Cultivating Empathy in Hungary

Julieta Nagy Navarro

Julieta Nagy Navarro

When it comes to people expressing trust in others, Hungary ranks rather low. In 2011, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a ranking that put Hungary 24th out of 30 countries. Hungary’s ranking – 47 percent of the population expressed high trust in others – put it at nearly half the rate of Denmark (89 percent). It was also one of the few countries where mistrust had grown over the polling period. Other East-Central European countries did equally poorly: Slovakia and Poland (47 percent), Slovenia (53 percent), Czech Republic (56 percent).

“There is a lot of mistrust here,” Julieta Nagy Navarro told me. “And that’s a response to a particular attitude: I must grab whatever I can for myself.”

Nagy Navarro is originally from Mexico (which fared even more poorly than Hungary in the OECD index: 26 percent). She has lived and worked in Hungary new for quite a few years. I talked with her and her husband, Balazs Nagy Navarro, last May in Budapest.

The mistrust has proven to be a challenge for her human rights work. “You cannot convince people that human rights issues all over the world concern Hungary — not because Hungary is a country but because we are all human beings,” Nagy Navarro said. “If there are human beings who are suffering, and you admit that this suffering is normal, you don’t know when this suffering can reach you. Even if you are selfish, you don’t want this suffering to happen to you. If you’re not altruistic, then at least think about yourself — because it might happen to you next time.”

But even the argument from selfishness is not particularly convincing. “Sometimes they just stay quiet,” she reported.“’We already have enough with our reality,’they say. ‘Why should I do a bit more for somebody I don’t know?’”

Some of the mistrust is a legacy of the Communist years when the government implemented official solidarity campaigns with other Socialist-bloc countries or with the Third World.

“Many people that I’ve met don’t want to participate in these human rights meetings,” Nagy Navarro reported. “They don’t want to participate in any movement because of the legacy of socialism. But they should realize that it’s for their own benefit that they do it, and their own benefit might also mean the benefit of others. If they accept that it will cost them to work a little harder and to also compromise on some things, not to keep all the benefits for themselves but to consider other people’s views, then there’s a possibility to go toward a better society.”

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Italy. It was a big surprise. It was one thing after the other in that year. It wasn’t only the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the whole collapse of everything, the whole Iron Curtain.

What did you think about it?

I’d been in Berlin in 1985, and I’d visited the East side, which was an exotic experience. It was so structured and definite that I couldn’t believe it would change any time soon. Both sides were very much convinced that this would be the way it would always be. Later I visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum and felt like crying because of all the dramatic stories.

I studied in a very intellectual environment in Mexico. Intellectuals, many of them, believe socialism is a good way for Latin America, and not just Mexico, to go. The social inequalities are so strong. In Mexico, the government hasn’t finished implementing the social measures introduced after the revolution in 1920 and then partially implemented by Cardenas in 1940. Then in 1988, a neoliberal candidate was declared president after controversial election results, and It was he who actually signed the NAFTA agreement. Everyone was shocked. This started to be the end of the implementation of the constitution.

As Balazs was saying, here they didn’t know what a good thing free education was. When I asked him whether he got free books too, he said,“No, we have to buy the books.”

And I said, “But what if people don’t have the money to buy books?”

He said, “No, here everyone would have the money to buy the books.”

“Ah, so this is a rich country!” I said.

“No, Mexico is richer,” he said.

In Mexico, every child receives six textbooks for free at the beginning of the year in primary education. And we still have free university. Of course it’s not enough for everybody. And there are some things that are lacking. But if you don’t have economic possibilities, and you make the effort, you can get through university without paying. People take this for granted. There were inequalities in the socialism here, and it wasn’t sincere. But when you see more level societies, then I think it had a good effect.

Now you see the opposite. They were waiting for capitalism, and now you start to see how the classes form. They don’t want to see that inequality makes crime and insecurity. You can’t tell them this, because they won’t believe you.

You were working on womens issues at the Central European University. Has the status of women gotten better or worse over the last couple decades?

