ROME — The Italian language does not want for colorful insults. There are curses upon a person’s dead relatives, ample anatomical exclamations and countless ways to call someone a moron.
But these days, it seems, one of the biggest put-downs of all is to call someone a do-gooder.
And on the lips of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League Party and Italy’s most powerful politician, the word “buonista,” or do-gooder, is a dangerous weapon.
“The European dream is being buried by the bureaucrats, the do-gooders and the bankers who are governing Europe for too much time,” Mr. Salvini said this past week at the introduction of a new alliance of far-right and populist parties before European parliamentary elections in May.
Or early this year, when he spoke scornfully of “the hotshot do-gooders,” those he equates with hypocritical limousine liberals or Pollyannish bleeding hearts, who “condemned to death thousands” by urging migrants to “come, come, come.”
The proliferation of the unlikely slur has become a profound marker of the topsy-turvy state of politics in Italy, where being too good is bad, expertise is disqualifying and hard economic data is subject to Dadaist analysis.
But the Italians are not alone. The far-right party Alternative for Germany has so often insulted opponents with “Gutmensch” — or do-gooder — that a jury of linguists and writers chose it as the worst word — or Unwort — of the year in 2015.
Its pejorative use for those “who oppose attacks on refugee homes,” the jury wrote, showed that “tolerance and helpfulness are generally defamed as naïve, stupid and unworldly.”
More recently, supporters of the European Union, first among them President Emmanuel Macron of France, have expressed concerns that Italy’s populists have gone through the looking glass, and that they could plant the seeds of destruction in a bloc that has provided the Continent with 70 years of peace.Supporters of Mr. Salvini scorned the thousands who demonstrated in Milan in March to protest what they believed were the racist policies of the populist government.CreditLuca Bruno/Associated Press
“Some defend nationalism,” Mr. Macron said in an interview in March with Fabio Fazio, a popular Italian talk show host and one of Mr. Salvini’s favorite do-gooder targets. “But I will fight these people with force because I think they will make us lose 10 or 20 years by dragging us back to old divisions.”
Supporters of Mr. Salvini, who himself once lumped the French president in with the do-gooders, dismissed the interview as a mini do-gooder summit.
They also scorned the more than 200,000 people who demonstrated in Milan in March to protest what they believed were the racist policies of the populist government. “In Milan, A Carnival of Do-Gooders,” read the headline in the right-leaning Il Giornale.
Do-gooder owes its heavy rotation on Italy’s poisonous social media accounts, in political interviews and in Mr. Salvini’s speeches to a period of acute polarization and incivility.
But critics say that if Mr. Salvini’s League Party has made bad good, its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, has elevated obliviousness to a professional credential.
The throw-the-elite-bums-out ethos of the populists, they say, has led to a government staffed with hapless amateurs who wear their inexperience as a badge, and transported Italy into a bizarro world that upends political logic.
“It’s like they are from another planet,” said Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy and former European Commission president, who is himself a classic target of the do-gooder slight. “They are Martians.”
The founder of the Five Star Movement, the comedian Beppe Grillo, has also dabbled in insults of do-gooderism. Like the current polarization, the inverted invective seems to have roots in the era when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister.The insults of the Five Star party founder, Beppe Grillo, seem to have roots in the era when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister.CreditMax Rossi/Reuters
In 2002, the political commentator Luca Sofri, writing on his blog Wittgenstein, noted that the word “buonista” or do-gooder had become “an alibi for the bad guys to be bad: If you do good then you are a do-gooder.”
In 2008, La Repubblica, the liberal Rome daily, wrote that the center-right had redefined the positive word as “synonymous with softy” and that some politicians, especially when it came to the issue of migration, sprinkled do-gooder around “like parsley.”
But Mr. Salvini has made a meal of it.
In July 2016, after comparing Laura Boldrini, then the speaker of the Italian House, to a sex doll, he wrote under the hashtag “deflate Boldrini” that she was a “hypocrite, do-gooder, racist against the Italians.”
In December 2017, a group of neo-Nazi skinheads in black bomber jackets barged in on a meeting of pro-migrant volunteers to read a manifesto warning that Europeans risked being “replaced” by “non-people.”
Afterward, Mr. Salvini wrote on Facebook that “for the do-gooders” the “problem with Italy is 10 right-wing guys who read a pamphlet.’’ He said his problem was with illegal immigrants ‘‘who fight, steal, rape and deal drugs.’’
But there are real-world consequences to making good bad and bad good, not least a more permissive atmosphere to be downright mean, uncivil or even violent.
As Mr. Salvini has increasingly attacked migrants verbally, more Italians have done so physically, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors hate crimes. Some liberals have embraced the redefinition as a reality, and have proudly worn “buonista” T-shirts. But others see it as a dangerous erosion of Italy’s values.
Mr. Fazio, the talk show host, declined to comment for this article. But as far back as 2014 he vented his rage at hearing the insult thrown his way. “I can’t hear the word ‘do-gooder’ anymore. I just can’t,” he said, adding, less than do-goodly, “It’s really pissing me off.”
In a country built on anger like Italy, he said, “to interpret good manners and banal civility as do-gooderism is an instigation.”