Commentary

The “Good Girl” Protest Culture

Protests in Hungary are ridiculously peaceful. Apart from the handful of violent ones over the years that duly made in into the international media (and they are a far cry from anything you would see in France, for instance) the majority are really lame. They are more likely to unravel into accusing each other of unruliness or misbehavior than to un-pot a street plant or upset granny.

Hungarian pro-democracy protests want to be saintly – goodboy and goodgirl – and thus stand no chance to achieve anything.

Now I will be the last one to call for any kind of aggression but there are regimes that leave no room for non-aggressive and non-violent opposition tools. And Orbán’s regime is one of them. That doesn’t mean that violence is good, justified or even that it works – only that non-violence and non-aggression, being goodboys and goodgirls will never achieve anything.

You can go in two way from here: 1) Embrace violence simply because it is your only available option. 2) Submission. Embrace the regime and teach yourself to love it. (The third option is emigration and leaving the unsavory options, submission and violence, behind, but this is not a post about emigration.)

As usual, Orbán was the one who put it best. In a 1989 video he explains that a regime that leaves no other means to express opposition but violence, causes violence. It is the irony of history (and the iron law of ageing and power) that after three decades, he has created just such a system. And again, he admitted it loud and clear in 2010 that he only understands the language of force/power/strength – depending on your translation. And the position of a protester is not that of power. (Shame used to work on politicians even when the law and their parties provided them with political immunity – not anymore. You submit your own political party – you can reign forever.)

It is also probably the time for a reminder that Viktor “Cordon Demolisher” Orbán used to argue for extra-legal tools every time they suited him, and that it was his followers who occupied the TV building and set it on fire in 2006 during violent protests when Orbán refused to accept another election defeat.

In contrast, today’s “violent protesters” were only throwing colored party smoke bombs and peacefully marched to the TV building, and waited outside of it while opposition MPs attempted to get their five points read on the evening news. (For context: There has never been a single non-Fidesz politician allowed to talk on public TV under Orbán, not even during the elections. When the (brief) non-Fidesz majority of the election committee condemned the practice, they made the state TV to give 5 whole minutes to every non-Fidesz party during the election campaign. 5 whole minutes.)

The “slave law” protests started in December 2018 and Orbán’s opposition used non-peaceful tools for the first time. Once in Parliament when they were stripped from even their legal (albeit toothless) tools to block the new law – and then on the streets when protesters pushed against police. Again, it is highly unusual – especially from Orbán’s opposition. The police responded to the colored party smoke with tear gas and stood aside while private security guards were throwing MPs out of the building of the public broadcaster.

It is farcical and lame by any standard, but new for the Hungarian democratic opposition. For the first time in the history of anti-Orbán protests there was some misbehavior from protesters – lame as it is compared to the other side – but mischief nonetheless. Pushing against police, sitting down and refusing to go home, no matter how lame, are big news. As recently as April 2018 protesters were still leaving flowers on police cars. In December 2018 police car windows were broken.

This is the first time Hungarian anti-Orbán protesters were not goodboys and not completely apologetic. It’s still a far cry from France, for instance. Imagine what would happen if Macron would try to introduce the 6-day workweek, like Orbán is doing right now.

Hungarian protesters may be deeply upset, profoundly disappointed, gravely disapproving – but they always make a point of showing how peaceful and what goodboys they are. Indeed, they have started to accuse themselves with violence the moment it happened. The second wave of “slave law” protests duly relapsed into goodboy mode – and then they went home. Indeed, it is more likely that pro-democracy protesters start infighting – accusing each other of misbehavior – than to push against Orbán. And Orbán makes good use of their goodboy instincts.

Hungarian protesters (the legitimate ones, not the football ultras) always seem to be in some kind of competition of who is more peaceful and well-behaved. They act and communicate like a bunch of good girls and good boys, who want to be approved of by everyone.

  • They want to appease the public opinion by being so well-behaved, and
  • they even want to appease the regime by not making any trouble.

The psychological dynamics of these marches are that of a martyr with a suffering face who now deserves some tiny-tiny reward for suffering so silently – even if the reward is just less punishment. Maybe a longer leash. Maybe a less tight regulation. Maybe a law that only makes life hard but not impossible.

The saintly peacefulness of protests is also expected by public opinion. Even sympathizers of the cause express their sadness if a protest leaves rubbish behind or protesters knock over a potted philodendron. Even sympathetic commenters condemn protests that don’t follow the law (whatever that might be), dish protest signs with swear words on them, and lately, they condemn a high school student who told Orbán’s regime to go fuck themselves. Nothing like a naughty word to completely distract a weak mind from his priorities. Orbán approves, kids, Orbán approves…

And protesters are always super-keen to pander to this real or perceived expectation of schoolgirl behavior. Whom they want to impress is not clear though. The Orbán-media will lie about them anyway. It lied that protests were over (when protesters were outside their building), they lied that there were almost no protesters left (on another occasion), and if they want to accuse the opposition of violence they will, even if the peaceful, saintly, goodboy protesters leave flowers on police windshields (as they did just a few months ago). They will just use footage from an Egyptian protest to illustrate their claims or footage from a video game, that’s not a problem. They lie about the opposition, the world, the universe and everything all the time…

Or maybe they are trying to impress their own side, but that is thoroughly impossible. Even people who have given up on trying to influence the regime will criticize those who still rock the boat. Trying to disturb the submission process of someone who is trying to resign and break in will not gain you any followers.

To get an idea of Hungarian political protest sentiment (minus the nationalist football fans) it is enough to remember the goodboy protests of schoolteachers against the paralyzing centralization and blatant politicization of education in 2016.

They were let go by the local authorities and rehired by the central educational bureau, often along political lines. They were sent questionnaires by their employers requesting to disclose their Facebook group memberships. They couldn’t buy chalk for the blackboard or replace broken window without an impossibly slow central permission process. They were ordered to plan and document their classes minute-by-minute, teach from state-mandated and wildly rewritten textbooks – often a single one of questionable quality, but better presenting the Party line, spreading sexism, revisionism, and anti-migrant hatred to children. They were swamped with work, struggled because of severe labor shortage, kids are overburdened with insane amount of Prussian-style work.

All of these measures against them were blatantly political, of course, but when it came to protesting, teachers took a deep breath, shrugged off their fear and shyly announced that they are apolitical, they just…  We are not political, they kept repeating, we just… Naturally, they were destined to fail.

If the “slave law” protests continue and escalate, the issue of more aggressive tools may emerge on both the protester’s and the regime’s side. It seems unlikely as protesters and the opposition had already started blasting themselves for destroying sleighs under the nation’s Christmas tree in December and questioned whether opposition MPs should have attempted to enter the building of the public broadcaster.

The question is not what many are now asking, whether Orbán will at one point “call in the Russian tanks” to support his regime. Nor is it whether he will use more force. It is whether he can continue building his power with soft tools – the ones that international public opinion finds hard to understand: economic coercion, non-violent and informal intimidation, etc. – or he will be forced to shed deniability and starts acting like the autocrat he turned himself into.

If I had to pinpoint a reason for this weirdly saintly protest culture, I would probably look into the past.

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Featured image: Bődey János / Index For the whole gallery, visit Index.hu 

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