Language of Fear: Fidesz communication (II)

To continue with Anna Szilágyi’s fascinating study. The author adds another factor that contributes to the fear of Fidesz, and that is the feeling of helplessness, which is also has linguistic origins. Orbán is a master of a certain rhetorical formula that often remains no more than "suggestion," nothing clearly defined, only "implication" as it is defined in linguistics. Or, in other words, double-talk. If a certain phrase or a certain sentence implies a certain meaning, the answer can always be that it was simply misunderstood. For those on the other side these verbal tricks are more than frustrating. They produce a feeling of impotence; they cannot pin him down. Another source of frustration is that over the years Fidesz has managed to build up a whole array of instruments to capture the imagination of the masses: "their own channels, homepages, newspapers and weeklies, publishing ventures, stores, and communities. With these come their own writers, experts, intellectuals, celebrities who popularize the affairs of the party (or, as they call it, the affairs of the nation).  Everybody uses the same language here; only the manner of speaking and the volume vary depending on the audience." Indeed it is uncanny how orchestrated these verbal attacks are: the same words, the same phrases. Eventually they stick.

Another linguistic trick is the following: the foe is no more than a bunch of individuals, a handful, maybe twenty men and women who are party leaders while the "new majority is not organized along party lines." It is the nation. A party who tries to portray itself as simply a large majority without party affiliation certainly will not make the rhetorical mistake of talking about the other side as a large camp of many millions of voters. On the contrary, they talk about "the nation" on one hand, and on the other, a few politicians (first and foremost the prime minister himself), a few liberal newspapermen and intellectuals who take advantage of the naive masses. A good example of this type of rhetoric is Orbán’s warning in an interview: "If a few people spend a few billion to paint a promising but false picture in order to weaken the constitutional order, if they manage to get for their plans the support of most of the intellectuals, then these persons can ensnare the citizens." This trick is called in political discourse analysis "public foe" syndrome (that is, the individual enemy made communal). Yes, says Szilágyi, she picked the word "enemy" instead of "opponent" because according to the famous political scientist Murray Edelman (d. 2001) this type of political maneuvering falls into the political enemy category. The creation of an enemy is the favorite pastime of party leaders (especially good at this is László Kövér) and right-wing journalists. One extreme example is the following from journalist Péter Csermely (HírTV) who suggested to the possible future Fidesz minister of finance that when he occupies his office he get rid of even the furniture "in order not to have the aura of this pathologically criminal man influence you in any way." As is clear, in order to come up with the idea of "the original Evil Enemy" they use two linguistic strategies: calling their "enemies" criminal and and labelling them sick. László Kövér said a few days ago: "This gang of criminals must disappear." And a so-called psychiatrist said of Gyurcsány on HírTV: "The conscious lying of the prime minister, his defiance, his serious lack of self-criticism are typical traits of a young boy in puberty and not of a mature forty-five-year-old man."

In Szilágyi’s opinion when Fidesz politicians use quasi-scientific language of this sort, they swim in dangerous waters. This kind of rhetoric is not only alien to democratic (right or left) politics, but the last time such language was used in the twentieth century was in the regimes of the extreme right or the extreme left. (It is enough to think of the Soviet method of sending people who were critical of the regime to psychiatric hospitals. Or the Chinese camps of Mao’s time where those whom the regime considered to be enemies were sent to improve and change their ways. The labor camps of Hitler also operated along those lines, at least initially.)

Other favorite Fidesz terms are animalistic. For example, Orbán said not long ago: "An old adage says that pigs don’t clean out their own sties. In Hungary this is the situation, but it cannot go on for long. Someone must get hold of the pitchfork." The right likes to use words depicting disgusting beings like rats, bacteria, zombees. In Fidesz rhetoric they are not considered to be human; rather, they are animals that are harmful and dangerous and therefore must be eliminated. Some right-wing journalists have called Ferenc Gyurcsány "worm, skunk, puke." Or one can read in Zsolt Bayer’s infamous antisemitic article: "the biggest pieces in the cesspool always rise to the top." Bayer’s article is interesting not only for its antisemitic content but also for its linguistic turns of phrases that try to create absolute physical disgust. According to Szilágyi, "the creation of physical disgust in political rhetoric is the linguistic limit. Those who cross it openly stand for the liquidation of the others."

