Italian Freedom Fighters: Cultural Attitudes Towards the Law

The debate about Italy’s new anti-smoking laws sputters on in some online forums. One chap had this to say on Zoomata:

“The reason Italians are upset is because we do not like to be told what to do. In fact, this law will be very difficult to enforce in the South, especially in the Naples area. Some have said that it will actually encourage people to smoke. To narrow minded Americans this may be difficult to understand. But, in Italy, Italians feel that they should have the freedom to decide. That is why many laws are so often disregarded in Italy. Italians are probably the world’s greatest free thinkers and lovers of freedom. Any law which forbids is viewed as an infrigment upon their rights.”

I managed to post a fairly polite reply, but this guy got my blood boiling. One of the traits I like least in Italian culture is this “every man for himself” attitude. An Italian’s loyalty is first to self, then to family, then to paese, and almost none to country. (NB: I’m not crazy about American-style “my country right or wrong” patriotism, either.)

In Italy, laws are often disregarded, not because they are felt to be wrong for the community, but because they are inconvenient for the individual: “Why should I obey the speed limit? I’m in a hurry.” This is a declaration, not of independence, but of sheer self-centeredness. Lowering and enforcement of speed limits have reduced overall highway fatalities in Italy, but every individual Italian asserts his right to drive as fast as he can get away with.

Probably for historical reasons, Italians have little sense of themselves as a unified country and culture, and almost no sense of shared “ownership” of a community and its resources. People deposit trash along country roads because it’s easier than going to the dump, never thinking that they are polluting the environment and ruining the beauty of the landscape. As long as it’s not their own front yard and they don’t have to look at it, they don’t care.

So some Italian smokers continue to assert their right to pollute my breathing space, and moan that the new law shows a worrying trend towards American-style attempts to tell everybody how to live. I agree that it’s possible to push any law too far, but, so far, these folks get no sympathy from me. When I used to whine about my troubles with smoke, I got no sympathy from most of them.

In any case, Italy’s anti-smoking law seems, to the surprise of many, to be sticking. Ross recently went to a disco, and told me that the smokers all had to go out on the terrace, even though it was a cold winter night. Unfortunately, there were so many of them that, when the disco got crowded and hot, stepping out for a breath of fresh air was counter-productive: she stepped out into clouds of smoke.

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