Although Orbán’s communication seems increasingly shrill, much of the government propaganda consciously relies on manipulating the damaged Hungarian national identity. In Hungary future generations will suffer the psychological consequences of the combatant, anti-Western, hostile public narrative – says the world-renowned social psychologist Joseph P. Forgas, in Hungarian Forgács József, who has for the past five years been studying the Fidesz communication strategy built upon Hungarian national character.
What does Viktor Orbán know or think about the Hungarian people, when he declares war not only on the Western world, but slowly on common sense too?
A nation’s national identity is determined by the history and the culture of its inhabitants, an essential element of which is how we interpret the world and how we see ourselves. The Hungarian national character is in many ways fundamentally distorted and flawed, the causes of which are deeply rooted. For many centuries, Hungarian history consisted of setbacks, defeats, and crushed revolutions. These failures were accompanied by a typical narrative, which, according to social psychology research, is characterized by a marked victim mentality, resignation, self-pity, blaming others and an absence of accepting any responsibility. This pessimistic mental representation is compensated for by an often grandiose, unrealistic and romanticized nation-image, which visualizes a world-beating role for the Hungarians. A typical example is the bizarre system of selecting of “hungaricums”. There is no other country where the national identity is so fragile that it has to be bolstered in such a blatant manner and where an official committee decides that we should be proud of – for example, of a Hungarian salami or sausages, as if such goods did not exist elsewhere. Apparently the Hungarian national character needs such crutches to maintain its brittle self-esteem.
The Fidesz communication in the last five years has manipulated this damaged, self-pitying national identity by using demagogic and populist strategies to create non-existent enemies to blame for every failure. Such strategies can work because of the absence of a sufficiently well-informed and autonomous middle class who see through this. Actually, when Orbán speaks about the middle class, he means something completely different. He seeks to create a clientele dependent on the state, but a real middle class is characterized by independent thinking, by success achieved through individual effort and autonomous thinking and behavior.
To what extent can a defeated nation improve its self-esteem if it demonizes the most unfortunate? While the dead bodies of hundreds of refugees are washed up on the waterfront of Lampedusa, we are consulting with the government whether these asylum seekers are terrorists.
Given that xenophobia, ethnocentrism and mistrust are much stronger in Hungary than in surrounding countries, such dishonest and misleading communication can indeed work here for a while. It is remarkable that the Prime Minister seems to believe that his followers are so unintelligent that even the transparently manipulative intentions of the “national consultation” will go unnoticed. The term “national consultation” is itself a lie. It is not “national”, but party political propaganda at taxpayer’s expense, and not a “consultation” because as a poll it is completely useless. A first-year student would fail if he/she produced such a questionnaire, because this poll doesn’t meet any criteria for a usable survey. Perhaps this may be the point when the remaining Fidesz faithful will slowly realize that they have been cheated and that their leader simply looks down on them.
Isn’t there a risk that the political left will also be forced to embrace the emotional communication, to simplify and aggressively convey their message? Can a sensible and intelligent debate be conducted with so much “noise” around?
I think the Left has to find another way to address voters. There is great need for patriotism and national pride in Hungary given our damaged and insecure sense of national identity, and this can be addressed in more acceptable ways. It is hard to understand why the opposition has completely ceded the concept of patriotism to the Right, they seem scared to speak on this topic. Yet there is scope for a positive, patriotic approach from the opposition, that unlike Orbán, emphasizes our true historical values. One could be justifiably proud of Hungary’s thousand year history as an assimilative, integrative culture absorbing many different groups. Historically, the culture and strength of Hungary have always been enhanced by the assimilation of countless minorities. For example, although our national hero Petőfi had not one drop of ethnic Hungarian blood, he became Hungarian, as did many other great figures of our history. The divisive, ethnocentric politics of Fidesz looks for enemies everywhere, yet our thousand-year history is about exactly the opposite: about the success of inclusion and assimilation as a means to survival.
We lack solidarity not only toward “foreigners”, we are not solidarity with each other. The nurse with the educator, the bank debtor with the students. Is this discord associated with the Hungarian national character, and can it be used or abused respectively?
A typical feature of successive dictatorships is that they expect their citizens to keep out of public affairs and to show no group solidarity. This has a strong cultural tradition in Hungary, the Kadar regime worked the same way. This is what “we got used to”, the lack of solidarity has become a distinctive Hungarian feature. The results of one of our representative national surveys show that Hungarians see of the world as fundamentally unfair, they are convinced that public life is not worth participating in, that people can have no control over the affairs of the world, and so the suffering of others are none of their concerns.
