Meet Mircea Toma
Mircea Toma is a psychologist turned journalist turned human rights activist. After graduating psychology at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj, he worked as a psycho-pedagogue for children with disabilities. After the 1989 Romanian revolution, he contributed to laying the foundations for the most successful political satire magazine in Romania. In 1994, he founded the press monitoring department of the publication, aimed at keeping a close eye and measuring the nationalist anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma discourse in public speech. This department became in the 2000s the Press Monitoring Agency, later renamed ActiveWatch, an autonomous human rights organization that advocates for free communication serving the public interest.
The revelatory moment
Mircea Toma was surprised by the success of nationalist propaganda in his hometown, Cluj Napoca, in the early 1990s. Back then, a populist politician won the Mayor elections with a rudimentary anti-Hungarian speech that resonated in a community that Toma perceived as emancipated enough to withstand the pitfalls of populism. Toma responded to this challenge, as a journalist, in a register of political satire, trying to discredit the promoter of the hate messages through ridicule.
The first victory
Toma cannot pinpoint a particular moment as marking his first victory. There is a slow, but upward process of mobilizing a progressive community that shares the values of multiculturalism and this has produced significant political changes. In Romania, hate speech is significantly counterbalanced by a consistent community that fights discrimination.
The bumps in the road
He experienced the surprise of failure during a training for a community of teachers whom he perceived as sharing the same values as him. He found that anti-Roma and homophobic attitudes were dominant. He understood that this is the effect of the complete lack of any specific training on anti-discrimination for teachers in Romania. This is something he perceives as important to be done better in the future: educating educators.
Toma’s conviction is that one should not seek just a certain moment of success, but that what is needed is a sustained activity of combating intolerance. Protecting the values of interculturality is the result of a permanent guerrilla, so there is no time for relaxation. Abandoning the cause would be the equivalent of an invitation to hatred.
Extremism explained to a 5-year-old
He believes that the best way to explain racism and extremism to a 5 year old is Jane Elliott’s “Blue eyes, brown eyes” experiment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGvoXeXCoUY). It is unbeatable and any adaptation of it is likely to be a success.
Extremism explained to family and friends
For grown-ups, role playing is extremely powerful. It’s always good if you try to figure out a way to make the person you want to convince feel like being in the shoes of a victim of extremism. For example, in order to convince Romanians to let go of their xenophobic feelings towards Hungarians, he always references specific episodes of the work done by the Romanian minority in Ukraine, as an attempt to access cultural and political rights. As the audience becomes proud of the work done by Romanian activists in Ukraine, Toma stresses the similarities between this work and the one done by Hungarian ethnics in Romania. After all, if one is to be considered normal, so is the other, right?
He considers that his activism is not affecting his personal life. After all, everyone in his family is either an anti-discrimination activist, or soon to become one.
Some thoughts for undecided activists
If he were to say what one needs when trying to fight extremism and radicalization, Toma would say patience, perseverance and respect. Many times, the results become visible after many years of hard work and activists can sometimes lose hope. Resilience helps to keep things on track. But one should also have solid knowledge of the topics he or she talks about. And humour. Humour goes a long way.
Adequate responses in uncomfortable situations
Mircea considers that, when faced with open manifestations of intolerance, the best answer is to avoid direct, frontal confrontation and to open a wider horizon that will allow the person in front of you to calm down and lower their guard to reasonable arguments. Reframing is key.
Also, when attacked, an activist should be able to correctly evaluate the situation. Of course, if things are truly dangerous, then help should be sought from the appropriate authority (be it police, anti-discrimination body or even a school’s principal). However, it is important to keep in mind that activists should always respect human rights and should act in accordance with them. Therefore, limiting freedom of speech should only be sought when proportionate to the action of the aggressor. And, of course, one should never adopt a hateful language even when being target by the agents of the dark force.
Challenge your inner activist
Regardless of your age, your experience or of how busy you are, you should always react to hatred when you see it. Report it on Facebook or on whatever social network you witness it. Try to talk to your close ones. Be empathetic. And stay resilient!