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Students in Hungary reject rights for minorities

6 February, 2009

When some colleagues and I did research on Chinese and Afghan children in Hungarian secondary schools in 2003-04, we found that xenophobic views were consistently expressed by Hungarian students more or less regardless of social class (though of course there was individual variation). We hypothesized that this had to do to a large part with the absence of what is usually referred to as citizenship education — i.e. a coherently transmitted picture of what constitutes the Hungarian polity — which allows the ethnicist, descent-based views of nationhood held by many teachers and not refuted in mainstream media to spread unchallenged. In this, Hungarian schools were starkly different from those in Northwestern Europe, and this has not changed since Hungary joined the European Union.

This has just been confirmed once again by a survey carried out by a group  of sociologist, led by Mihaly Csako, on secondary school students’ views of democracy. Fewer than half of the students considered respect for the rights of minorities an important feature of democracy. Consistent with this, a majority said they would be bothered if they had to sit next to a Gypsy student. (60% of students at the more ‘elite’ type of secondary school, gimnazium, said so, in contrast to 40% at vocational secondary schools, where they are much more likely to actually have Gypsy classmates.)

The relegation of minority rights to a marginalised liberal discourse has been a gradual process. Tolerance of all minorities — ethnic, religious, sexual or social, e.g. the homeless — has been rising. Whereas homophobia was not discernible in Hungary’s political landscape in the 1990s, it has today become a regular feature of nationalist discourse. It must be said that in the ’90s, gay rights were not part of the liberal human-rights discourse or the politicized identity that they have become now, with politicians’ “comings-out” and Western-style gay pride parades (very small and heavily protected from physical attacks by hecklers though they are). But in Hungary, homophobia has little to do with religious concerns; rather, the thematization of any minority rights provokes angry attacks by nationalists who see this as part of a liberal discourse that betrays national interests. Anti-semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Communism and anti-liberalism are related and almost interchangeable sentiments in Hungarian nationalism, and indeed frequently feature in the same speeches. The kike, the Chinaman, the faggot and the Commie have become signifiers for the same conspiracy that threatens Magyardom. In this respect the nature of xenophobia in Hungary is different from Western Europe (where it is conceptually difficult to be both Islamophobic and antisemitic) or Australia.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 February, 2009 1:48 am

    It’s indeed telling when children express xenophobic views. It would be interesting to do an ethnographic study to gain some insight into how the various socialization environments feed into each other in cultivating such xenophobic views (family, school, media, everyday practices and living). From my own personal experience, one (may) start challenging her own -isms when confronted with an environment that questions the ‘isms’. We need more info on how ideology moves from micro to macro and back.

  2. 8 February, 2009 10:01 pm

    A follow-up: I went to a conference organised by the Hungarian Democratic Charter, a group that describes itself as left/liberal. The talks were about the linguistic and visual tools of intolerance, and tried to show how public discourse and spaces naturalise symbols or ideologies of nationalism that should be contested but are not. I liked the talk by art historian P. Szucs Julianna best; it was comprehensible and engaged while still intellectually rigorous. Yet there was a sentence in the talk that went something like this: “…But to discuss these ‘cryptosemantics'” of nationalist symbols with the people who use them “would be like trying to discuss the human rights aspects of jihad with a Shiite Mohammedan.” In other words, for this erudite left-wing intellectual engaged in a public fight against intolerance, Shiites, as a group, are terrorists.

    I don’t think Szucs is an Islamophobe: she probably simply does not realise that there is a problem with her statement. A perfect illustration of the xenophobic consensus across Hungary’s political spectrum.

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