Szilágyi calls attention to an interesting paradox in Fidesz linguistic usage. While on the level of mass culture they emphasize the insignificance of the left, in official party rhetoric one can often hear the exact opposite: they are a hugely dangerous group of people. Orbán claimed that left intellectuals  "manage to write pages and pages and overpower the ether." So it is not enough that they portray themselves as the party of the vast majority of Hungarians and their opponents (enemies) an insignificant minority, but they also have to emphasize that this minority is exceedingly dangerous and powerful. Moreover, the smaller it gets the more ferocious it becomes: they accuse, they slander, they attack because they are weak, because they are a minority. "In this world of ‘the brave and the strong’ the rivals always appear in a threatening posture." To keep the faithful together it is useful to depict the other side as a camp of mortal enemies who are ready to jump at any time.

Another typical instrument of creating fear is the idea of "the nation as victim." Often one can hear such sentences: "in this country one cannot utter a word," or "in this country only those issues are discussed that the left-wingers find important." According to the right-wing journalists only right-wingers’ missteps end up being scandalous. The nation is the victim of a small anti-Hungarian minority. Szilágyi claims that Orbán’s rhetoric has gone through many phases in the last ten years, but "the nation as victim concept has remained constant." We all remember "the fatherland cannot be in opposition," "we will not be suckers of Europe," "we don’t want to be the happiest barracks of Gazprom," "democracy without a multi-party system," "haughty socialist leaders living in stolen villas talk about helping the poor," or "we are too poor to be further exploited." This strategy is successful in a country where the people pit a "positive self-image" against "a bitter reality," where "our miserable situation" is in stark contrast to "our outstanding qualities." The "nation as victim" provides an easy answer to these insolvable concepts: someone prevents the Hungarians from succeeding.

Szilágyi goes on to talk specifically about Orbán’s rhetoric. However, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the final two subchapters: "The Reincarnation of Lajos Kossuth" and "He Is Radical or Perhaps Not." They are too long and too interesting to be shortchanged.

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I have been waiting for part 2. I have heard and read this sort of language before. George Orwell described it in his book 1984. I am just old enough to remember the translated wild rantings of a certain wicked little Austrian house painter and of an over-dressed (and overstuffed) Italian blacsmith’s son. I read the meaningless accusations made against Rajk and Slansky. They were in the same sort of language. I have heard for my self the mindless chanting of hundreds of Chinese students waving their ‘little red books’ raving at a colonial government whose justice when it caught them was to give them tea to drink, a bowl rice to eat and then make them clean up the mess they had made. They then gave them tram/ferry tickets home. I have seen and heard this before! I am a Tory, a Queen’s Man, but I am a militant democrat. The language used is dangerous to the uneducated which is something I dislike and I suspect that Hungarian people do too. They have heard it all before. I would ask your readers to consider what would happen to Hungary if Dr Balogh’s scenario came true? Europe takes the charter… Read more »
Szilágyi Anna is interviewed [in Hungarian language] in today’s Népszabadság: The declining tenor of comments in the last posting, although by now somewhat predictable, simply tends to amplify the validity of much of Szilágyi’s arguments. The use of the term “liberal” is often thrown around as an inflamatory epithet in contemporary right wing Hungarian discourse. I tend to think that dates back to the early and mid 90s, when FIDESZ made its turn to the right and took many of its verbal cues from Newt Gingrich’s crusade against the Clinton white house at that time. FIDESZ and the SZDSZ both had occaisional connections to the Republican Party in the late 80s and early 90s – as well as to the US Democratic Party, British Labour, the Tories, and anybody else who would sponsor a internship or sabbatical abroad for them. About once a month a delagation of Amcsi Young Repubs would show up at Bibo College looking for a translator… I did my best to make them miserable. At that same time, the Socialists – pre-Gyurcsany – seem to have been watching the German Social Democratic Party very carefully for communication style cues. The other parties – MDF, Kisgazda,… Read more »

What point, Vandorlo? Quoting entire Monty Python monologues or cut-and-pasting Cicero doesn’t make your argument any more “logical.” And yes, I find the intentional pugnaciousness out of place in a discussion. The affected “erudition” of your responses comes off merely as an insincere and statements such as “I am afraid that even in all your years in the wilderness you are still completely Hungarian” come off as far more offensive than you seem to realize.