Joseph Stalin, well-read empath

Originally published at: Joseph Stalin, well-read empath | Boing Boing


Please don’t make me click a link to unherd, as vile a pool of alt-right faux-centrism as there is


Nothing here truly implies that Stalin was empathic. Not even the article, unless I misread, of course. Just citing a source that reading fiction may improve empathy.

Does it, even?

I read fiction for entertainment. Not as much as I used to, but still. Yet I think I don’t take a lot of empathic learning from them. Nor from movies. I get their messages, but they don’t move me lot. That some people say “This and that fictional account made me think about disadvantaged group X” is something I can’t really understand.

Something like Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys - The New York Times is much more meaningful - in this regard - to me.


All of humanity was an intellectual abstraction to Stalin. One of the reasons I believe the famous quote “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic" is only an attribution is that he never had any problem sending people who might roughly be termed friends and family to be imprisoned or killed.

He as an extreme example of the economist – of any ideological leaning – who sees actual humans and their actual needs as pesky confounding factors interfering with his grand vision. He just had more powerful and blunter totalitarian tools with which to enforce it than do international organisations (like the WTO) or proxy dictators (like Pinochet).

Empathy, as most people grasp the concept, is not really in play here.

Fiction can provide a valuable gateway to empathy with the Other for a lot of people. Like non-fiction and academic studies, though, it’s nothing more than a gateway. One has to be capable of seeing humans as humans, living and breathing and vulnerable and flawed and worthy of compassion none-the-less. Stalin was incapable of doing that.


Joseph Stalin, well-read empath psychopath



My thought exactly. IANAP (I am not a psychologist) but my vague sense was that psychopaths are fully capable of understanding and even empathizing with the thoughts and emotions of other people, they just don’t feel bad about hurting those other people. But I suppose there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly novel about saying “Stalin was a psychopath” so we get articles like this.


Umm so, correct me if I’m wrong, but a quick glance at the article makes me think it’s arguing this:

  1. Reading cultivates empathy
  2. Stalin read a lot
  3. Thus Stalin was very empathic
  4. Stalin was also bad
  5. Therefore empathy is bad?

The solution, I guess, is that you shouldn’t read. Which is why I didn’t read the thing very closely.

I would like to state that it also seems highly improbably that people who are illiterate have very little empathy, so the premise of “reading ⇒ empathy” seems fishy to me.

ETA: I think this article is also making the mistake of confusing intellectual empathy (understanding others’ feelings) with affectual empathy (feeling others’ feelings). Determining the presence of the latter is quite difficult, to say the least. It’s also a mistake to assume that having either type of empathy is a necessary and sufficient condition for not doing fucked up shit.

ETA2: It’s also likely the case that empathy of any sort is not some unidimensional quality, but is instead manifest in a complex, context-dependent manner. I feel like it’s quite reductive to say that someone has “a lot of empathy”. If our minds were better equipped, we would instead refer to the (hyper-dimensional) shape of a persons’ various empathies, in addition to simply the magnitude.


And mass murderer, he killed more Russians than Hitler did.


Yeah, I’m with you there. The site is right wing garbage. The article appears to be sociopaths making wild psuedoscientific points about a historical sociopath.


Understanding, yes; empathising, no. The latter implies the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and acknowledge that, but for a roll of the cosmic dice or merely having a different kind of day, “that could be me”. Psychopaths have great difficulty doing that, which is why they have no problem hurting others (especially if those people get in the way of their own goals or self-regard).

Understanding the thoughts and emotions qnd motivations of others, in contrast, is a very useful implement in the psychopaths’s toolbox.


There are more things in Dzhugashvili than dreamed of in your philosophy.


Mao has him beat on longevity and probably deaths.

But Stalin beats them all in badassery, with keeping Hitler’s skull as a paperweight on his desk*

*Not sure if that one is true, but even as rumors go, its pretty wild.


Can you imagine Stalin’s insta?

“Trying out Photoshop. If only it was as easy to remove negative people from my life. Oh wait - it is!”


Yeah, to some people and in some circumstances he might have been a nice guy. So what?

The real horrible lesson of monsters like Stalin, or Hitler, or some many other monsters in history is that they were human, had friends and pets, could be caring and nice, and still be total monsters.

Pratchett inn Small Gods taught us that: “There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.” That is true of course but so is the opposite.


I think that people like Stalin are freed by their lack of affectual empathy to concentrate on intellectual empathy. Most people see somebody torturing a puppy and think “OMYGOD, what monster could do that.” But psychopaths like Stalin see people’s reaction and think “People really react to torturing puppies. I can use that.”

People with normal affectual empathy can be driven to care about others by reading of their suffering because it makes them FEEL sympathy. But psychopaths are unaffected by exposure to the suffering of others because they don’t FEEL it, they merely see it.


One of the things that remain with me after reading his biography was how lonely he was at the end. He felt personally hurt that his friends (so to speak) and colleagues kept making excuses to get out of dinner invitations he made. After all, no-one who was loyal had anything to worry about.

(Apparently not everyone relished 6 hour meals discussing the minutiae of communist thought, crude humor, and the state of the world mixed with large amounts of alcohol, all the while wondering if a tossed-off phrase you drunkenly made was going to get you killed.)

No self-awareness at all of the effect his capricious paranoia had on anyone around them. Instead, just self-pity about how tough he had it after all he had done for the Soviet Union.


It’s a completely alien view for the non-psychopath. For example, he was surprised to the point of complete incapacitation for at least a day when he was informed that Hitler had broken Molotov-Ribbentrop and invaded. Everyone else was basically saying to each-other “duh, it’s Hitler, what did you expect, only a matter of time”, but not Stalin. Despite warnings from spies, despite obvious troop movements, despite his own paranoia, his reaction (probably unique in history) was “OMG, how could Hitler do this to me!?” followed by what many historians characterise as a nervous breakdown that lasted for months.


I think a more generous reading is that curating empathy is no guarantee your child or loved ones won’t turn out to be Stalin

With the sligthly broader undertone of maybe there is no set of traits, nature or nurture that can prevent a Stalin?


Oh, you mean treating people’s lives and struggles as intellectual exercises to puzzle over is not a great way to interact with real problems that people face, you say? Gosh! /s


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