Amanda Knox acquittal: The persistence of Italian stereotypes in the British press

It’s been interesting to me to view the media reaction already brewing at the Amanda Knox acquittal. Leaving aside the fact that Amanda Knox is American and that the Italians have an entirely separate and fractious relationship with the US, the fact that Meredith Kercher was British meant that there was always a specific interest in Britain to the outcome of the trial and the behaviour of the Italian judicial system.

There is also a keen awareness and sensitivity in Italy of how they are viewed by the British. This happens on a superficial level in sport, more seriously in politics; but a murder trial has a way of provoking deep-seated prejudices about respective national characteristics that go beyond the guilt or innocence of the accused.

That Amanda Knox was acquitted means a court of law has decided her innocence and that is as far as the majority of us can say about her as an individual. Tobias Jones points out the inconsistencies of the Italian judicial system in his Comment is free article, but reading some of the comments below the line, I was not surprised to see how old resentments between traditional views of both the English and Italians quickly surfaced.

The accusations by the Italian lawyer, Carlo Pacelli, that Amanda Knox was a “witch”, the continual murmurings and allegations about her sexual promiscuity, all conform to stereotypes that see Italians as superstitious and judging English women as overtly sexual and “evil”.

But, it must not be forgotten that that is how the story was recounted in the English press and it obscures any suggestions that Italians may have moved on from such misogynistic attitudes. Calling a woman a witch is not exclusive to Italians, by the way, as Rebekah Brooks, the so-called “Witch of Wapping“, will testify.

While northern Europeans generally see Italians (particularly southern Italians, and, as someone who’s origins are Neapolitan and Calabrese, I am particularly sensitive to this) as lazy, corrupt and superstitious, there are elements of those accusations that are also levelled at Arabs and north Africans.

In return, Arabs and southern Europeans generally see the northern European races as cold and ruthless, engaging in a different type of corruption of a more elevated and sophisticated nature.

The belief that Amanda Knox was guilty may have had much to do with her cool facial expression and her lack of emotion at the beginning of the trial and this probably did play to those prejudices. It’s significant to me that her emotional appeal a couple of days ago seemingly played well with the Italian court.

Tobias Jones’s book The Dark Heart of Italy uncovers much that is wrong with the country, such as corruption in political and public life, and the Italians’ obsession with conspiracy, but it also panders to the kind of stereotypes that, were the tables to be reversed, would be seen as unacceptable prejudice and fails to delve deep enough into the roots of that corruption in the American takeover of all aspects of public life.

In a country where the CIA actively undermined the growth of the popular Communist party, where secret armies were stationed ready for a military coup (Operation Gladio) should communists have ever been democratically elected, it is easy to see why these suspicions should be so prevalent and not hard to see other causes to the weakness of the democratic governments other than Italian moral weakness.

To grow up as an Italian in England, continually ridiculed about the war (white flags, tanks with seven reverse gears etc) and about Italy changing governments seemingly twice a year throughout the 1970s and 1980s, has made me extra sensitive about the inconsistencies of the British mocking Italians, while enjoying the fruits of its land, food, cars, fashion and the warmth of its climate.

That Italy is superstitious as a nation is true, the yoke of Catholicism still a heavy weight on the country’s conscience, and I am thankful that I grew up in London and developed a different perspective on religion, morality and ethics. But in England there remains a sizeable part of the country that is prudish about sex and sexual promiscuity, and as an “outsider”, I find elements in both national characteristics that are misogynistic, they just play out in different ways.

Italy does, like any country, have specific problems with its national character and how it is perceived, but it has much to do with the difficulty of communication between Anglo-Saxon coolness and southern European warmth and “sentimentality”. Northern Europeans see this emotion as a weakness of character, while the southern Europeans see the cool, stiff-upper lip as intimidating and a sign of ruthlessness. Stereotypes, while allowing instant recognition, can also stifle debate and neither of these stereotypes is wholly justified.

Tobias Jones goes into great detail in his book to describe the political machinations of postwar Italy. I think (and many leftwing commentators agree) of postwar Italy as a vassal state of the US. Italians welcomed America and Britain after the tyranny of fascism, but the Italian people lost much of their identity in trying to become what they thought their Anglo-Saxon “masters” wanted them to be, both politically and culturally.

This is even more starkly illustrated in the BBC documentary Napoli: City of the Damned, which shows the events directly after the liberation of Italy and the corrupting influence of American culture on the Italian psyche as well as the involvement of the CIA and hired Italian-American gangsters in suppressing leftwing dissent.

But the fact that Amanda Knox’s acquittal has brought these age-old prejudices to the surface once again is not reason for me despair. Rather, it is yet another opportunity to uncover where the fault line between objectivity and personal prejudice lies and once again a demonstration of how this fascinating relationship between the British and Italians can still throw up issues about culture and national character that have yet to be resolved.

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