Public identity in defining the boundaries of public and private: the example of latent anti-Semitism

Public identity in defining the boundaries of public and private: the example of latent anti-Semitism – Part V: Democratic Process and Nonpublic Politics

Andras Kovacs

THOSE who study everyday communication know that people evaluate the situation in which they will communicate with their partners before communication actually begins. In this evaluation they primarily determine whether they should follow the rules that govern public or private communication. The act of communication itself occurs through constant reevaluation of the situation, the goal of which is to develop a consensus about the public or private nature of the communication engaged in. Such evaluation of the private or public nature of an interaction is perhaps the most common example of defining the borders of public and private spheres.

As researchers dealing with latent public opinion have shown (Angelusz, 1996a), the main factor determining whether opinions are hidden or clearly manifested is the political and social system, mainly through the structure of the public realm. On the one hand, opinions may be hard to identify in the course of research because the members of the society in question do not readily form opinions about relevant subjects. On the other hand, some individuals in society hide their opinions because of “a refined attempt to seek psychological advantage, existential dependence, or a fear of the harder social consequences” (Angelusz, 1996a: 21.). Even in advanced democratic societies with well-functioning public realms, racial, religious, and other group prejudices belong in a category of opinions that are often kept hidden because their public expression would amount to an open breach of the consensus rejecting such views. As in the case of any other form of illegitimate public behavior, this would give rise to psychological conflicts and possibly even personal disadvantage. This observation has been verified through empirical research.

Research on prejudice–and on anti-Semitism in particular–has revealed a strong latency pressure: respondents consider it risky to express anti-Jewish opinions. For example, in the course of a survey performed in Austria in the summer of 1991, 27 percent of those who took part in the survey avoided providing a response when they were asked whether the number of Jews in influential positions should be limited, while 31 percent refused to take a position on whether a law should regulate the amount of property or land Austrian Jews could obtain (Karmasin, 1992: 31-34). In Germany in 1989, 20 percent of respondents to a survey agreed with the statement, “If I am talking about Jews, I am always very careful, because it is very easy to get your fingers burnt,” while 15 percent stated that “I don’t tell just anybody what I think about Jews” (Bergmann and Erb, 1991b: 280). This same statement was accepted by 25 percent of respondents in a 1993 survey of Hungarian university students, while 52 percent of the same students thought that “if you say something bad about Jews, you are immediately branded an anti-Semite” (Kovacs, 1997: 58).

Using Luhmann’s definition (Luhmann, 1984: 458), scholars concerned with the problem of latency distinguish between two forms of latency. They speak of conscious or factual latency (people do not have developed opinions about certain issues), and of communicative or functional latency (participants in the communication hide their real opinions) (Bergmann and Erb, 1986, 1991a; Bellers, 1990). Opinions may be concealed in two ways: respondents avoid addressing a problem even though they do hold opinions; or they declare views that are not their real perspective. Two types of motivation may explain why a respondent avoids answering survey questions. It may be that some people really have no developed opinions about the issues raised; the problems of the survey are of no interest to them. But it is also possible that the refusal to give a full answer is a means of hiding opinions. Using Luhmann’s categories, the first group is characterized by factual latency, the second group by communication latency. Gilljam and Granberg call the former “real nonattitudes or true negatives,” and the latter “pseudo-nonattitudes or false negatives” (Gilljam and Granberg, 1993: 349).

As we know, the public expression of racial, religious, or ethnic prejudices is condemned in Hungary–just as it is in nearly every civilized country in the world–and yet there are still groups virtually everywhere in society who are not afraid to express such prejudice, even in public. However, research on latency also shows us that in situations defined as public many will hide their opinions if asked to answer touchy questions about feelings such as antipathy toward Jews. Why is it, then, that some people openly admit their nonconformist, anti-Semitic views in public, while others are afraid to do so? How are the boundaries socially defined between public and private communication in such cases? We looked for an answer to this question in the course of research carried out on anti-Semitic prejudices in Hungary in 1995 (see Kovacs, 1999).

