Universalism in Italy

Universalism in Italy gained prominence in 1805 due to the rise of Freemasonry and the establishment of the “Grand Orient of Italy” under the tutelage of Napoleon. However, the universalistic principles of equality, social justice, and brotherhood were relegated to the background after the fascist regime led by Mussolini came to power in the 1920s. After the Italian Jews were deported to the concentration camps in 1938, Italy moved from a universalistic state to a particularistic state. However, in the post-World War II period, race and ethnicity became a taboo topic in Italy, and universalism was once again given prominence. Similar to France, ethnic or racial distinctions are not allowed in Italy. However, unlike the French government that has recognized its colonial past and acknowledged racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination within the country, the Italian government turns a blind eye to its colonial past and brushes instances of racism under the carpet. As a result, the Black Lives Matter movement has not gained enough traction within Italy.

History and Concept Overview

  • By general definition, universalism is a concept that places greater priority on rules, laws, values, and obligations than people and their relationships. In universalistic cultures, people try to treat each other with fairness but rules are given primary importance. On the other hand, particularism is a concept in which rules are flexible and differ according to the situation and the relationship between individuals. In particularistic cultures, people’s reaction vary according to the person and situation.
  • According to the Dutch organizational theorist Alfonsus Trompenaars, Italians do not give much importance to rules as they “believe that they can easily be broken.” However, Italians also have the tendency to view the rules as guidelines but not universal truths. Thus, Italians are both universalistic and particularistic in nature.
  • According to the historian and scholar Alessandro Cavalli, Italians have high interpersonal trust and low trust in institutions. Most Italians believe that people holding positions of power have achieved them through shady means and that “the exercise of power” gives importance to personal interests over general interests. When ordinary citizens assume that the governing class is dishonest, they start disrespecting the rules. This is a clear indicator of particularism.
  • In 1805, the Grand Orient of Italy was established on Napoleon’s insistence, since a major part of the Italian peninsula was under the French rule. During this time, Italian Freemasonry rose to prominence and placed emphasis on universalism and cosmopolitanism. However, after Napoleon was overthrown by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the previously deposed Italian monarchs regained power, banned Freemasonry, and reinstituted absolutism.
  • The Grand Orient of Italy and Italian Freemasonry could only resurface in 1859 during the time when Garibaldi became a prominent figure in Italy. During this period, “a strong sense of patriotism” coexisted with universalism and the Masonic principle of universal brotherhood. A majority of the members of the lodge were Italian Jews.
  • The concept of universal brotherhood and fairness towards all existed in Italy even during the “19th century Italian unification movement,” called Risorgimento. When Europe was suffering from anti-Semitism, the Italian people did not embrace the same sentiment. The reason for this was that Italian Jews were a small fraction of the population and they were considered as allies against the Catholic Church that was opposed to Italian unification.
  • However, all this changed in the 1920s after Mussolini came to power and Italy became a fascist state. Italian Freemasonry had already been outlawed by the fascist regime in 1925. Mussolini’s regime introduced anti-Semitic legislations in 1938 and deported thousands of Italian Jews to the concentration camps in Auschwitz. The universalistic values like equality and social justice that Italian Jews held dear became mere concepts and Italy became a particularistic state that favored particular groups over others.
  • However, in the post-World War II period, race and ethnicity became a taboo topic in Italy and the focus was placed on universalism. Nonetheless, Article 3 of the Italian Constitution mentions the concept of race and the equality of citizens. Article 6 talks about the recognition and protection of historic linguistic minorities.
  • Just like France where ethnic or racial distinctions are not allowed, Italy does not allow the term ‘race’ (razza in Italian) in institutionalized forms such as census studies, medical intake sheets, or school applications.
  • Similar to France, the Italian citizenship law is based on the concepts of jus sanguinis (or blood right) and jus soli (or territory right). While jus sanguinis allows citizenship based on ethnic descent, jus soli allows citizenship to anyone born within the borders of Italy. Additionally, minors recognized “to be of Italian bloodline” can become Italian citizens within one year of the recognition. The law has given rise to much of the racial and ethnic problems currently seen in Italy.

Pros and Cons of Italian Universalism

Pros of Italian Universalism

  • Economists and proponents of Italian universalism and the concept of cultural assimilation argue that specific cultural attitudes demonstrated by immigrant groups can affect the labor market performances to a large extent. The oppositional identities exhibited by certain minority individuals that motivate them to reject the norms that govern the dominant majority can lead to significant social conflicts and adversely affect the labor market. Hence, it is better that minority groups are integrated culturally into the system rather than being acknowledged individually.
  • Social scientists and proponents of Italian universalism state that cultural diversity may adversely affect the social solidarity and the sense of community that are the pillars of a democratic welfare state. This could “diminish the political support for universal social programs” since such a situation may lead to the redistribution of public policies and welfare across social classes rather than across cultural groups.
  • Proponents often argue that universalism gives rise to nationalism. This was particularly true during the time of Garibaldi and his rise to prominence. During this period, “a strong sense of patriotism” coexisted with universalism and the Masonic principle of universal brotherhood.

