I guess the real test of a good opinion piece is whether the reader finds it thought provoking. Whether while reading the piece dozens of examples, questions, and ideas come to mind. I must say that I don’t have this experience very often, but this morning I did thanks to an article by Árpád W. Tóta entitled “A fideszes áfium ellen való orvosság.” My mind immediately started racing (some might say wandering), but as it turned out I wasn’t too far from the main thrust of Tóta’s argument.
First I stopped at the word “áfium” in the title. My high school years came back to me. All those who finished Hungarian high school learned something about Miklós Zrinyi (1620-1664), ban (governor) of Croatia, general, poet, politician, writer of political treatises. He wrote a political pamphlet entitled “A török áfium ellen való orvosság” and, although I don’t remember ever reading a single line from this work in school, we did learn the pamphlet’s title. But there was one rather serious problem. We had no idea what the word “áfium,” an archaic word, meant and our Hungarian teacher never bothered to enlighten us. It was only years later that I found out that “áfium” meant “opium” and that the title actually meant “Medicine against the Turkish opium.”
From “áfium” I made a mental leap to the deficiencies of Hungarian education and found myself on the same wave length as Tóta, who complained in the body of his article about the ignorance that allows a million and half Hungarians to be unquestioning followers of a false messiah. Tóta believes that “the medicine against the Fidesz opium” lies in enlightenment, in education, in learning about democracy, learning about the world.
Tóta is right when he claims that those who find Fidesz’s message and practices repugnant often think that Viktor Orbán’s slavish followers are simply stupid. No, he says, they are just ignorant–and they lack intellectual curiosity. I would change the order of deficiencies here. Without intellectual curiosity a person will never acquire the information necessary to make intelligent choices. And intellectual curiosity is in short supply in Hungary. For instance, the number of Hungarian adults taking continuing education courses is the lowest in all of Europe.
Tóta blames the eight years of socialist-liberal governance for allowing a generation to grow up without ever acquiring the rudiments of democratic thinking. As a result 17% of Hungarian college students believe the drivel of Jobbik. Tóta suggests that once Fidesz is gone it will be time to transform the newly adopted compulsory hour of morality and religion to “civics.” As he jokingly says, “the framework is given; one just has to change the textbooks.”
Once I got this far I recalled Ferenc Krémer’s latest article on Galamus about “Teaching democracy, the German example.” Krémer naturally mentioned the German children’s show which teaches the pillars of democracy, like an independent judiciary, freedom of the media, and freedom of assembly. It was on this show that German children learned about all those undemocratic practices the Orbán government introduced. Naturally Orbán was outraged and called the show “brainwashing,” something he would never allow to appear on Hungarian public television.
My guess is that a lot of liberal and socialist opponents of the Orbán government would agree with Tóta and Krémer that democratic thinking must be taught, preferably at a young age. But many of the same people find the European Union’s efforts at curbing smoking unacceptable. It is brainwashing, they say.
So, let’s see what brainwashing means. It has two meanings: (1) intensive, forcible indoctrination, usually political or religious, aimed at destroying a person’s basic convictions and attitudes and replacing them with an alternative set of fixed beliefs, and (2) the application of a concentrated means of persuasion, such as an advertising campaign or repeated suggestion, in order to develop a specific belief or motivation.
Surely, neither the German children’s show teaching young kids about democratic thinking nor the campaign against smoking would fall into the first category. There is no question of forcible indoctrination here. Instead, both use persuasion in order to develop a specific belief or motivation. In the first instance to develop a belief in democracy and in the second to reinforce one’s motivation to quit smoking. Both are for the common good, I think. Yet a lot of confusion as well as genuinely conflicting opinions surround the question of influencing public opinion. The Nazis in Germany didn’t have to force people to follow the Führer. A concentrated means of persuasion was enough. Or we condemn the tobacco companies’ advertising practices that encouraged smoking but laud the efforts of governments to curb smoking, although both fall into the category of persuasion by social means.
The subject of brainwashing and persuasion has a large literature, but I like one simple description of brainwashing: “someone else is thinking for you.” This is unfortunately very much the case with nonthinking Fidesz followers. Whatever future Hungarian governments do to ensure a better educated public, they must put the emphasis on independent thinking and a broader knowledge of the world. It also might not be a bad idea to teach children the meaning of “áfium” and, while they are at it, tell them what Zrínyi’s work is all about.