The Importance of Individuals

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.

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20 thoughts on “The Importance of Individuals

  1. There is an old (American, I believe) saying that reputedly applied to the difference between the South and the North as regards race. The Southern view was ‘hate the race, love the individual’ while the North was the opposite. wherein the race was loved but individuals despised.

    Now I am not American and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this, but if you translate the Northern states as the modern Left, you can see such a view is essential as a membership badge to say you love a certain race/cult/creed but generally avoid any contact with individuals of those groups. But living as I have done in outposts of the new Eurabia I have seen the despised ordinary people — you know, those bigots and racists — talk and act kindly towards Mr Ahmed who owns the corner shop now even if they are not at all sure about how many more Mr Ahmed’s and attendant families need to come here.

  2. Watcher is absolutely on the mark about ‘hate the race, love the individual’ and vice versa. I’ve seen any number of modern progressives get really nasty about individual members of unwashed minorities showing up in their space even though they vocally support the rights of that unwashed minority as a group.

    And I’ve seen much the reverse by “Good ole boys” who’ll not only volunteer to help Mr & Mrs Patel when their lawnmower breaks down but also get neighbour Juan from down the street involved to mow the lawn when the lawnmower turns out to be completely bolloxed. The worst you get is something along the lines “you don’t eat beef? (or bacon), man you don’t know what you’re missing”

    Talking of national sensitivities, I’ve noticed you can mock British people about just about everything except the NHS. British people can moan about the bloody thing, but foreigners aren’t allowed to join in the criticism

  3. I interviewed a young bright Iranian bloke yesterday to head up our launch into Iran. He reckons that his gaff is up near that mountain scene that you see on the Theran shots.

  4. I am sure there is a lot of research on why when you meet someone from a certain country, say Australia, or India, they are typically not exhibiting the traits that you would normally identify with them when gathered as or voting for their identity.

    But i thought I would also point out for TNA, having been reminded of his existence by your references, that his webpages are perfectly accessible in the waybackmachine. While this archive is a bit of a ballache, it preserves his particular brand of blogging quite nicely. For recent internet history buffs.

  5. He reckons that his gaff is up near that mountain scene that you see on the Tehran shots.

    Yes, that’s north Tehran, which is the posh bit. It’s full of coffee houses that might be in Silver Lake, suburban homes, and nice Italian restaurants (which admittedly sell neither pork nor wine, but they manage to be nice anyway). It’s about as far from the stereotype of “Insane, theocratic dictatorship” as you can imagine. I think there are two stereotypes of Iran: insane theocratic dictatorship being (1), warm, hospitable cultured people being (2). Neither of these necessarily apply to individuals, who are in fact individuals.

  6. Aussies are thin-skinned, it’s true. Spoiled suburban mummy’s boys, by and large. And I speak as a fan of the place.

    USians and race. A million years ago I was a labourer in a factory in NJ. I had a black colleague, a decent bloke. When the Southerner foreman dealt with him the relationship was perhaps distant but certainly polite. But the Northerner foreman treated him badly, making his contempt all too clear. (He was a shit towards the women on the production line too.)

    Later that year I travelled west to join Route 66, by Greyhound bus. I sat down next to an elderly, small, black preacher. He was astonished, and clearly worried. This happened in the North. I did succeed in getting some conversation out of him once he’d realised I was a foreigner.

    Later I sat down next to a Vietnamese officer who was presumably in the country for training. He too was worried. This must have happened in the Texas/New Mexico area I suppose. Little conversation resulted. Maybe he thought I was a spy.

    At that point my experience of black and yellow Britons was confined largely to university people. And Chinese restaurant people. Come to think of it, that’s still the bulk of my experience.

  7. It’s all a bit grey. I live in Japan, and Thailand is a very convenient holiday destination. Normal breakfast procedure is to walk through the garden greeting the inevitable worker clearing up fallen leaves with a cheery “hello”. Then a smile and a nod to the restaurant workers and neighbouring eaters. They always respond (even if they’re French [snigger]).

    In the past 5 or so years I’ve noticed increasing numbers of Russian guests. Typically they arrive as a group, never smile or acknowledge the staff or other diners, and never make eye contact. I guess it’s less a “Russian” thing than a cultural response to a society shaped by denunciation and summary death. Either you are in, and trusted, or you aren’t and therefore treated with suspicion.

    I noticed recently a current German socialist President (one of five) in the EU denouncing demoracy as a barrier to the advance of The Project. He’s shortly to step down from the EU and into a sinecure in the German government. I read the denunciation of democracy by German socialists as a cultural as well as a personal failing. He is being supported by the German establishment.

