On Facebook, I’m part of my university alumni’s group. Usually the page is dormant, but the other day I got a notification that one of my old professors got laid off by the university and a student started a petition to get his job back. I rarely feel angry, but reading this caused a shocking explosion of anxiety and anger within me. Let me give you a bit of background information, so that you can understand why.
I went to grad school at the (Royal) Academy of Fine Arts in Hungary. It’s a very renowned school with centuries-old traditions, fancy old buildings that look like Hogwarts, complete with professors that rule like emperors. When students get accepted they are humbled and honoured to join the illustrious group of artists who walked those halls before them. I studied new media art and although I had some interesting classes, sometimes when I remember those times I can’t help remembering a poisonous taint running through the veins of those years. These memories feel especially haunted by the lectures of this aforementioned professor. To this day I remember, Wednesday 6pm was the time you wanted to be hit by a bus so you wouldn’t have to show up. I remembered sitting in his class and feeling like screaming but no sound coming out of me. His teaching methods included shaming and bullying his students, and his methods caused a boiling, frustrated atmosphere for many students. Nobody dared do anything. He was an illustrious professor and we were clearly just immature 18 year olds.
There is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen about an Emperor and his new clothes that were made out of the most magical fabric, invisible to anyone who was incompetent or unworthy. Nobody dared admit they saw the king naked. As you might have guessed, the king was actually butt naked and everyone went along because they were so insecure that they stopped trusting their senses and instead they listened to what others told them to think.
So this teacher got laid off and his alums want him back. I wanted to immediately reply to the Facebook note and say something about him being a misogynistic, ignorant, douchebag bully and that he should have been removed from his authority as a teacher decades ago. But I couldn’t write anything. I was just looking at the screen, the keyboards, I even went to bed and dwelled on it, tossing around sleepless. I felt exactly like back then, silenced by his arrogance, shaming, hurtful comments and methods. I felt like I couldn’t point out that the king is naked. The conversation on Facebook was happening in Hungarian, my native tongue and the language of the university. I had to write them back in Hungarian and I just didn’t have the words. Imagine Andersen’s tale with the twist where the Danish people didn’t have the words for ‘naked’ or ‘not wearing anything.’
I left Hungary right after I graduated and I’ve been living in English speaking countries for most of the last 10 years. I learned most of my feminist vocabulary here, throughout the process of actually realizing how intertwined our everyday life is with sexism, racism, ageism, etc. It’s often hard to notice subtle ways of how these negative forces push us around in our career, school, everyday life, online communities. Gersande La Flèche’s recent post Flickering the Gaslight on tactics of organized online harassment points out how important words are in the battle against abuse and discrimination. These words are ‘weapons’ we use to fight with, they help us aim higher, build protection, identify the opposing forces that keep us down.
I would love to go up to this professor and confront him, but I could only do it in English. In Hungarian, I would have to explain in complex ways what I find wrong with his behaviour. He would have an easy time dismissing me and ignoring my point of view. There are just no words that feel and work like ‘bully’ or ‘abuse.’ Why? Maybe because in Hungary there is no obvious tradition of confronting misogynistic old men.
A few months ago I gave an interview to a high profile Hungarian magazine and when I casually mentioned that I am a feminist, the reporter lady made a face. When I stopped and asked why, she said she wouldn’t want to print it because people would misunderstand and it would make me look bad. I was baffled, but I persisted and I made her write down a long description of me that was a shorter version of the Feminism Wikipedia page. It was like playing Taboo. They took that word away from me and suddenly it was much harder to be a feminist. It is hard to make your voice heard when they take your words away.
The article for the magazine was never published. I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to tell my professor how many students he scarred with his arrogant, abusive behaviour. But for sure, I want to speak to the other students on that Facebook group, even if it’s just going to stir up an argument. I am still searching for words to say that “He is not wearing anything” but when I find them I hope many silenced students will hear my cry and gather the courage to speak up as well. Because a paradigm shift has to start before we have the luxury of words to fight battles.