For all its problems and controversies, I am an avid Telegram user. I love the fun stickers, and the interface, but most of all the group chats I’m a part of. I get news from Moria, the Polish border, and #LeaveNoOneBehind. I share food with my neighbors and pick up free furniture and oddities from around Berlin. Before I was employed, it helped me ride the Ubahn for free (I stopped, I swear!). I can ask what’s wrong with my plants, and also easily coordinate plenums and activities for the organizations I’m involved in. And since I use it like social media, I tootle around here and there to look for new groups.
Then it happened — I stumbled upon an anti-vax, covid-denying Telegram group run out of the US. Here they were! Tens of thousands of people, and they were planning an event where my family lives, in Austin, TX. I was overcome by curiosity, and joined. As a disclaimer, I believe covid is real and that vaccines work, but do have a lot of problems with governmental policy on this virus, in Germany, the US, and around the world — a topic for another article.
So now you may be thinking what the fuck, and that’s fine. Some of my friends for sure think I’m nuts. But I am firmly of the opinion that closing off discussion with people is the absolute wrong way to go. I was really curious as to what people were saying in the group, and how they were viewing the pandemic. There is a tendency for people to lump those who disagree with them into categories of ‘stupid’, ‘uneducated’, and ‘don’t know how the world actually works’, but this is dangerous territory – pushing people to the margins has consequences.
As someone whose family is from Texas but grew in NYC, I saw Trump happening years before a lot of the people I was around had any idea. That first election, when the New York Times put out a poll that Hilary had an 87% chance of winning, I knew they were dead wrong. Just driving through the rural south, or through Texas, is a shock to many who grow up in big cities elsewhere in the country. Massive inequality abounds, and is held in place by state and local governments who have systematically eliminated peoples’ right to vote. Is everyone in those areas stupid, backward, and ultra-conservative? Of course not. But from the dominant media and pop cultures narratives, you would think so. Taylor Swift’s video for You Need to Calm Down is a great example.
What does this have to do with those Telegram chats? When a society completely ostracizes groups on the margins, the people in those groups grow more radical, and with every disparaging comment saying how backwards, stupid and dangerous they are, the more radical they get. Isolating and refusing to communicate with groups can have its time and place, I agree, but I very strongly believe there is already a ton of that going on. What there is way less of is open discussion.
And this is what the Querdenkers and covid-deniers are getting right. Everyone is welcome in these groups, and to engage in discussion about the topics. Yes, everyone does mean Nazis, I’m aware of that, and I’m not saying that this is a great model we should all follow. But many people in Germany, the US, around the world, including those who are involved in Leftist politics and movements, are wondering how these ideologies spread so quickly. Looking through the members of these groups, or seeing who is marching in these protests, it is astounding how many different groups of people are represented. We like to think that we hold truly open forums for debate, but if someone who was against the vaccine came to sit at the table, how many people would actually speak to them?
Of course I realize this is not the only aspect at play here. There is enough racism, sexism and all the other -isms and -phobias that exist in the world in these groups. It is abundantly clear they are bringing together a lot of people who hold a lot of different biases, for sure. Just to reiterate, I do not find that comforting or good. What’s confusing to me is why so many people who would otherwise consider themselves Left-leaning are finding themselves pulled in by these movements. Is there open-mindedness to be found there that people are not finding on the Left? Perhaps.
A maybe-obvious caveat to this: I’m white, financially stable, able-bodied, and educated. I’m a walking ball of privilege, and I also grew up constantly defending my ideals against an onslaught of right-wing commentary from my family. It’s possible for me to engage with a lot of people, from my conservative, religious cousins to straight up Nazis. Clearly, that’s not possible, nor is it safe, for everyone. Also clearly, groups and discussions that Leftists engage in will inherently be more diverse than those that covid-deniers are attending. I don’t think we should start inviting absolutely everyone in to have tea with us, as that could endanger people who need a safe space.
There are no concrete recommendations coming out of this article on how the Left movement should change, nor do I even think I have a fully-formulated stance on this. The only thing I was thinking from my few months of reading these channels is that our spaces and our discussions need to be flexible, wherever possible. Don’t ostracize someone from a group because they have an opinion that you don’t like. Don’t assume people are stupid because their views and experiences have led them to a different view of how the world works than the one you have. If your covid-denying uncle starts saying that the world is controlled by the World Economic Forum, don’t call him an idiot and leave. Stay and talk, if you can.