From our point of view, the most important issue is whether or not the feeling of latency pressure induces respondents to hide their real opinions in a course of interviews. Obviously, this will depend on whether respondents consider the sociological interview to be public discourse (in which case they might tend to express socially approved conformist opinions), or a form of communication that is similar to a private discussion (in which case they might tend to say what they really think about sensitive issues). There is no general theoretical answer to this question. Bergmann and Erb concluded that, while about one-quarter of respondents strongly felt latency pressure, it was primarily the anti-Semites–those who otherwise did not hide their opinions in the course of the survey–who considered the expression of anti-Jewish views to be risky. According to Bergmann and Erb, who found that 12 percent of the entire population was very anti-Semitic and 7 percent extremely anti-Semitic, at most a further 4 percent of the surveyed population could be hidden or latent anti-Semites (Bergmann-Erb, 1991b: 282).

A 1993 survey of a representative sample of Hungarian university and college students produced similar results. It was shown that those who gave anti-Semitic answers in the course of the interview felt the strongest latency pressure, but that this did not stop them from openly expressing their opinions in the interview situation. On the basis of the results of the survey, we calculated that 7 percent of the students were extremely anti-Semitic, 18 percent were anti-Semitic, and a further maximum 9 percent (but probably less) were latent anti-Semites (Kovacs, 1997: 59, 62). Robert Angelusz, however, discovered higher levels of latent anti-Semitism following a national survey of a representative sample: he identified, over and above the 12 percent of openly anti-Semitic respondents, a further 12 percent as latent anti-Semites (Angelusz, 1996b: 211).

Based on a survey we carried out on a representative sample of the Hungarian adult population in 1995, we tried to determine who might be considered anti-Semitic and also attempted to hide their views in public. The method we used was based on three theoretical preconceptions.

According to the theory of “the spiral of silence,” people in communication try to judge whether open expression of their views will provoke conflict with uncomfortable psychological consequences. Those who feel they hold a minority opinion in society often tend to avoid saying what they really think (see Noella-Neumann, 1980; Angelusz, 1996b). We therefore first attempted to see who might feel that open expression of anti-Jewish views is illegitimate, and who might believe that a ban on the expression of such views is valid for them personally. Next, using the theory of “pluralistic ignorance” (see Fields and Schumann, 1976; Crosby, Bromley, and Saxe, 1980; Bergmann and Erb, 1991b; Angelusz, 1996b), we examined how powerful the various respondents consider anti-Semitism to be in society, and–on the basis of their position on the anti-Semitism scale–whether they see themselves as belonging to what they consider to be the majority or the minority. This analysis is important if we wish to estimate latency, because previous research has shown that certain groups react to latency pressure by projecting their real opinions on to other people, in particular on to “the majority of society” (Angelusz, 1996b: 205). Finally, we assessed whether individual respondents consider a series of statements expressing to a greater or lesser extent anti-Semitic views to be anti-Semitic or not. We may consider the negative responses to indicate latency because–in correspondence with the theory of cognitive dissonance–respondents may be able to dissolve the tension stemming from the illegitimate nature of their suppressed anti-Semitic views by declaring these views to be non-anti-Semitic (that is, legitimate). As a next step, indices were prepared from the responses to the three groups of questions, which were then used as indicators of latency. The distribution of responses and the indices are shown in the first six tables in the appendix.

To define the latent anti-Semite group we created a new index by combining the three latency indices (see table 7 in the appendix). The maximum possible score on the index was 11, which respondents reached if they: agreed with all three statements measuring latency, were of the opinion that there are many anti-Semites in the country, and considered at most three of the anti-Semitic statements to be anti-Semitic.

