Dóra Papp: To make change, it is absolutely necessary to be critical of the system. This is the reason why civil organizations are targeted by the government: because they point out problems and call for change. If we as an NGO painted dilapidated benches anew surreptitiously in the dark of the night, we could make fifty people very glad when the following day they take their seats on them. It would be a nice gesture but that way we could never achieve a change on the level of the system, for the next day another five benches would be damaged and at night we should start the work all over again. On the other hand, if I as an activist repaint the dilapidated benches and at the same time call public attention to the fact that this should have been done by the local government, then next time the local government may spend taxpayers’ money on doing its job in service of the public.
Our work makes sense only if we can demonstrate best practices and call attention to mistakes on a system level. In today’s Hungary decision makers want to see people who are unable to think or act independently, in other words, who are dependant on the current leaders of the system everywhere, from the field of education to social care for homeless people. Political power’s interest always lies in passive citizens unable to access information, for it is much easier to keep them under control. Therefore those in power will not provide others with the means of breaking free but will keep them within the closed system. For instance homeless people are provided for only as long as they live at the shelter. However, the moment they would like to start an independent life, they do not get any support from the state.
Another example could be the case of Roma youth who can leave school at the age of sixteen and join the public work program, which is just a way of reproducing poverty in ab ovo disadvantaged small villages. These young people should be motivated to make independent decisions and take responsibility for their own fate. That would be the task of the state but now it needs to be performed by civil activists.
– Recently the political environment permanently forces civil organizations to take a stand against something. How much harm do you think this process does?
Árpád Schilling: A lot. It would be far more effective and joyful to communicate positive ideas reaffirming each other. But as responsible people we cannot leave the government’s explicit lies unanswered. Thus we are constantly compelled to work in opposition. We need to clear away the garbage produced by the government and, simultaneously, to do the actual, useful work. This means a double amount of labour, which is neither efficient enough nor pleasant at all. We must embody the icon of the self-conscious, independent citizen and we must build a society which we think to be liveable and meaningful with an unceasing faith. The current policy of the Hungarian government supports only servilism, which has a tradition of many centuries; that is why it is so difficult to get rid of it.
Dóra Papp: I think it is important to add that in case of Krétakör, for example in the Free School, we try to associate a positive image of the future with learning democracy. Also at the time of the referendum we did not talk about what people should vote for or against. Instead, we declared that we would prefer a humane Hungary. Politics is about the number of ballots, whereas the work of civil organizations is about people. In an ideal environment we would not need to voice what we fight against, we would rather speak about the causes we stand for together.
– Where do you think the limits are to convincing each other and entering dialogues in the present political environment highly permeated by emotions?
Árpád Schilling: I often get comments on my own facebook page asking me why I do not leave this country if I feel like shit here.
Being an activist involves for me that I reflect on every human utterance, and I am interested in the opinions of those who do not agree with me. Sometimes I try to convince them, other times they persuade me to be more critical of my own views. And I never ban anyone from my page unless they call me a rat to be extinguished.
– The near past as well as the future plans of Krétakör suggest a direction of activism in support of major causes in the society. What does it mean for you to be activists in today’s Hungary?
Dóra Papp: I think everybody is an activist, just some people are not aware of it yet. At some point in their lives anyone might find themselves in a situation that is so personal and pressing that it makes one feel they must stand up for a cause. The feeling of being involved is really a requirement for activism. It means that once you have been treated unjustly you do not let it happen again to others. For me this is the point in educating society for social awareness, democratic thinking, and standing up for important social issues. In my personal life it was a case related to habitation crisis when I first experienced that standing up for others might produce tangible results. It happened in 2012, when the local government in Zugló demolished, without authorization, the hut of homeless people, and my photos taken at the site were among the decisive evidences in course of the trial at court.
Árpád Schilling: The communication represented by Viktor Orbán since 2002 renders constructive dialogue impossible. If it makes me a traitor to my homeland in the eyes of several million people that I disagree with the policy of the Fidesz, then I will need to think twice before I open my mouth. There was the case of the parish priest in Körmend, who invited in some refugees, which is an excellent example demonstrating how someone doing his job conscientiously and practising his faith becomes an enemy of the regime. I think that it must be considered a sin that social causes have been turned into political issues to such an extent and on such a level. Orbán and his companions are generating a space of communication in which benevolence looks suspicious. Moreover, as many people have felt the negative effects of being stigmatised, most of our society choose to keep silent. We do not know how many people live in such suffocating isolation but we know that Hungarian people have dire memories of being mute accomplices. This is why we always speak about the necessity to change cultural attitudes. We simply need to face our own national character, which is, unfortunately, not a pleasant experience.
– The most radical methods to silence civil organizations critical of the current power might be the means applied in Putin’s Russia. How do you see that: how long does it make sense to fight against the government like a Don Quixote?
Dóra Papp: I would prefer to turn this question upside down. We are permanently learning and teaching. This is not something that has been like that only for eight years. Civil organizations have existed in this country for almost thirty years. Undoubtedly, the democratic system upon which the “imported” knowledge of these organizations was built, has not stabilised and no longer exists in Hungary. But just as we learnt the process of learning democracy from some Western countries, our experiences accumulated in the past few years about increasing populism and the transformation of democracy into autocracy can now serve as a useful basis for transferring knowledge back to them.
Árpád Schilling: It is a schizophrenic state of mind. If I think of my children, I would like to rescue them. On the other hand, I feel that the current state of affairs rather infuriates me and strengthens my sense of responsibility and my desire to fight. Obviously, the present hostile environment hinders the operation of the Foundation in many respects. It has happened that certain institutions did not dare to cooperate with us because of the political assaults against Krétakör. At the same time, this situation also motivates us in some sense. The real test for genuine civil courage is an unfavourable environment. It would be a shame to give it up.
Interview: Veronika Szandtner
Photography: Zsófia Börcsök