I’m not so directly involved in those issues right now because I don’t follow all the news, and I’m not Hungarian. But when I was researching these issues, I realized that the laws and all the measures and the documents look very nice. But in reality they were not implemented, starting with equal pay for equal work. While I was doing this, Balazs was engaged in this whole fight. He was a recognized journalist with a lot of experience, spoke lots of languages, and he was discriminated against. He was from the top of the elite, and he could be discriminated against. If you go down the hierarchy, if you are a woman, if you are Roma, then you are more easily discriminated against. If you have discrimination at one level, then you will have it all the way through all the categories.

There is a lot of mistrust here. And that’s a response to a particular attitude: I must grab whatever I can for myself. 

Have you encountered problems here as a non-Hungarian?

Sporadically people think that I’m a Roma. On these occasions, I really feel that there’s discrimination here, and it’s not only about ethnicity or gender. I feel discriminated here because of my size — I’m small. I’m also discriminated against as a non-Hungarian and someone with a different skin color. Balazs and I don’t agree on this. He says, “No, it’s just your perception.” But he doesn’t know because he doesn’t have the same skin color as I do. If you’ve never been as small in size as me, or have the same skin color as me, or been outside the dominant group, then you can’t really understand.

When people think you’re Roma but then you tell them you’re from Mexico, does their attitude change?

Totally! But I wouldn’t say that this happened a lot — only once or twice. For the many years I’ve lived here, it’s a small number of times. But it has caused an effect on me, so that’s why I remember it. When I say I’m from Mexico, most people are very friendly. They have a dream-like idea of Mexico as being far away with lots of sunshine. When you have sunshine, problems will disappear, life should be good. They have these ideas that outside is good. I guess this is a constant wherever you go.

People will say to me here, “How can you say people in Hungary live well? Look at how they live in Germany or Austria! We are just neighbors, so how can we live in such a bad way?” They can’t compare themselves to something that’s not in the West. It’s a common thing when you haven’t been abroad in a long time or you haven’t lived somewhere as a foreigner: you have an idealized view of the outside world or of the West.

What has been like to do human rights work here?

It’s very frustrating. First of all, even people in the street believe you belong to a political party. You cannot convince people that human rights issues all over the world concern Hungary — not because Hungary is a country but because we are all human beings. If there are human beings who are suffering, and you admit that this suffering is normal, you don’t know when this suffering can reach you. Even if you are selfish, you don’t want this suffering to happen to you. If you’re not altruistic, then at least think about yourself — because it might happen to you next time.

Does that argument convince people?

Sometimes they just stay quiet.“We already have enough with our reality,”they say. “Why should I do a bit more for somebody I don’t know?”

What were the campaigns that you were working on that elicited those reactions?

One was on women’s rights. It was actually very controversial. We had a strong clash with the director of Amnesty International at that time. First we said that we want to do something on violence against women in Hungary. And he said, “You can do it with this other NGO that always does that.”We said that we knew what the other NGO did, and we might talk with them, but we wanted to do something a bit different. Our group created a whole campaign. We produced a poster that has been used all over the world by other Amnesty chapters. Suddenly the director said he received instructions from London that we must focus instead on the women of Darfur.

And your campaign was focused on violence against women in Hungary?

Yes. Our point was that if people are not sensitive about themselves here, they won’t be sensitive about people 2,000 kilometers away. It was obvious to us that the lack of sensitivity was the problem. We had to point out the invisible problems here.

A common reaction here was: what about violence against men? There are cases in Hungary of husbands who are beaten by their wives. While this is true it is a very small percentage. Of course there shouldn’t be violence in the family, but most of the violence involves women. The motto for our campaign was: Don’t Ignore It.

A public awareness campaign.

Yes. With flyers and posters.

The poster was used all over the world. Could you use it here or not?