Naturally, we suspected that respondents were hiding anti-Semitic views only when they reached a high score on the latency index, and, at the same time, had been included in the group of non-anti-Semites based on their responses to other questions. As the results show, the anti-Semites feel the latency pressure much more strongly than the non-anti-Semites, and yet in the course of the interviews most of them did not conceal their views and thus, on the basis of their responses, were placed in the anti-Semitic group (58 percent of extreme anti-Semites and 58 percent of anti-Semites felt strong latency pressure, while only 14 percent of non anti-Semites felt such pressure).

However, we cannot ignore the fact that approximately one-half of the group that showed strong latency on the cumulative latency index proved to be non-anti-Semites (table 8). In the interest, then, of seeing whether prejudice was hidden underneath latency, we had to compare two groups: non-anti-Semites with a low latency index, and non-anti-Semites with a high latency index. This comparison showed that the non-anti-Semites who reached high values on the scale differ in the same dimensions from those who reached low values; low-scoring (on the latency index) non-anti-Semites and high-scoring non-anti-Semites differed from each other exactly in those indicators that differentiated between non-anti-Semites and anti-Semites (that is, the first group was not xenophobic and anomic; the second group was xenophobic and anomic in both cases). With regard to the social and demographic indicators, among members of the group displaying a high latency, there were significantly greater numbers of Budapest residents, those who were born in Budapest, and those whose parents were from Budapest, as well as of the relatively well educated. Those with high latency scores are more similar in terms of their attitudes to the anti-Semites than to the non-anti-Semites, who were placed in the same group on the anti-Semitism factor; among the former group xenophobia and anomie are significantly stronger than among the latter.

An especially interesting characteristic appeared with regard to the group considered latent anti-Semites. In the course of our survey we distinguished two frustrated and anomic social groups on the basis of a combination of various attitudes. The “right-wing frustrated” comprised respondents who–when we asked them about the state of things after the collapse of the communist system–agreed with opinions revealing high levels of personal frustration and strong feelings of anomie. At the same time, they were also characterized by strong national and religious sentiments and a conservative outlook on life. The “left-wing frustrated” comprised respondents with high levels of personal frustration and anomie as well, but they strongly rejected national and religious sentiments. This group’s members, in addition to being personally frustrated, were characterized by feelings of loss of norms, social victimization, a lack of trust of democratic institutions and politics, as well as a nostalgia for the socialist past. The majority of the group also said in 1995 they would support leftist parties (Hungarian Socialist Party, Workers Party) that reject anti-Semitism in their public ideologies (see Kovacs, 1999: 44-48).

In short, left- and right-wing anti-Semites judge the freedom to express anti-Jewish feelings differently. Right-wingers speak openly, while leftists try to conceal their anti-Semitic views. Researchers have identified four spheres of differing degrees of freedom of expression. The “free” sphere is characterized by a lack of institutional or psychological blocks to the open expression of views arrived at in private. There is also a great deal of freedom of expression in the “quasi-free” sphere. It is generally accepted that the development of views about any given issue in this sphere is the individual’s business. However, there are certain social mechanisms, and delicate psychological tools of reward and punishment, that show the individual what the “more acceptable” opinion choice is. This is why the open expression of “quasi-free” opinion is somewhat risky. In the case of “preferred” and “required” spheres of opinions, much stronger sanctions set the boundary between “expected” and “undesirable” opinions (Angelusz, 1996b: 22). It appears, then, that right-wing anti-Semites judge the expression of anti-Semitic views to be “free,” whereas left-wing anti-Semites consider such views to belong to the “quasi-free” sphere.

The phenomenon we observe here is not new to social science. Already in 1948, the Hungarian Istvan Bibo, in his essay on anti-Semitism, wrote about the “severely moral” type who smothers his spontaneous anti-Semitism under the pressure of moral imperatives (Bib6, 1986: 702-3). In The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his colleagues identified the same phenomenon. On the “F” scale they observed a “rigid low scorer” type, a “syndrome … in which the absence of prejudice, instead of being based on concrete experience and integrated within the personality, is derived from general, external, ideological patterns” (Adorno et al., 1969: 771-772).