Cons of Italian Universalism

  • Detractors of the policy of universalism state that welfare state institutions must accommodate cultural diversity instead of suppressing them. This would lead to contacts across communities and promote trust, tolerance, and respect towards each other that would ultimately lead to the forging of new national identities.
  • By assimilating immigrants into the native population on the lines of universalism, considerably less focus is accorded to their individual health. Even though their susceptibility to illness does not differ much from the native population, studies have shown that there are substantial differences in the health status of migrants based on their country of origin. According to a team of Italian researchers, health programs must consider the “diversity of the growing migrant population,” which universalism does not allow.
  • Even though Italian universalism encourages assimilation, black people and women do not find much representation in the political sphere. According to Abril Muvumbi, a Congolese-origin Italian woman politician in Imola, “I realised that it is good to have black activists, but there is also a need for black Italian politicians. Activists need to build a dialogue with politics, so if they don’t find anybody who can understand them and really care about them, they won’t succeed.”
  • Migrants living in Italy often complain that their identity is constantly questioned, not only by strangers but also by the government. This can be construed as a failure of the policy of universalism and assimilation. Even the current Italian citizenship law causes unnecessary harassment to immigrants seeking citizenship because of its long and complicated process.

How Italian Universalism is Playing Out Today in the Light of Black Lives Matter and Other Movements and Issues

  • Before the George Floyd incident, there were protests by Italian women doctors and researchers against gender inequality and discrimination. The government had not selected even one woman in the 20-member commission to lead the fight against COVID-19 despite the fact that women constitute the majority of nurses and doctors in the country. The protest was backed by female politicians.
  • Italian women have staged similar protests against gender-based violence, inequality, and discrimination in the country in March 2018, March 2019, and November 2019, among others.
  • The May 2020 shooting of George Floyd and the following Black Lives Matter movement led to an immediate increase in the number of young Italians wanting to study the history and struggles of black people in Italy.
  • In early June, several young Afro-Italians staged peaceful protests across many Italian cities. Black women played a leading role in organizing these protests since they have faced both gender and racial discriminations in the country.
  • Over “1,500 agricultural workers of color” have perished in Italy in the past six years due to insufficient labor rights and abysmal working conditions. More than 300 migrants have also died by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in 2020. Despite these deaths, the mainstream Italian media had not given much importance to the movement calling it an “American exception.” Even the Italian politicians were quick to label the movement as “a simple solidarity movement with black America.”
  • In June 2020, Black Lives Matter protesters in Milan defaced a statue of Indro Montanelli, a fascist and prominent Italian journalist, and demanded its removal as protest against Montanelli’s history of marrying an Eritrean child bride during the Italian occupation of Eritrea in the 1930s. However, Mayor Giuseppe Sala refused to move the statue citing Montanelli’s immense contribution to Italy.
  • The same group called “Let’s Remain Human Network” later marched across Rome and splashed red paint on the statue of Antonio Baldissera, a general involved in Italy’s colonization of Abyssinia. The group also changed the name of a street to honor Bilal Ben Messaud, a migrant who died while trying to enter Sicily, and George Floyd.
  • The attacks on the statues and Montanelli’s controversial image triggered a heated political debate around racism in Italy and the country’s colonial past that it refuses to accept. This lasted for a few days after which it fell silent. The situation again exacerbated on September 6, 2020, when Willy Monteiro Duarte, a black Italian was killed by four white Italian men in Rome. After a few weeks of protests, public interest again faded.
  • Italy’s lukewarm response to the Black Lives Matter movement when compared with similar protests in the US or France has once again demonstrated the tendency of the Italian society to not acknowledge the country’s colonial past and to brush racism under the carpet. While white Italians do not question their privilege, black people are considered as outsiders even when born in Italy. Even though a million people have been waiting patiently for years to get their citizenship, the ruling government has not given any importance to the citizenship law amendment. The current “climate of intolerance and xenophobia” existing in Italy has been influenced by far-right parties like the Northern League of Matteo Salvini.
  • The above statement corresponds to a 2019 survey conducted by SWG in which 1,500 random Italians were questioned about racism, 10% of the respondents said that racist acts are always justified, 45% of the respondents stated that racist acts are acceptable “depending on the situation,” and the rest 45% said that racist acts are completely unacceptable. This relaxation in attitudes indicates that people in Italy are accepting racist attacks due to the increase in online hate speech.

