Two Words To Get Straight When Discussing Panhandling

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After the Newport City Council’s failure to pass an anti-panhandling ordinance, we expect a lot of discussion on the topic, but we’re just going to provide a quick vocabulary lesson to help our readers sound more educated, rather than not.

We do find the panhandling issue in Newport rather fascinating from an online perspective. The debates rage between a small coalition of the altruistic and ill-informed versus the experts and the greedy masses unwilling to part ways with their cash.

There has been one source of constant irritation for those of us who like our grammar fascistic. That is the interchangeable treatment of two words that aren’t now and have never been interchangeable. Those two words are sympathy and empathy. They aren’t the same thing.


Definition: the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

Now, on the face of it, this seems like a “nice” word, but it is actually rather neutral. It can mean getting inside an opponent’s head just as it does to “walking a mile in another man’s shoes”. Or, to put it another way…

So most Newporters are likely very capable of empathizing with panhandlers. Pretty much everyone has been camping (though most do it in places more scenic than an exit ramp overpass). Most people have drunk vodka (though maybe not a liter or so a day.) And most people have tried to make their appearance look as bad as possible (but it’s usually just for Halloween.)

There are some other aspects where a lot of people won’t be able to know the feelings, because they’re unfamiliar with opiate withdrawals.

Regardless, empathy is the ability to understand another person’s situation, but not necessarily the desire to make it better. We know what it’s like to go several days without a shower, but that doesn’t mean that we want to be in the same room as someone who is currently in that situation.


Definition: the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

To use it in a sentence: “I felt sympathy for a substance abuse problem so I gave its host money so it can continue to destroy his life.”

Now, sympathy is usually what people want when they’re asking for empathy. Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone and it makes you want to help them. It’s generally one of those parts of the human condition that helps hold our society together. We know people. We care about them. We want to help them when they’re in trouble and we hope they’ll do the same for us.

Unfortunately, too much of anything is a bad thing. Having a lot of sympathy may make you a nice person, but it can also lead you to be taken advantage of. It can also become a chemical dependence issue. Doing nice things for people you have sympathy for releases chemicals into your brain that make you feel good.

And that’s how we end up with people who are chemically-addicted to giving money to panhandlers who are addicted to chemicals. Unfortunately, unlike traditional addicts, these altruists have a couple millennia of church dogma to help justify their actions.

Shift Change

Shift Change

Two years ago, there was a large outcry against casinos in Newport. One of the complaints raised was that casinos rely on compulsive gamblers who have an addiction for most of their income. That casino was voted down, but in its place, literally across Admiral Kalbfus Road we have people taking shifts holding signs declaring that they’re afflicted with stomach cancer.

Empathy AND Sympathy

This is where it gets interesting. When you know how and why someone thinks the way they do and you want to help them then the last thing you’re going to do is give a panhandler on the side of the street some cash, no questions asked.

The truth is that if you know people asking for money on the side of the street enough to actually empathize with them, there’s a good chance that you’re less likely to sympathize with them, at least financially. They could be making more money panhandling than they did working. They might be literally lazy. Or perhaps they fell through the cracks by forcibly screwing over anyone and everyone who offered to help.

If you talk to anyone who works with the homeless or addicts, they’ll tell you that giving them money only helps keep them out of the very programs that are already in place that will get them off the street and treat their underlying problems. If you want to do good, give to those programs.

antipanhandlingThe irony about this situation is that both people who know and care for those less fortunate…and those don’t in any way are both doing the right thing and will eventually make their lives better. It’s those who are in the mode of “It’s not much money but it shows I care”.

Enabling becomes a death sentence. Life on the streets may be the lifestyle these individuals choose, but they will likely die faster than if they were placed on Death Row.


Definition: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion actually is a synonym of sympathy.


If it’s polite enough for Canadians, it’s polite enough for Newport.


When John Florez’s anti-panhandling ordinance was first proposed, there was an outcry among some that it showed a lack of compassion on the part of our city. That proposal, originally calling for fines and signs, was watered down into nothing, apparently after threats of a lawsuit from the ACLU, and then withdrawn.

Let’s face facts: That is heartless.

It’s time for our politicians to stand up and show some real compassion. They need to declare that Newport is a place that will get its people help but it will not serve as an informal toll plaza for those looking to fund the means of their own destruction.

-Tristan Pinnock, Blast Vocabulary Correspondent

Tristan's just this guy, ya know?