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Opinion | Radical Ideas Need Quiet Spaces

When a Chartist activist had to argue his case, he was reinforcing his own beliefs, talking himself into deeper commitment while convincing others. And for the deliberating worker who finally signed, this was a pledge taken.

In the summer of 1839, more than 1.25 million signatures had been gathered on a scroll that stretched some three miles long and was delivered to the government, where the Chartists were quite literally laughed out the door. But by then a new constituency had been born. A whole world of associations and a new politics spun out from the talking and signing. More petitions followed, until, 30 years later, working men were finally allowed to begin participating in democracy.

The history of social and political change is full of such analog but nevertheless interactive media, like petitions, that helped guide new ideas and identities into existence — from the letters that helped ferment the scientific revolution in the 17th century to samizdat in the Soviet underground, which kept alive a shadow civil society, to the staple-bound zines of the early 1990s, where the style and sentiment of third-wave feminism first flourished. A favorite story of mine comes from the British colony of the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) in the 1930s.

Educated Africans living in the colony, incensed at their subjugated status, needed a place to express their desire for independence and to begin hashing out what a national identity freed of British rule might even look like. The African Morning Post became such a forum. This was more of a message board than the one-way conveyor of information we think of as a newspaper. The pages were mostly filled with contributions from readers. Nnamidi Azikiwe, a Nigerian recently returned to the continent who became its editor, imagined it as a place for conversation, where Accra’s literate population could come together.

At the center of the paper was “Grumblers’ Row,” letters from readers, intended for debate and complaint. The quality of the writing here was loose and unguarded. Almost all submissions were anonymous or pseudonymous (attributed to portentous names like A. Native or ridiculous ones like Lobster). This gave people a chance to speak their mind and to test out higher degrees of daring. The arguing allowed them to peek over the dividers of tribe and establish new allegiances — they expressed their difference but did so on the same page, creating a new sort of African public sphere and helping lay the groundwork for independence.

What connects these newspapers to petitions to samizdat to zines is the way each helped shape the movement that was incubating.

On first glance, these may seem to resemble pre-internet social media. But they are different in fundamental ways: These forms of communication demanded patience, took time to produce and time to transmit. They slowed things down, favoring an incremental accumulation of knowledge and connection. They also lent coherence, a way for scattered ideologies and feelings to be shaped into a single compellingly new perspective. They led to the sorts of conversations that strengthened identity and solidarity, that allowed for both imagining and arguing together, moving toward shared objectives. And, maybe most important, the activists and dissidents and thinkers who used these tools were in control of them. They created the platforms — and by creating them, they could set their parameters and make sure they served their ends.

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