Shrugged, Rand has a past reference to someone once asking banger Midas Mulligan if he could think of someone worse than the man with no pity. His answer was, “The person who uses another person’s pity as a weapon.” So it can go both ways. But Voegeli makes a good point that pity can be used, if not as a weapon against those pitied, then as a form of self-righteous bragging.

  3. James Smith says:

    In the 16th chapter of Matthew, the apostle Peter had a great success. When Jesus asked the 12, who do men say that I am and then who do you say that I am, Peter responded, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” and Jesus told him “Blessed art thou Simon bar Jonah for flesh and blood hath not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven”. Jesus then spoke about “building” His church and binding and loosing and then began to explain to His disciples that He needed to go up to Jerusalem and be sacrificed.
    Well, following his big success Peter had a big failure and began to tell Jesus that He did not need to do that. If I understand the passage correctly he was scolding the Lord and in one translation told Jesus to “have pity upon Himself” or to feel sorry for Himself.
    Then comes a most stunning reply. Jesus said to Peter “Get thee behind me, Satan”.
    In one moment Peter receives a revelation directly from the Father in Heaven and is told that he is Blessed, even given a new name and in almost the next moment is called Satan.
    The only other passage I have found in the Bible similar to that statement is during the temptation in the wilderness when Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof, if He will fall down and worship him and Jesus says “get thee hence Satan” the very significant difference being that Peter as Satan was told, get out of His sight, whereas Satan himself was told get out of His presence.
    In actuality Satan was saying the same thing that Peter said. You do not need to redeem the world by dying. If you will just worship me I will give you everything that you are after. Come on, have a little sympathy on yourself, there is an easy way out of this.
    This is the lens through which I view any form of welfare or any handout that makes someone think that they do not need to be responsible for the situation that God has allowed them to be in. It is Satanic. It is evil through and through. It’s source is the devil. It will never bear good fruit. It interferes with the work of God in individual lives.
    You can name it compassion but it is not. I think it is primarily self aggrandizement and an attempt to save our own soul, a statement to the world that the cross is unneeded, unimportant and of no use. An attempt to replace God’s revelation with our own self serving opinion.
    I really appreciate your article Mr. Lane. I am hopeful that my comments will help define and illuminate the pathological source of Pity and stir up the many fine individuals who contribute their excellent thoughts to this website.
    Respectfully;

  4. Rosalys says:

    “This is the lens through which I view any form of welfare or any handout that makes someone think that they do not need to be responsible for the situation that God has allowed them to be in.”

    Excellent point! You really have to be discerning when giving. God may just be using a man’s dire situation to get him to listen to Him. You may be interfering with God’s plans. This reminds me of my grandmother. She would often take panhandlers into a lunchroom and buy them a sandwich and a cup of coffee, when in fact they would have preferred a few coins. A few coins here and a few coins there… Pretty soon they’d have enough to buy a bottle of booze!

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      You may be interfering with God’s plans.

      How does one know this? Taken to its logical end, this would mean not to give charity to anyone as every person’s situation is part of God’s plan and we should not interfere with that.

      In my opinion, it is impossible to know God’s plan, but it is required of us to help others. That’s why I think your grandmother’s system works better.

      Many years ago, I decided to give only to charities which were local and/or over which I had some influence and understanding of where the funds went. There are numerous excellent groups out there doing wonderful work which need all the help they can get. Fraxa Research Foundation, this site’s adopted charity, is one of them.

      Luckily, we can find out a lot of information about charities from sites such as Charity Navigator. If one is compelled to give, this site is very helpful.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Mr. Kung, it strikes me now, as never before, the words of Jesus when he said, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” (NIV)

        This is another Orwellian subject in that telling the truth is a revolutionary act. First off, there are those who are truly poor, in spirit and/or in material assets. The Christian mission regarding these people should not change: Help those who honestly need help, but do so in a way that does not engender dependency or other bad habits. And understand that usually it is a character or moral problem at the root which needs attending to, not handing out twenty dollar bills as if they grew on trees.

        The second part of this has been almost completely forgotten. And this has led to “the poor” being as Thomas Sowell notes a mere mascot for others to show supposedly how damn caring they are. It’s been my experience, directly and from stories told to me by others, that soup kitchens and other charities (such as handing out toys to children at Christmas) almost barely intersect the truly needy. People are taking advantage of them, shamelessly, simply to get “free stuff.” And there being almost no backbone left in most Christians, no one has the balls to turn anyone away.

        We see the same thing happening at our borders where illegal aliens — committing a felony — are crossing the border. But they have been labeled a “victim” and, more importantly, they have become the mascot for Christians (and Leftists, of course) to show supposedly how damn compassionate they are. (And, yes, the Alinsky radical types in the background, who hate this country and hate white people, are laughing all the way to the community-organizer bank.)