Impact of Italian Universalism on Italian Media (Specifically Films and Television)

  • In September 2019, the Nate Parker-directed movie American Skin, about police violence against black people, received “an eight-minute standing ovation” after its premiere at the Venice Film festival. The movie was even lauded by the acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee.
  • In September 2020, five African-born Italian fashion designers showcased their creations at the Milan Fashion Week and put the spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • The documentary called “Blaxploitalian: 100 Years of Blackness in Italian Cinema” by the Italian-Ghanaian filmmaker Fred Kudjo Kuwornu showcased the struggles faced by black actors in the Italian film industry where they have to fight against both racism and racial stereotypes. These stereotypes depict African-origin men as stupid and African-origin women as unique sex objects.
  • Earlier, Fred Kudjo Kuwornu had directed the war documentary “Inside Buffalo” that was about the all-black 92nd Infantry Division that fought during World War II in Italy. His documentary “18 Ius Soli: The Right to be Italian” critiqued the Italian citizenship law and triggered public debate.
  • Over the years, there have been some Italian movies that have explored the concepts of ethnicity, racial and gender discriminations, and gender diversity. The 1997 movie “La vita è bella” (Life Is Beautiful) shows the efforts made by a Jewish father to protect his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The movie won the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Academy Awards.
  • Two Italian movies that have captured the plight of immigrants and the racial discrimination faced by them are “Nuovomundo” (Golden Door) and “Terraferma” (Dry Land). Both these movies have been directed by the Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese.
  • There have also been some Italian movies that have focused on the LGBTQ community. Movies like “Chiamami col tuo nome” (Call Me By Your Name) and “Mine Vaganti” (Loose Cannons), both directed by the gay Turkish-Italian filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek, have been very popular with the audience.
  • On January 1, 2020, the Checco Zalone-directed musical comedy “Tolo Tolo” was released. Within 24 hours of its release, the movie became Italy’s highest-grossing film of all time. The reason for the success can be attributed to the subject matter which deals with migration, the right to dream, and the Italian society.
  • To seek for greater inclusion of women and achieve gender parity in the Italian entertainment industry, the Sundance Institute, Women in Film, Television & Media Italia, ReFrame Stamp, and IMDBPro have entered into a joint venture. Among other measures, a 14-point road map that provides suggestions on achieving greater inclusivity during the production process has been created.
  • In May 2020, the Italian state television RAI canceled a popular weekly talk show due to the racist and sexist comments directed at Eastern European women who have migrated to Italy.
  • The acclaimed Italian-Ethiopian director Dagmawi Yimer along with the Italian partners of his documentary “Va Pensiero” have started an online forum called “The Archive of Migrant Memories” to document the stories of immigrants who have faced racial discrimination.

Thoughts of Leaders in the Italian Film and Television Space About the Issues Arising From Italian Universalism

  • The acclaimed Italian-Ghanaian filmmaker Fred Kudjo Kuwornu, who has directed several documentaries showcasing the racial and ethnic discriminations in Italy, once said, “Italy’s a great country but sometimes it forgets that its great cultural, artistic, and scientific wealth really is due to the mix of genes — biological and cultural — that has passed through our land in two thousand years. Perhaps our mistake has been to not historicize this and teach it, starting with elementary school.”
  • Lamenting the lack of gender diversity and inclusivity in the Italian entertainment industry, Domizia De Rosa, a key executive of Women in Film, Television & Media Italia said during the launch of the 14-point road map, “The ecosystem is breathing with one single lung. Women are the half which is missing.”
  • Italian-Ethiopian director Dagmawi Yimer who has directed some hard-hitting documentaries about the racism faced by African immigrants in Italy including the critically acclaimed ‘Va Pensiero’ commented about the racism he has faced in Italy. He said, “I’ve experienced a lot of prejudice and I see a worrying trend in Italy where racism is becoming more ideological.”
  • Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese commented on the plight of African immigrants during the press screening of his movie Terraferma (Dry Land). He said, “For me the response of the state is totally inadequate. To leave people to die at sea is a sign of a great lack of civilization, for a country that proclaims itself civilized. There is a great responsibility in this carried by both the state and certain media.”
  • Italian filmmaker and writer Ivana Massetti has lamented about the marginalization of women directors in the Italian entertainment industry. In an interview to ‘The Wrap,’ she said that she had been hired to write a miniseries on the life of Luciano Pavarotti. Even though her scripts were appreciated tremendously by the producers, she was not given the job of the director as the producers felt that a woman cannot handle the big budget as effectively as a man.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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