The structural racialized patterns of segregation and structural violence of Roma have been tacitly accepted, institutionalized, and invigorated by recent populist politics in Europe. This alarming normalization of structural race-based exclusion has become the foundation for the inferiorization and dehumanization of Roma in the public imagination.
Based on the belief of populists and their explicit political agenda to mobilize deep-rooted anti-Roma racism, Roma are now simply “inferior” and their material dispossession is deemed to be the outcome of their “cultural tradition”. Their disposable lives simply do not matter! This message is legitimized on a daily basis by politicians and extensively replicated and reproduced by individuals and organizations – police officers, bankers, teachers, doctors, local authorities, and so on – who are consciously and unconsciously endorsing this deep-rooted racialized cultural and political script.
Consequently, de facto, material deprivation, repressive legislation, micro-aggression, and routinized discrimination and violence against Roma have been encouraged, (re-)confirmed and consolidated by powerful European political leaders such as Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and lately Boris Johnson, whose repressive legislation outlined in the Queen’s Speech will criminalize a significant number of Roma, Gypsy, and Travellers in the UK. Unfortunately, these events are not isolated; rather, they are part and parcel of a growing institutionalized anti-Roma racism.
Thinking about these interrelated and mutually reinforcing phenomena against Roma, and the lack of public outrage and outcry, reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s observations at the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role as chief organizer of the Holocaust: the systemic extermination of Jews and others, including Roma. Arendt’s remarks sparked considerable debate over guilt and the individual’s responsibility in society, which might help us understand the danger of silence and the “bystander” mentality which contributes to the decay of our societies.
The banality of evil
One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt reported on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in April 1961 that resulted in Eichmann’s conviction and hanging for “crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership in criminal associations” during the Holocaust. Arendt’s report of the trial included the term the “Banality of Evil” – a concept that perfectly resonates with the moral, ethical, political, and social effects of the calculated message regarding Roma delivered by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, on January 9 this year at his annual press conference.
Arendt later explained two interconnected ideas in a revised edition of “A Report on the Banality of Evil”. First, Eichmann was not the most evil or satanic person, rather an ordinary man on duty who had completely interiorized the values and norms of Nazi Germany. His deeds were ordinary and banal in a totalitarian society which carried out its activities through a bureaucratic apparatus, significant outrage, and public resistance. Secondly, Arendt observed that Eichmann may have lacked the intention to think and critically reflect on his deeds, therefore he was “thoughtless”, which she defined as the “inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view”.
One of the main lessons we learn from Arendt’s philosophical contemplation is that in the atmosphere of Nazi Germany, Eichmann could not distinguish between good and evil. Arendt called Eichmann a “new type of criminal”, who commits crime “under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible to know or to feel that he is doing wrong”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s racist comments on the segregation of Romani school students were received by fellow Hungarians without massive public outrage. The Prime Minister publicly contested the ruling by the Debrecen Court of Appeal in favour of Romani families in the town of Gyöngyöspata, whose children were forced to learn in segregated, unequal settings between 2004 and 2014. On September 18, 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld the first instance judgement and concluded that the Hungarian state must pay HUF 80 million (approx. USD 259,000) in compensation to the Roma children who were forcedly segregated for a decade from their non-Roma Hungarian peers in school.
The court case was litigated by the brave legal defense organization, the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF). They proved in court that Romani students rarely met their non-Romani peers as they were educated in separate classes on a separate floor; they were not allowed to take part in social events; they were not taken on field-trips; and they were denied IT and swimming lessons.Print