The banalization of evil

During the last twenty years or so, Italy has experienced a permanent electoral campaign. Tones and arguments in the political debate have always been excited and excessive, even outside the periods of actual electoral campaign which might justify some excesses. The overexcitement of the Italian political debate has lead to a widespread use of extremist and violent language, and more worringly so to a banalization of evil. In order to attack political competitors, it has become customary for Italian political actors to compare them and their actions to some of the most dreadful personalities and experiences in history.

Only in the last few days, we had Berlusconi comparing his conviction to a coup and Beppe Grillo to Hitler. In turn, Grillo denounced Matteo Renzi’s government as authoritarian and pictured its establishment as a coup. Employment of excessive tones may be normal for populist parties during an electoral campaign. More worringly, inappropriate talk of regime, authoritarianism, fascism, and so on, is definitely not limited to the populist sectors of Italian politics. During the last twenty years, the Italian centre-left parties and press have constantly pictured Berlusconi and his governments as semi-authoritarian and para-fascists, which they were clearly not. Few weeks ago, leading centre-left intellectuals published an appeal against the “authoritarian turn” implied by the institutional reforms proposed by Renzi, which is nonsense.

The ease with which Italian political actors resort to excessive and inappropriate historical comparisons ends up emptying words of their real meanings and dreadful events of their import. If we get used to think that a coup is a change of government occurring in Parliament following constitutional rules, we cannot meaningfully use “coup” anymore to describe a change of government occurring outside the Constitution and with the army in the streets. If we get used to think that an authoritarian regime is a government like Renzi’s or Berlusconi’s ones, we cannot meaninfully use “authoritarian regime” anymore to describe governments severely hitting citizens’ rights. If we get used to think that Adolf Hitler was someone like Beppe Grillo, we cannot understand anymore what Nazism really was. What the recurrent misuse of words leads to, are increasing serious problems in understanding dreadful current and past political experiences, and a banalization of evil to a worrying extent.