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The problem with collective words

“North Korea is planning a nuclear attack.” “Russia acting as an aggressor toward NATO.” “China’s economy set to overtake the U.S.’s.” These are common phrases in the realm of current events and international news, no? Think of more. What other countries can we describe in this format? “Britain to separate from EU.” Sure. “2016 French elections show resilience against fascism.” Nothing strange there. And there shouldn’t be; these terms, in this format, are the way we describe the way countries interact internationally.

Notice, however, the same structure pervades throughout and the agent is always the same — the country. What do we mean when we say country X is doing Y? Is the country the government? There’s a strong case for this interpretation, if the government is strong or if we are talking philosophically about notions of a Rousseau-esque “general will,” in which the collective interests of the people manifest in the government. In other words, an assumption that the government is not separate from, but an extension of, the people.

A problem: what if the government does not represent the people? It happens. A country like China, with its strong operating oligarchical committee of statesmen, does not have a government system that represents a large portion of its diversity. The actions of China on an international level are in no way inherently representative of the interests of Tibet. Russia, too, with its immense size and countless ethnic groups, should not serve as an umbrella term for veterans of the USSR, tribal reindeer herders, vehemently anti-establishment folks, liberal students and Putin’s polemic government.

In a few words: a country is more than its government, but we equate them on the international stage. A whole slew of bad connotations follow such collective groupings.

Why is this a problem?

Think about what a country is: its geography, people, culture and government. There is important variety – sometimes so divisive that it erupts in violence. These are the multi-layered milieu which stack together to form a coherent image of the thing we refer to as a country. A country is not any individual part, but the whole. When talking about current events and labeling the actions of a group — usually government — as actions of a country, we are associating varied actors under arbitrary umbrella terms.

I’ll bring up the example of Russia, because it’s the one I have the most experience with. I’ve been there and seen the social landscape. I’ve seen the Putin supporters and the Putin haters. They fall on both sides of every debate with the same vigor, to such an extent that it’s impossible to say “Russia is provoking NATO and the United States” when the term “Russia” paints with too wide a brush. Using “Russia” makes it impossible to narrow down the agent of such action to anyone but a developed stock image of a vodka-swigging, beefy Moscow street fighter whose name is probably Boris. Many of the people caught in that word net are avidly against government policies and Putin. Yet we are entrenched in these norms. Our heads are ingrained with notions of foreign universality that blurs accurate analysis.

This is the base of suspicion. It’s much easier to dehumanize a government than it is a person. This is the foundation and metaphor for war, terrorism, cultural misunderstanding and violence. Instead of collectivizing wildly different groups, let’s call a government a government.

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