        That’s why I wrote elsewhere that Christianity has lost its head. Like much of the rest of the culture, it’s bought into the idea that no one is really responsible for their actions. They’ve bought into the materialist paradigm, with “poverty” supposedly being the root cause of so much suffering instead of bad character and morals. And, perhaps most importantly, they have, as Dennis Prager says, substituted feelings for standards. No one is willing to look at the individual and see, for example, that he is just mooching off the system, holding the line on a standard. Why, that would spoil the veneer of the do-gooder’s role and the emotional rush they get from their pious sacrifice.

        “The poor you will always have with you.” He could have added “moochers” and “naive bleeding heart liberals” as well.

        As for this “God’s plan” stuff, I don’t doubt there is some overall plan to the universe. But in the micro, it’s much more difficult to deduce any “plan” given any specific circumstance. If we’re not careful, we’ll begin to see the universe as Muslims do where nothing happens that is not “Allah’s will.”

        That’s why life inherently involves reason and moral choices. We are given these tools which we then need to apply. There is no “Gods plan” in regards to whether or not people should receive a tax credit for having one or more children. Most of the legal, and tangentially moral, things we have to grapple with are fine-detail stuff, way beyond anything the Ten Commandments dealt with, or could deal with.

        What we do know about charity is that one has to be very careful about how it is dispensed or else (especially if it is done through the state) the honest and hard-working will be punished and the endless “victims” (aka “moochers”) who come out of the woodwork (which “free stuff” will always attract) will be rewarded for mooching, stealing, slacking, and just overall being of bad character.

        That battle, however, is lost at the moment. But if you want to help someone, rhetorically speaking the best thing you can do is give them a firm swift kick in the ass.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          One must realize that the modern Western economy bears no resemblance to that of Roman-era Palestine, or for that matter most of humanity for most of history. The poor in those eras were ordinary workers — farmers with small holdings, manual laborers, whatever. Thus, helping the poor generally meant helping the “deserving poor”. Today that is no longer the case.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Yes, gaining some historical context makes ultimate sense.

            What I think “the poor” have become are both political tools for the nanny-staters and America-haters, and mascots of secular redemption for the second-tier useful idiots (religious or otherwise).

  5. GHG says:

    My understanding of Jesus’ statement that the poor will always be with you but you will not always have him has the coexisting immediate/eternal message so often found in the Bible. The immediate message to the disciples was that they needed to put him first because he was going away. The eternal interpretation is there are many things worthy of our attention, but God must always come first. The message is applicable is every facet of life, including charity. The question should be asked of ourselves, is the charity being done to please God and by that I mean in the service of God and not in any way, shape or form in service to ourselves (tax write-offs, ego, self-agrandizement, etc.). True charity is usually more than a one-time deed. There’s a time and committment element, an ownership of seeing it through, of truly making an enduring difference. Volunteering at the soup kitchen every once in a while seems more like feeling good about yourself than pleasing God.

  6. Rosalys says:

    “God may just be using a man’s dire situation to get him to listen to Him. You may be interfering with God’s plans.”

    Either poorly worded on my part, or too briefly worded. It is a statement which probably needs to be more fully developed. I was thinking of two things when I wrote it.

    First was this quote by C.S. Lewis.
    “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

    Second was of an incident told to us one Sunday by Ed, a visiting preacher. He told of a friend of his who had been quite irresponsible in his finances and who asked him if he could have a sizable amount of money – were are talking about thousands here. Now it was troubling for Ed because it was a friend, and he did have the money; however, after praying about it, he could see that whatever problem his friend had to was not going to be solved (except perhaps temporarily) by Ed giving him money, and he turned him down. Now before you say, “Yeah! It would be easy for me to hear God telling me not to give someone five or ten grand, too!” I will tell you that Ed is the kind of Christian, who, if he felt God was telling him to give someone a hundred thousand dollars, with no hope of it ever being paid back, he would do it! And Ed also knew that if his friend would listen to God instead of his own misery, that God’s working in his life would be so miraculous, and such a blessing, that at the end his friend would thank him for not giving him the money.