A great many factors may play a role in the determination of the boundaries between private and public speech. In a strict sense, private communication–using the concepts of Alfred Schutz–is only the face-to-face communication between consociates mutually involved in each other’s biographies (Schutz, 1962: 15-16). In all other communicative situations the partners must make a judgment about the level of public nature of the intended communicative act and about the degree of freedom of communication at the given level. This degree of freedom is strongly influenced by the nature of the political system.

In undemocratic societies, for example, the officially sanctioned viewpoint often strongly determines the personal opinions citizens are willing to express publicly; it is to expect that they represent “preferred” and “required” opinions in public. In democratic conditions the consensus of norms on the different levels of communication has a similar controlling effect. During ordinary interaction in everyday life, role expectations put pressure on those interacting and drive their communicative behavior in the direction of role conformity. In case of interactions in which the actors appear as representatives of groups, their communicative behavior is controlled by the set of norms of their reference group. The public acceptance of these norms functions as identity code, as a marker of belonging to the group. On a societal level, the “norm consensus” is disseminated by public institutions and the media.

Social actors define the dividing line between public and private on the basis of the degree of experienced consensus in everyday communication, and in the institutional forums representing public opinion at the given communicative level. The distance social actors notice between these two spheres of opinion plays a decisive role. It seems that left- and right-wing anti-Semites judge this distance differently. Leftist anti-Semites are much more sensitive to latency pressure, which indicates that they feel a much larger distance between their private views and the public norms of their group then right-wingers. In the case of leftist latent anti-Semites, as was the case with Adorno’s group of rigid low scorers, a code of political identity influences decisively the degree of freedom of expression of opinion.

The novelty of the modern anti-Semitic ideology born in the nineteenth century centered on the symbolic meaning imposed on the “Jewish Question.” Taking an anti-Semitic or anti-anti-Semitic position enabled individuals to express political and cultural identity in a panoply of political, moral, and cultural conflicts (see Volkov, 1978; Rurup, 1987). As a result of this mechanism of encoding, if someone expressed anti-Semitic views, it was more or less easy to intuit that person’s views on an entire range of political and cultural issues that had virtually nothing to do with the status and role of Jews in the society but had something to do with anticapitalism. As Shulamit Volkov demonstrated, from the last third of the nineteenth century onward, anti-Semitism functioned as a cultural code.

Because of the radical and anticapitalist nature of modern anti-Semitism, until the last decade of the nineteenth century the question of whether anti-Semitism would become an organic part of the anticapitalist canon of the workers movement was an open question. But the social democracy of the Second International finally joined the “emancipation” camp in opposition to the “Jewish Question” camp. In the cognitive process that occurred in the decades following 1890, the marker-position on the “Jewish Question” was attached to the position in political-cultural camps; as a result, followers of the leftist movement learned to use their position on the “Jewish Question” as a code to express their identity in public. In leftist elite speech, anti-anti-Semitism became a factor of identity, and anti-Semitic sentiments among the party faithful became unfit for public expression. In his Buchenwald novel, Quelle beau dimanche, Jorge Semprun describes how anti-Semitism was expressed by a German communist worker interned in the camp, and how it was driven back into the personal sphere of irrational hatred by a comrade “trying to re-build the security walls of his earlier common sense.” This is how the self-control of Adorno’s rigid low scorers works as well. And it is a well-established fact that the anti-anti-Semitic identity code was applied by communist parties, which used antifascism as a source of self-legitimation even when they exploited anti-Semitic sentiments for tactical reasons or directly engaged in anti-Semitic politics.

Our survey shows that anti-Semitism continues to function as a code today: it draws a symbolic line between politico-cultural camps and is one of the most easily comprehended tools in the establishment of public political and cultural identity. As such it defines the boundaries of public and private to those for whom belonging to one camp or another is an organic part of their public identity.





