The role of irony in the political activism of Hungarian youth

In April 2017, a series of demonstrations took place in Budapest with a relatively large number of participants protesting against an amendment to the Higher Education Act. They were organised by independent and mostly social media-based groups, but they differed in several aspects from the demonstration culture that has been the norm in Hungary in recent decades.

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Irony is emerging as a weapon against authority in recent opposition demonstrations in Hungary

The main characteristics of demonstrations since 1989 can be summarised as follows: 1) they are usually centred in Budapest (except for agricultural demonstrations), 2) they are almost always peaceful and have a predictable “choreography”, and 3) they are organised with a political aim. The most important differences between previous protests and the most recent ones can be found in the last two points.

Whereas in the period after 1989 and during the 2000s protests were mostly organised by political actors and organisations closely tied to political activism (e.g. Milla, the HaHa Student Network), in recent weeks we have experienced an international trend of relatively large demonstrations organised by much smaller groups, primarily through social media.

The efficiency of such network-based organisation and execution is demonstrated by the attendance of 40,000–50,000 protesters. And although the activism sector has become more and more diverse and differentiated since 2000, only now has their action potential come to be on a par with that of political parties and affiliated organisations.

Even more important (and not completely unrelated to the above) is a change in the choreography of the demonstrations. With the exception of especially aggressive protests in 2006, Hungarian demonstrations since 1989 have been based on the same model: politically themed speeches are made, angry protesters shout their objections and urge the current prime minister to stand down (Gyurcsány or Orbán, as the case may be), and flags and banners are waved (the national tricolour flag or flags connected to parties and organisations).

After the speeches, the organisers announce the end of the event, and the protesters quietly disperse. The less professional the organisers are, the less likely it is that their demonstration will provide what is perhaps the most important factor for participants: a cathartic sense of sharing an experience together. And the converse is also true: the more professionally an event is organised, the more conscious is the aim to influence participants’ emotions.

The protests of March and April 2017

At first glance, the protests of March and April 2017 fit into the existing model: civic actors would deliver rhetorically slightly unmemorable speeches, the audience would shout the usual slogans, and eventually the organisers would announce the end of the event. But these protests did not end at this point; the protesters did not disperse, but instead reinterpreted Hungary’s protest culture.

Indeed, the most significant events did not take place during the demonstrations themselves; rather, they ensued in the streets of Budapest after the demonstrations had ended. A twofold protest model thus emerged: an organised, official, targeted and traditional protest, followed by an unofficial, exciting, spontaneous and postmodern protest involving a range of expressive and rousing tactics, of which irony became the most characteristic weapon.

The key to interpreting these changes and the emergence of this new choreography of protests is the new phenomenon of “experience-led activism”, which was defined in Hungary by Dániel Mikecz (2016) and Dániel Mikecz – Balázs Böcskei (2017).

In this collective form of participation, political activism is aimed at enriching the individual with new experiences by executing a so-called “experience project” (Schulze, 2000). Experience-led activism is connected to the anesthetisation of everyday life, and also touches on various forms of self-expression in addition to politics, such as art, entertainment, culture and sport.

Solidarity protests, altruistic actions and culturally rooted means of self-expression are the most characteristic features of this type of activism, which is most commonly manifested at locations connected to activist subcultures and other, free communal and cultural premises that are not under surveillance by the government or any other authority (Poletta, 1999). The latter point is key to understanding this phenomenon.

The change of Budapest

Budapest has been gradually changing since the mid-2000s: more and more “ruin pubs” have opened, options for outdoor entertainment have expanded, and the local youth have acquired more and more community spaces in the city. The best example is perhaps the planned closure of one of Budapest’s central bridges, Liberty Bridge, in the summer of 2016.

In short order, young people began to arrive spontaneously to use the new space. More importantly, they redefined the bridge’s function by having a picnic, amusing themselves, playing music, and transforming the bridge into the venue for a large ongoing flash mob for the rest of the summer.

This experience-led mentality is now reflected (probably with the participation of many of the same youth) in the new extended demonstrations in the streets of Budapest. It also serves as entertainment and creates a sense of community. Perhaps the most important aspect of this phenomenon is not even the demonstration itself, but rather the spontaneous, flash-mob-like sense of unity that follows.

But aside from the obligatory elements of music and dancing, another important part of these second-level demonstrations is inventing and chanting ironic slogans. What is the role of irony here?

In Central Eastern Europe, the common history and culture that connects and also divides nations have resulted in a specific genre of bitter, sometimes painful, satiric humour that is characteristic of the region, for example in the works of Czech humourist Jaroslav Hašek and Hungarian writer István Örkény.

This satirical tradition persisted in Hungary throughout the Communist period, creating a very particular brand of political humour. Before 1989, political humour contributed on the one hand to legitimising the system, as it was only through humour that taboo topics could be addressed and the tension relieved, while on the other hand it supported a certain implicit social resistance against the system, contributing to a sense of belonging: “We understand it, even if we’re not allowed to say so out loud.”

This joke-culture faded after 1989, partially due to economic and social crises, the diversification of culture and increased individualisation. Hungarian governments have been rather distanced from entertainment culture, and society has also become more distant from political humour. This process lasted until stand-up comedy emerged and became popular.

This genre of entertainment has redefined and at the same time internalised Western (mostly American) elements, as well as the old Hungarian tradition, resulting in a humour which is outspoken regardless of authority, and which closely resembles the expressive, intensive and impulsive multiculturalism of 21st-century youth.

Visualisations play a special role in this “pop culture”, as do short, easily decoded written messages, where a few words tell a whole story (as can be seen in Örkény’s One Minute Stories in the Hungarian literary tradition).

Irony as a weapon against authority

Several elements have come together at the same time in Hungary: urban, experience-led activism, the pop culture of the young generation, and Hungarian stand-up comedy. The result is an ironic tone which is manifested in the thinking of 21st-century youth, and which, paradoxically, is mostly only understood by them.

Irony in demonstrations is a weapon used against authority. It is a weapon in several regards. Firstly, as mentioned above, it contains certain cultural references that only insiders, or “digital insiders”, may understand (Prensky, 2001), which makes it suitable for creating a sense of unity among a particular generation while at the same time delegitimising the current regime and its leaders.

Hungary’s governing party is led by a politician whom many consider charismatic, and who played an important role in changes of 1989. Viktor Orbán’s followers regard him as a respectable, unquestionably competent, wise and powerful politician. Those in high office around him, such as Hungary’s president and the speaker of the National Assembly, are his personal friends and have been his allies since before 1989.

The irony of Hungary’s young generation is directed against them. It questions their authority, their competence and their omnipotence by joking about them and laughing at them. The authority of these politicians is demystified by ironic humour, making them ordinary and bringing them all down to the level of average people.

People whom one can make fun of are not scary; they are just like the rest of us – just as vulnerable. Young people protesting in the streets are not just angry at these leaders; they are laughing at them. This irony challenges an essential norm in Hungarian politics: that the elderly politicians in power should be fundamentally respected. Irony is thus a tool for mobilization, but on the short run it will not result in groundbreaking changes. For that, political activity is also essential.

Translation by Zsófia Deák
Proofreading by Evan Mellander

You will find more articles on Orbán’s attack on academic freedom in Europe in our feature on the Lex CEU.



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