    “How does one know this?” – KFZ

    You can’t always, and it isn’t easy. This is where discernment comes into play. For the Christian, it can mean spending time in prayer. Discernment can also mean you use your brain, your knowledge, and your experience. Many years ago, in the city, on my way to the bus stop after work, I ran into two very pleasant young people asking for donations for The Children of God. So I emptied my pockets. Providentially, that wasn’t much, because I found out later that The Children of God is a cult! I was young, my knowledge was lacking, my experience was deficient, and my brain – well let’s just say that the synapses and connections needed further development! There was a total lack of discernment! A few years later, a rather disheveled looking young man sat at a card table outside the grocery store collecting donations for some organization. I asked him what the purpose of the organization was; his reply, “We want to keep kids off the streets.” By then I had a little more knowledge, experience, and had developed a few more synapses. I also by then had two young children, and told myself I wouldn’t want them off the streets – and presumably behind closed doors – with the likes of him! (Oh, I know we shouldn’t judge by appearances, but sometimes there is no other information available!) I did not contribute.

    I used to toss in a few canned or packaged goods in the collection bin at the market at Thanksgiving. I used to donate a dollar at the checkout for this or that charity. Nowadays I purposely make the decision NOT to. This is because the local food bank made the decision NOT to allow the local Christian missions to draw upon the food bank, despite the fact that one of their stated missions is to feed the poor. Regardless of the fact that many of the people making these donations are probably Christians (and if we are to believe the statistics about who is generous in America today, probably most of them are!) once the food stuffs and/or money gets into the hands of these organizations it becomes theirs to do whatever political correctly they will. So they won’t get any more from me. I now, through my church, give directly to the mission and I give much more than I ever did to the food bank.

    Discernment can work both in giving and receiving. Many years ago, through much fault of our own, we made some very poor decisions which got us into deep financial trouble. This eventually lead to foreclosure and bankruptcy. I asked my aunt for a considerable loan and because she was a kind soul who loved me she sent me the money. When I received the check I had such guilt, because I had the sneaking suspicion that “loan” was never going to be paid back. I tore the check in half and returned it to her, groveling with apology for my greed and presuming upon her good nature. Now, twenty years later, I am so thankful I did! One of my church friend’s, discerned in me a troubled spirit though I never told her our financial problems. (When one is a basket case, it isn’t easy to hide, though one tries!) She made me tell her. This lovely, elderly widow, only because she loved me, offered me a loan of twenty thousand dollars, at no interest, to be paid back when ever I could (which would have been long after she died if ever!) She said it was, “Just sitting there,” and she didn’t need it. She had a loving heart which overshadowed discernment. Thank God I had developed the discernment to, while thanking her profusely, I declined. Twenty years later I see it was the right decision. At the time of foreclosure and with only two weeks left to vacate the premises, we still hadn’t found a place big enough for a family of four which we could afford. I asked my parents if we could move in with them. They had enough room. Mom probably would have said yes. Dad, said no – and in my family Dad’s vote was a majority. He wasn’t mean about it. He was very reasoned and (unusual for him!) compassionate. Within three hours of Dad saying no, we had a place to live, which met all of our needs, for a price we could afford, and it is a miraculous story how. We lived there for thirteen years. Twenty years later I am so thankful Dad said no. Stubborn, headstrong me learned a very valuable lesson that day; God is in control, nothing surprises Him, He is not in a hurry, and He takes care of His own. Oh, I knew that already, intellectually; but now I know it viscerally. If I had kept my aunt’s check, taken my friend’s “loan,” if Dad had said yes, I may not have. During the same period we did accept charity, in the form of a Thanksgiving basket from our church and then in the summer they also gave our two children a week of Summer Camp. Much of the camp funds came from two teenaged girl’s, foster children to a couple at our church, who were teaching the girl’s about tithing and giving. We were thankful for these gifts and the girl’s learned about the joy of giving. Giving shouldn’t be just about making yourself feel good or assuaging one’s guilt. But don’t knock the feelings, because giving done with the right heart does bring joy. In fact we are told if we must give grudgingly, it’s better not to. God loves a cheerful giver!

    Twenty years later, perhaps not all our troubles are behind us but we are at least in decent shape financially. It is in the past. Believe me there are things in this world much worse than financial hardship. (During the same period a good friend of mine discovered her husband was a serial philanderer and subsequently divorced. I still have my husband and he never cheated on me.)

    So when I say God has a plan, I mean that we are in much better hands when we allow room for God to work in our lives, than if look for unGodly solutions. And the joy, euphoria, utter bliss that comes as result of experiencing God’s intervention – well there is nothing, and I mean nothing, on this earth to compare with it!

    All that being said, I don’t think we must obsess about every dime dropped into someone’s collection plate! Much of this life is muddling through the best we can. Often we make mistakes, and sometimes they are big ones! God is not surprised and adjusts easily to our bumblings.

    God does have a plan! He has a bottom line! It is encompassed in John 3:16. It is His desire that all shall repent and be saved, though not all will. Today, charity’s dictionary definition has to do with giving money. Biblically the word charity means love. Love in this context would be agape, the highest of the three Biblical loves, seeking another’s highest good. God sought man’s highest good in the giving of His Son, the Lord, Jesus Christ.