True False Don’t know/

No response

I don’t tell just anyone

what I think about Jews. 29 62 9

I think many people don’t

dare say openly what they

think about Jews. 54 35 11

If you say something bad

about Jews, you are

immediately branded an

anti-Semite. 44 41 15



None of the statements is true. 29

One of the statements is true. 29

Two of the statements are true. 29

All three statements are true. 13



Very Many Few Very Don’t Know/

Many Few No Response

(4) (3) (2) (1) (0)

In Hungary today,

how many people do

you think are hostile

to the Jews? 2 23 48 16 11

How many people

might want to limit

the influence of Jews

in the country? 2 23 46 16 13

How many people

think it would be

better if Jews were

to emigrate? 1 17 44 24 14





There are very few anti-Semites. (1-3 points) 15

There are few anti-Semites. (4-6 points) 48

There are many anti-Semites. (7-8 points) 14

There are very many anti-Semites. (9-12 points) 14

Unable to guess. (0 points) 9




Anti-Semite Non-Anti-Semite

Always seek to know who is

Jewish in their surroundings? 23 66

Doesn’t consider Jews living in

Hungary to be Hungarians? 57 31

Wouldn’t marry a Jew? 52 36

Wants to limit the number of

Jews in certain professions? 67 22

Thinks that Jews can never

become full Hungarians

whatever the conditions? 60 28

Thinks that Jews have

recognizable features? 19 70

Thinks that the murder of

Christ is the unforgivable sin

of the Jews? 37 42

Thinks that Jews should be

encouraged to emigrate

from Hungary? 77 13

Thinks that the interests of Jews

in Hungary are very different

from the interests of non-Jews? 35 50

Thinks that Jews are no longer

capable of integrating into

Hungarian society? 48 38

Thinks that the crimes committed

against the Jews were no greater

than those against the victims

of communism? 30 51

Thinks that Jews are responsible

for the period of communist rule

in Hungary? 45 34

Thinks that Jews divide and

weaken nations that accept them? 65 21

Thinks that Jews are hostile to

the Christian faith? 42 39

Don’t Know/

No Response

Always seek to know who is

Jewish in their surroundings? 11

Doesn’t consider Jews living in

Hungary to be Hungarians? 12

Wouldn’t marry a Jew? 12

Wants to limit the number of

Jews in certain professions? 11

Thinks that Jews can never

become full Hungarians

whatever the conditions? 12

Thinks that Jews have

recognizable features? 11

Thinks that the murder of

Christ is the unforgivable sin

of the Jews? 21

Thinks that Jews should be

encouraged to emigrate

from Hungary? 10

Thinks that the interests of Jews

in Hungary are very different

from the interests of non-Jews? 15

Thinks that Jews are no longer

capable of integrating into

Hungarian society? 14

Thinks that the crimes committed

against the Jews were no greater

than those against the victims

of communism? 19

Thinks that Jews are responsible

for the period of communist rule

in Hungary? 21

Thinks that Jews divide and

weaken nations that accept them? 14

Thinks that Jews are hostile to

the Christian faith? 19



0-3 statements were anti-Semitic 23

4-6 statements were anti-Semitic 25

7-9 statements were anti-Semitic 28

10-14 statements were anti-Semitic 24


Percentage N


(index score of 2-5) 45 661

Somewhat latent

(index score of 6-7) 36 521


(index score of 8-11) 19 277



Non-latent Somewhat Latent Latent

Non-Anti-Semite 87 72 50

Anti-Semite 11 21 25

Extreme Anti-Semite 2 7 25

100 100 100


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Andras Kovacs is Professor of Nationalism Studies and Jewish Studies at Central European University, and Professor of Sociology at Eotvos Lorand University. His publications in English include “Jews and Politics in Hungary” in Values, Interests and Identity: Jews and Politics in the Changing World (1995).

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