If we have nothing to do with the western cultures, nor do we care about out compatriots, is it worth opening toward the East, for example, hard-working Chinese man and women?
The so-called “opening to the east” is an entirely demagogic and doomed conception. Such a romanticized Eastern ‘Turanian’ (ancient totem eagle) nationalism was first invented in the Horthy era and is now revisited. There is no historical basis for this, and, of course, there is no viable eastern alternative either. People in the East would also like to live like the Westerners, they are trying to adapt the successful social and political models created by the Western civilizations. There is simply no viable alternative to Western liberal democracy and the market economy. Western societies are the best place to live in and the world’s richest and most influential countries all follow this model. Incidentally, all Hungarian emigrants also head west, and not east. The various eastern role models named by Orbán have nothing to do with each other, except their autocratic orientation. It is foolish to say that they represent a viable future. It seems that Orbán fundamentally misunderstands the Western world, underestimates the power and adaptive ability of Western democracies. He has never lived in the West, the concepts of democracy and the market economy are alien to him. It is a national tragedy that such a half-educated man, a typical product of the late Kádár system now leads the country, who unfortunately understands only autocracy.
And the fight. As if he defines himself with that alone.
Every authoritarian regime, everyone with a dictatorial tendency needs enemies to define his profile, to make himself important. The Fascist and Communist periods were also defined by the constant struggle against real or imagined enemies. For the first time in 500 years, Hungary does not need to fight with anyone, we have no real enemies, we finally were able to join Western Europe, and are free to develop autonomously. It is a national tragedy that instead taking advantage of this historic opportunity, Orbán has decided to turn against the West, and so leads the country into a hopeless dead-end street. Our set of values are also moving away from western world, and away from our immediate neighbors as well, as several Tárki surveys show. The national consultation, the debate about the death penalty are nothing more than manipulative distractions from the growing number of scandals, the endemic corruption and the ever more transparent lies. One can only hope that the majority of voters will finally wake up and realize how badly cheated they were.
What could be the long-term consequences of the Orbán world? What kind of psychological legacy could these years leave us with?
The economy can be revived, the institutional system can be renewed in a couple of years, but the psychological consequences of creating such a distorted mental representations about the world may handicap Hungary for many generations. My friend András Inotai summed it up: there is a spiritual genocide going on in Hungary right now, and I think there is a lot of truth in this.
In a country which happens to be already rather backward compared to prevailing European culture and values, Orbán’s dishonest propaganda capitalizes on an enduring sense of inferiority and lack of self-confidence, in order to stir up feelings of hostility against the West, also increasing xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Democracy presupposes a certain kind of individualistic and autonomous mental view about the world and corresponding psychological attitudes. For democracy to work well, citizens must adopt a self-confident, independent, rational and responsible mind-set and a sound national identity grounded in reality. What is happening now, fundamentally undermines the future opportunities for such a development. This is extremely irresponsible and is likely to cause continuing damage for the nation.
This interview, conducted by Anna Kertész, appeared on May 16, 2015 in Vasárnapi Hírek. It was translated by a member of our community, “Observer.”
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Joseph Forgas is a social psychologist, professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He was born in 1947 in Budapest and emigrated to Australia at the age of 22. He earned two doctorates at Oxford University, lived in England, the US and Germany for several years. “As a Hungarian it is a huge disappointment to me that Hungary seems to turn away from the democratic values and the free market economy of the West and seeks a kind of authoritarian, dictatorial alternative.”
To understand how this could happen requires a socio-psychological approach – what shaped the Hungarian mentality, and why does the otherwise transparently demagogic and primitive Fidesz propaganda find such fertile ground here? “- says the professor.
His main area of research is examining the role of emotions in social behavior. One of the dominant and internationally recognized figures in the field, his experiments contributed significantly to our understanding of the influence of emotional states on the formation of stereotypes and the development of social processes.
He published about 26 books and countless scientific articles and chapters; in recognition of his contribution, he was awarded the Order of Australia, the Humboldt Research Prize, the Rockefeller Award and was elected member of the Australian and of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Before 1989 his work could not be published, however, since then several of his books have been translated into Hungarian, and his books are used in the teaching of social psychology, for example, his book The Psychology of Social Interaction. He visits Hungary regularly, and follows Hungarian public life closely; in the last few years, since the rise of Fidesz’ power he has been studying the role of Hungarian national identity in political communication.