    Another way of giving charity which has nothing to do with money is giving people the truth. There again we need to be discerning, perhaps in the way we give it, perhaps by not browbeating a person over and over again, and perhaps by not saying anything to someone who has made it quite clear that he just does not want to hear it. But there is nothing charitable about lying.

    I hope you do not mind the personal stories, but it seemed the best way to express my meaning.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Knowing who an organization works with can be useful. Back when I was at Humana (in 1979, when they still ran hospitals), I contributed to United Way through a deduction at work. Later they decided not to support the Boy Scouts for amoralist reasons, so if something like that came out now I wouldn’t do so.

      • GHG says:

        I had a similar situation back in the 80’s and 90’s. The place where I worked had an annual United Way campaign where donations would be taken out of your salary. When I found out the issue with the Boy Scouts, I decided to not participate. Then the enlistment method was changed from inter-office mail where the yes or no box was checked and sent in, to one where a “volunteer” was assigned from every department to handle the donation cards. That was done to help reach the goal of 100% contributions and the thought was a personal plea from a co-worker would coerce higher enlistment. The first time it happened I just checked “no” and nothing was said. The next year, the volunteer happened to be my supervisor and he asked why I wasn’t contributing. I told him my reason and he suggested donating just a dollar so his department would meet the 100% objective. I told him it was the principle not the amount, so no. Luckily that didn’t get me fired or demoted or whatever … but guess what? Next year, I was appointed as the “volunteer” to manage United Way donations for my department. My supervisor told me everyone in the department would serve a term and it was part of the job. So, I did it. I handed out the cards and picked them up a couple weeks later. I didn’t talk to anyone about their decision to contribute or not and, of course, I didn’t contribute. Nothing was ever said to me about it and I was never “volunteered” again, nor was I ever asked again why I didn’t contribute. I think I was fortunate to have a good guy as my supervisor who was put in a difficult spot and didn’t allow me to suffer for it. Life is good! 🙂

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          You have just explained a major reason why Leftists and corporatist governments like large corporations as opposed to small businesses.

          Once a policy is decided at the top, the large corporation then enforces and polices the policy on behalf of the government.

          For the government the major advantage is there is one point of contact for a large number of people, this results in the further advantages of:

          1. increasing conformity with the policy,
          2.ease of determining those who do not comply,
          3.ease of exerting pressure on those who do not comply,
          4.increased efficiency of implementing policy

          When dealing with all those small middle class privately held companies, the above advantages are nullified.

          Ya, think conformity of the masses might be one of the reasons most of our masters seem to be corporatists.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Another advantage is that corporate headquarters are likelier to be located inside the major liberal cities (“Bubble-ville” to Mike Huckabee), and their boards are likelier to be run by others in those areas. Such people are very vulnerable to political correctness and multiculturalism, even if they aren’t located in such cities. Consider Cracker Barrel’s brief flirtation with the anti-Robertson war by the Lavender Thought Police.

            This is less likely to happen with a business that’s still run by an individual or family (unless they happen to be liberals themselves, cf. Ben & Jerry’s). It’s interesting that a lot of Wendy’s franchises supported Chick-fil-A during their struggle aginst the LTP.

          • James Smith says:

            I haven’t seen it mentioned but we must also remember that some have “entertained angels unawares” therefore a failure to help others in certain situations may cause us to lose an eternal reward. Also, I desperately try not to tell anyone anything I have done in the way of charity because the eternal reward is so much greater than any commendation we could receive in this life. If what we have done becomes public knowledge, then that becomes our reward. Finally if you want to give to an organization that truly helps the poor and operates their charity on minimal expenses you just cannot beat the Salvation Army. The difference between them and most other charities who supposedly were helping the victims of 9-11 is phenomenal. It would be a good thing to look up online and read about.

            • Rosalys says:

              I gotta agree. The Salvation Army is a good group. As for the United Way, I learned a long time ago about their tactics. I had a friend who was really strongly pressured to contribute. It’s an ego trip for certain bosses to get that 1oo% participation. Also their cost of doing business is rather high. I never felt any need or desire to give to them.

              • Anniel says:

                I had someone from United Way call me at home wanting me to be the neighborhood volunteer coordinator. When I told her “no” she was shocked. This was a few years after the scandal about executive compensation, so I told her I chose not to deal with criminal organizations and would handle my own charitable giving. She was not happy with me.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I try not to be too harsh to the volunteers themselves. They generally mean well, even those for organizations you don’t care for (e.g., Democrats). Of course, if they won’t take no for an answer, that’s another matter. That usually means a firm hang-up (most of this is by phone).

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