Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, November 28, 2021

The recent suicide of Iris Chang, author of “The Rape of Nanking”, prompted some musings about the personal risk of immersing oneself in historical horror stories.

Specifically, the psychological impact of becoming consumed by individual accounts among large-scale holocausts can be huge:

[Historian Raul] Hilberg said that during his work on the Holocaust starting in 1948 a few small episodes affected him especially strongly. For example, he said he became sickened after researching the fate of a Jew who sued the Nazis for the right to purchase coffee.

“I was nauseated because obviously this Jew was picked up and sent to Auschwitz or wherever they sent him and died,” he said. “Why did this particular incident affect me when I could calmly read about mass murder?”

Why indeed? It seems like an anomaly: Everyone knows that people die every day, in a variety of circumstances. But ultimately, death tends to be a solitary event, afflicting a single person — whether it comes while one’s on a deathbed, or having a heart attack, or even through foul play. When several people die at once, as in a plane crash or a mass murder, the cause of those deaths is so out of the ordinary that it would seem to merit a stronger emotional reaction, even from those who didn’t lose friends or relatives.

But that’s not the case. Numbers create anonymity, and makes it easy for the detached observer to dehumanize the victims. They become abstractions, whether it’s a dozen food poisoning victims or six million Holocaust Jews.

Yet if you extract a single person from those legions of dead, reveal his or her name, tell the story of how he or she came to that point, and the perception changes. Suddenly, you’re forced to relate to a single person’s experience, instead of a faceless mass. That makes all the difference.

Robert Conquest, 87, a leading historian of Stalin’s terror and famine that left tens of millions of dead, said he too was sometimes hit by smaller episodes amid larger tragedy.

“There are details, not necessarily the most horrible in theory, that somehow make you feel this is somehow a worse world than we thought,” Conquest, the author of “The Great Terror” and “Harvest of Sorrow”, said in an interview.

He cited for example documents about students during the Stalin era forced to stand in front of their schools and hear abuse after their parents were arrested.

“They are harangued for two or three hours denouncing the parents of one of the kids. Then the kid has to come up and they are all screaming at him,” he said. “It shows the awful level they’ve got to. Horrible.”

Citing victims of Josef Stalin’s purges is oddly appropriate, since the most apt quote on this phenomenon is attributed to him*:

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.

I think this dynamic manifests itself in other areas. The perennial high-profile media-saturated criminal trials, such as the recent Scott Peterson case, are a prime example. Think about it: How many people are brutally killed every single day in America? Yet the same audiences that never give a passing thought to all those nameless (and thus, invisible) crimes pay breathless attention to every development in the latest media-circus du jour. Because the spotlight on the principals reveals minute personal detail, observers become engrossed, and participate in an uncomfortably intimate vicarious experience.

Similar situations where this mass reaction occurs include hostage situations and, more benignly, personal profiles on athletes.

I suppose it’s human nature to quickly seek empathy with the subject being studied. As with most empathic exercises, though, there’s a price to pay when that much emotional energy is invested. The collateral damage is sometimes too much to bear.



*Despite the attribution to Stalin, I’m positive he didn’t originate it. I know I read it at one point as coming from a French military head or politician during World War I. If anyone knows what the original source is and can enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 02:48:49 PM
Category: Society, History
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