Bloke in Italy makes an interesting point in the comments here:
I don’t like expressing a judgement about a national characteristic – I try very hard to say about people what I would say to their face, and a statement like mine above can only be deeply unfair to most of the individuals concerned…
I was having a conversation on this very point with a friend of mine on Sunday. My position is that I will say anything I like about a nation state or collective population, but I treat individuals in front of me as I find them. In other words, I might not like the (say) Iranian government, its policies, the politics, collective habits and customs, and whatever falls under the description of “national character” and I would have no qualms about saying so. But if I were to meet an Iranian then I would not treat them in a manner that is prejudiced by my feelings on the country as a whole (at least, I hope I wouldn’t).
A nation is more than a collection of individuals and for whatever reason the “national character” does not necessarily reflect the aggregate characters of each citizen. Somewhere in the process other factors are applied with the result that the collective population can look quite different from its constituent persons. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the Soviet Union, and later Russia: one of the most common things first-time visitors say is how surprised they are by the hospitality and friendliness of the people. In his excellent book Among the Russians, Colin Thubron says early on “I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people”.
I have offended many people by making disparaging remarks about their country, but I have offended very few individuals by making disparaging remarks about them (at least, until I’ve got to know them). I have never understood people taking personal offence at somebody criticising their country, believing it is a reflection on them. I’ve mentioned it before but one of the things I like about the French is you can slag off Air France, La Poste, and the prefectures and they’ll agree with you: they don’t feel personally insulted because of it. Alas, the same is not true for many other countries, Australia and Nigeria to name but two. Remark to an Australian than the prices in pharmacies in Melbourne are extortionate and he’ll say “Fack off home you facking whinging Pom”.
Speaking of Down Under, I remember The New Australian writing on his blog that he had little faith in humanity but plenty of faith in humans. It was a good line, one that I agree with. I’ve generally found people collectively to be utter shits but generally very pleasant on an individual level. TNA also remarked that totalitarian regimes and authoritarian types always put collective humanity over individuals. The Soviets put everything towards creating the New Soviet Man and a communist society, but had such utter disdain for actual people that they regulated the individual almost out of existence and murdered any that didn’t get with the programme. Listen to the pronouncements of contemporary politicians worldwide and you’ll realise that viewing individual people as a problem is not unique to the Soviets.
Going back to my earlier example, it would be grossly unfair of me to make assumptions about any Iranian I meet until I’ve been given a chance to assess his individual character. True, his government might like hanging gays from cranes and threatening to obliterate Israel, but for all I know he has spent twenty years in prison for protesting against that government. It is hard to think of a country more dysfunctional and unpleasant than Nigeria, yet individual Nigerians are often wonderful people. I’d like to think I treated those Nigerians I met as individuals and didn’t make sweeping generalisations about them based on what I saw of their country. Conversely, nobody should have taken what I wrote about Nigeria here as a personal insult (although many did).
In summary, I think the world would be a better place if we stopped attributing such importance to collective groups and the feelings of nation states and just took individuals as we find them.