Yes but not so successfully. We had a clash with the director. They organized their campaign before ours. It was a bit ridiculous to have two actions without coordination. Working on human rights here you realize that many of the foreign NGOs funded here — and this has something to do with the relationship with foreigners – normally bring in their own CEOs from outside the country. The president and the manager are foreigners. Which is not bad. But you expect after a certain time that local people would start working there on an equal basis. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. And the management waits for instruction from outside or from outside consultants, who say what should be done here without knowing the situation here or asking the local people what they think. In this respect, I can understand why people are fed up with this.

On the other hand, I don’t feel any more like a foreigner. I feel like a local. I would disagree if someone said, “Oh, this Mexican wants to tell us what to do.” I live here. I’ve started saying that I’m a Hungarian. Now, when they ask me outside, where do you come from, I say, “Hungary. Don’t I look Hungarian?”

And they say, “No, not really.”

“Then what do Hungarians look like?” I ask.

That’s a good challenge to people about their conception of Hungarian. You said that you hoped to create more of a sense of community in this building.

It has been frustrating. You say good morning, and people don’t respond.

Because of a basic level of mistrust.

Yes. We once went to a supermarket to buy meat for a barbecue. We didn’t eat meat often, even before we became vegetarians, so we asked the man in the meat department for a recommendation. He said, “Why are you asking me? And why would you believe me? We don’t know each other, so how can you believe what I tell you?”

Has there been any change since you’ve been here?

More people are open to more contact with others. Before, 90 percent of the time in the shops, there was bad service and bad attitude because they had to pay attention to you. Now, people smile more. I think they have been told that depending on the clients they can get paid or not. That might have made a difference. So, I do see a positive change.

Where do you see Hungary going in the next 10-15 years?

It depends on the maturity of the people. One attitude is: I don’t care, this is a mess, and I can’t do anything. So, either I leave or I stay with a bubble around me. It might get worse, with inequalities getting stronger. With more inequality will come more crime and delinquency, and people will become unhappier and they will see that it will be harder to get what they want. And they will continue to be fed these lies about material happiness. Perhaps things might change if people realize that the socialist system was actually not as bad as they though it was, that the people who ran it were bad in the sense of mismanagement and lies and corruption — the same as people in power now. What we have to fight is this attitude and not the socialist system per se. Then maybe they can rescue some of the sense of community.

Many people that I’ve met don’t want to participate in these human rights meetings. They don’t want to participate in any movement because of the legacy of socialism. But they should realize that it’s for their own benefit that they do it, and their own benefit might also mean the benefit of others. If they accept that it will cost them to work a little harder and to also compromise on some things, not to keep all the benefits for themselves but to consider other people’s views, then there’s a possibility to go toward a better society.

I was talking the other day with a friend. We were saying that the socialist regime was like a very controlling father. People here were like adolescents that wanted their independence. When a very young adolescent gets out of the parents’ home, he realizes he doesn’t have money, doesn’t have all the commodities he had in his parents’ house. He has many roads to walk. He could get drunk. Or he could think seriously about what to do to better himself.

If you could somehow return to the point when you first came to Hungary, would you have done anything differently?

Maybe I could have avoided the first shock, which was very painful for me. I expected a welcoming atmosphere, even if I knew that it was going to be difficult. You leave a place you love, people you love. I was leaving not my mother country, but another country that I loved. When I arrived here, I expected that I could do the same. So, I needed to change my attitude. It wasn’t Hungary. Hungary was a very nice place. I could have been a little stronger. I was maybe a little too soft and didn’t express my opinion. This was the influence of Japan, where you don’t say your opinion and you try to accommodate. But here the rules are different. If you are not open and don’t stand your ground, people will take advantage of you.

Your skin got a little thicker.

Yes, much more. But I’m also stubborn. First chance we have to trust someone, we trust, even if we get disappointed again and again. If you don’t have this attitude, people won’t learn how to trust. You have to be stubborn about this.

When you think about everything that has changed in Hungary since you came here, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

6.

Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?

8.

How would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next 2-3 years?

7.

Budapest, May 13, 2013