  8. I typically have approached things the same way, Tim, using stereotypes and group characteristics regarding groups as a whole, and then disregarding that when meeting an individual from the group based on the interaction with said individual.

    However, just this week I came across this post http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/?p=5788

    It ties this way of thinking back to Bayesian statistics and points out that you’re dismissing the prior and therefore being less accurate.

    “It is possible that being as accurate as possible would be considered by some people to be immoral or even illegal. Indeed, a wonderful turn of phrase, “forbidden base-rates,” was coined (Tetlock, 2002 ) to capture the very idea that, sometimes, many people would be outraged by the use of general information about groups to reach judgments that would be as accurate as possible”

  9. “…little faith in humanity but plenty of faith in humans.”

    Is it not ‘humanity’ that makes us Human, rather than Chimps or cats?

  10. 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.

    Way to go.

  11. @MJ – “Yes, that’s north Tehran, which is the posh bit……………………hospitable cultured people being (2)”

    Yes that’s him alright, charismatic, Farsi is his native speech, he started off on the much needed Haraz Road Widening Project and has just accepted a role as a Project Manager on an infrastructure project in Canberra with a large Aussie contractor. He quite rightly thinks that Canberra will be far too boring for his next station in life and I brought the putrid level of blowfly infestation that Canberra is inflicted with to his attention as well.

    By the way there is a 5,610m peak in the Albors mountain range that this road traverses through on the way to the Haraz Valley and the Caspian Sea. That’s four Ben Nevis stacked on top of each other.

    I think I will give him a start just so that I can take a selfie at his joint.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiCUnmFT-oU

  12. Say your job puts you at unusual risk of being attacked/robbed/murdered e.g. you are a taxi-driver in NYC. You decide to avoid picking up any young, black males whom you don’t know. I’ve seen that referred to as “rational discrimination”. Apparently it is applied by taxi-drivers whether black or white (or, presumably, many other shades).

    Or perhaps you decide to avoid picking up any young, black males whom you don’t know unless (i) it’s one potential passenger on his own, and (ii) he’s wearing a business suit and looks respectable.

    This is a different decision than one involving meeting someone in a social setting. Or is it?

  13. @SB,

    Groan!

    Oh well, as I say as a warning to my kids, “nothing you type on the internet is bio-degradable”.

  14. Unless of course you use Wickr which is encrypted and self destructs, even if they get a warrant for the provider to fes up to them on your account, there is nothing to show.

  15. Seth,

    Typically they arrive as a group, never smile or acknowledge the staff or other diners, and never make eye contact. I guess it’s less a “Russian” thing than a cultural response to a society shaped by denunciation and summary death. Either you are in, and trusted, or you aren’t and therefore treated with suspicion.

    Correct. They become a lot different once you’ve had “a little drink” with them.

  16. This is a different decision than one involving meeting someone in a social setting. Or is it?

    Prejudices will still apply before you’ve met them, and will definitely linger as you get to know them. I suppose what I mean is I am open to any prior prejudices being swept away by the character of the individual I encounter. Pretty much what Manc says in his comment, actually.

  17. Is it not ‘humanity’ that makes us Human, rather than Chimps or cats?

    I’m not sure, but collectively humans are both much better and much worse than chimps or cats, and those in power who talk the most about humanity are usually demonstrating the “worse” part.

  18. I typically have approached things the same way, Tim, using stereotypes and group characteristics regarding groups as a whole, and then disregarding that when meeting an individual from the group based on the interaction with said individual.

    Yes, this.

    It ties this way of thinking back to Bayesian statistics and points out that you’re dismissing the prior and therefore being less accurate.

    It’s more statistically accurate, but I was thinking more along the lines of not pissing people off. I’d rather try to get along with somebody at the risk of finding out they’re a dick than to say to them up front “I’m going to assume you’re a dick because statistically you will be.” 🙂

  19. “I’d rather try to get along with somebody at the risk of finding out they’re a dick than to say to them up front “I’m going to assume you’re a dick because statistically you will be.”

    Statistically, most people of all races are dicks*, but you have to put up with filtering out the dicks to find anyone worth talking to.

    *: The rest are of course pussies and assholes.

  20. To tie my views about “humanity” and authoritarian tendencies together further, whenever I hear a public figure say something like, “surely, as a society, we should do X, Y or Z”, I translate it to the following;

    “Many of you individuals aren’t doing what I want you to do therefore I will petition for a law or tax to force you to do it because I know better than you”.

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