Equality March 2018 in Katowice, Poland. Photo by: Silar
Nationalist movements helped defeat communism in the late eighties and early nineties, as a result people are proud of their national histories, their national culture, their national tradition. But are all forms of national attachment the same?
When Hungarians were asked to vote in a referendum in April 2022, LGBTIQ and human rights activists “went out to different Hungarian cities and talked to people in the streets,” says Rita Antoni, a women’s rights activist and journalist in Budapest, the country’s capital.
The referendum aimed at diminishing the rights of sexual minorities was cloaked by the populist Orban government as “protecting the rights of children.” It followed several years of increasing anti-women and LGBTIQ rights rhetoric and policy decisions.
The government was forced to declare the referendum invalid after a successful campaign by those opposing it: Hungarians en masse checked all the options as advised by the activists.
The referendum, the rhetorics, and the actions by human rights activists illustrate some of the core issues studied within POPREBEL, a European research project on neo-feudalism and neo-traditionalism by UCL, Tartu University (Estonia), Jagiellonian University (Poland), Charles University (Czechia), and Corvinus University of Budapest (Hungary) in partnership with Edgeryders and funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
On September 29th and 30th, 2022, the researchers came together with civil society activists, journalists, artists, and others to explore both the rise of populism and what could be done to push back against it. Panel 5 focused on how to counter the attacks on women and LGBTIQ people in Europe.
“Brussels has clearly attacked Hungary in recent weeks because of the child protection law,” Hungarian president Orban said in response to invalidating the referendum. This one single sentence embodies part of the rhetoric used by anti-rights politicians and groups throughout Europe: there is an “outside threat” to “our country and our values” (the EU, the “west”), while the only thing they’re trying to do is “protect family values.”
Populists seek to limit the definition of people in whose name they claim to speak. The purpose is to draw boundaries between the in-group and outgroup. If a group is put into the outgroup, you can ignore what they’re saying. Populists delegitimize any opposition, any negative voices, any critical voices.
Throughout Europe, populists have adopted similar but different narratives to aid or cement their power depending on the country’s “preferences.”
“What we see is that the discourse shifts a little bit, it changes the form, but the patterns are quite similar,” says Zdenek Sloboda, a researcher with Charles University in Czechia. Zdenek analyzes manipulative or populist media outlets in Germany, Poland, and Czechia.
“In Poland and Hungary, the church, sovereignty, and the nation are very strong. The church and the nation in Czechia are quite weak, but there is a stress on anti-EU and anti-NGO narratives.”
“Initially, populists in Poland defined Polishness in terms of shared ethnicity and religion, which allowed them to construct Muslim refugees from Syria as a threat. When the refugee crisis was no longer as impactful, they “defined what it meant to be a real Pole even more narrowly, and included sexuality in their definition,” explains Dr. Richard Mole, Professor of Political Sociology at UCL and Co-I/Director of Research of POPREBEL, who researched the role of nationalism in anti-LGBTQ narratives in Poland, Czechia and Germany.
Polish populist politicians started defining LGBTQ as a threat to the Polish nation in terms of its biological, cultural reproduction, and its shared norms in terms of Catholic values and traditional gender roles. In addition, LGBTQ people are seen as loyal to Brussels than to Warsaw. They are defined as not only an enemy to the nation, but also an enemy to the state.
Rita Antoni, a Hungarian freelance journalist and women’s rights activist says that in Hungary there has been a serious increase in these kinds of narratives. “They will say that
Europe and the West are pushing liberal ideas on “us,” and these are a threat to our national identity. They demonize human rights NGOs as the mercenaries of George Soros, or that they are loyal to the EU.”
Although the language used to promote their ideas isn’t relatively new - several narratives were also used in the 1910s and 1980s - the recent successful global adoption by them is.
Several decades ago, far-right, ultra-conservative, and other populist movements struggled to get support for their anti-rights agendas. So, what happened?
According to Claire Provost, a feminist investigative journalist who has focused a large part of her career investigating the ultra-conservative Christian Right, the adoption of these narratives across borders isn’t a coincidence. Even more so, it is the result of decades-long strategic, coordinated, and very well-financed campaigns by networks organizing opposition to LGBT and women’s rights.
“The first time that I first heard about the global war against the rights of women and LGBT people around the world, I was undercover at the World Congress of Families in 2017,” Claire explains. The World Congress of Families is described as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist movements in the US. In 2017 it was held in Budapest, Hungary, and Orban was a keynote speaker.
The World Congress of Families, and other internationally connected elites, she says, conduct studies researching which language and which strategy would have the most impact in which country - including utilizing focus groups.
“One of the sessions that I went to in 2017 explicitly discussed wedge issues, issues that could drive apart their opponents.” One of them, she says, was trans rights. Currently, in the UK, anti-trans rhetoric is dominating headlines and has been adopted by people who refer to themselves as “feminist.” It has resulted in multiple attacks on Britain’s oldest and largest LGBTQ organization Stonewall.
How to fight back?
“Nationalism doesn’t have necessarily the same negative connotations among people of Central and Eastern Europe,” Dr. Mole explains. Nationalist movements helped defeat communism in the late eighties and early nineties, as a result people are proud of their national histories, their national culture, their national traditions. In the past couple of years, using nationalist narratives turned out to be a successful strategy for populist to gain more support.
Dr. Mole decided to apply a psychological approach to define nationalism. On the hand there is national collective narcissism he explains: “this is the idea that your nation is exceptional and is entitled to privileged treatment.”
On the other hand there is national in-group satisfaction: “You take a pride in your nation. You take a pride in its achievements, in its history, its culture. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you think your group is better than others, or that it should be received as sort of a privileged position in sort of international affairs.”
Dr. Mole conducted a social psychological study in which people completed various scales to measure whether they were closer to national collective narcissism or national in-group satisfaction in terms of feelings of attachment to the nation. After that, they sought to determine whether or not one or the other form of national attachment was more likely to produce negative attitudes towards LGBT people. It became clear that national collective narcissism best predicts homophobia at the level of the individual.
Taking all of this into consideration, Dr. Mole advises not to dismiss people’s nationalist feelings. Even more so, to emphasise that there are different types of national attachment. By promoting national in-group satisfaction and de-emphasizing national collective narcissism in discussions of Polish national identity, you “take away the power of nationalists to define what it means to be Polish.”
In addition, to emphasize that LGBTQ rights are a Polish issue, not necessarily a European or an international issue, you also remove that “outside threat.”
“Activists might find it useful to draw in national symbols,” Dr. Mole says. “At Polish pride marches, they have a rainbow version of the Polish flag, they use of Polish national symbols. This helps to emphasize that queer Poles are Poles. It presents alternative views of Polishness, it includes LGBTQ people.”