Dear People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters —
As is customary with this form, I must begin by stating whether or not we have met. We have not. But in many ways, I feel like you. In fact, following my Open Tweet to People Who Write Open Letters this morning, it could be said that I am you. I share your concern that the Open Letter form has become a cliché, and your worry that we are reaching Peak Open Letter, bringing an ennui that can only be described as Open Letter Fatigue.
Time for a moratorium on "An Open Letter To…" think pieces? What does that style of writing achieve that a straight essay/op-ed does not?
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) September 26, 2016
You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious and arrogant. You claim that they are cowardly. You claim they are self indulgent.
On all of these counts, you are mistaken.
First: do you really believe that the author of a given Open Letter expects the person to whom it is addresses will read it? Come off it. The authors know full well that their missive will not be read by the purported recipient, and you should know that too.
Instead, the writers are simply deploying a useful literary and rhetorical device. By writing to a specific person, the author must marshall arguments likely to persuade the addressee and the people who support them. These are often not the same lines of argument one might write when typing a regular op-ed, Hot Take or angry jeremiad. Seeking out and honing the arguments that could persuade the other side is an essential habit, yet one that is woefully under-developed in the global discourse. Open Letters are a bridge accross the ideological divide.
An aside: Of course, sometimes, the author of an Open Letter is a famous person! In that case, its not unreasonable or particularly arrogant to assume that their addressee will read the letter. Lucky for them. But that is no reason to make Open Letters the preserve of important people. Writing – especially on the Internet – should enable new, diverse and hitherto unheard voices.
You ask, why not say what you want to say to the face of the person you are addressing? There speaks the voice of privilege. You may be the kind of person who has access to Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg. You may be the kind of person who can travel to a Donald Trump rally. You may be the kind of person who is so confident with their place in society that you feel able to confront an injustice or rudeness done to you in the moment. You enjoy the unquestioned certainty that your voice, and the choice of words that roll off your tongue, will not mean you are labelled uppity, loud, angry… or threatening.
Not everyone carries that certainty with them. Some of us prefer, and need, to channel an espirit d’escalier and publish what we want to say in our own good time, after we have properly and perfectly articulated what we want to say.
But no-one cares about your whining, you whine. Well, that may sometimes be so. But you are forgetting that an Open Letter is a fantasic form of catharsis. Its a staple of the therapuetic repertoire that also allows others to sympathise, empathise, and to find insights that might help them overcome a similar situation. Human discourse is not always about conveying information or argument. Sometimes is is simply an attempt to communicate a feeling. Such writing has an inherent value, even if it is not a value that your mindset allows you to perceive.
Have Open Letters really gotten out of hand? They take up a only a few kilobytes on a web server somewhere. You can always choose not to read them.
And yet for some reason, you do. Could it be because you actually enjoy the frisson of reading a letter addressed to someone else? Perhaps the reason you’re so angry with the Open Letter Writers is because the titles of what are essentially regular blog posts are one of the most potent forms of clickbait known to the algorithms. Maybe the irritation you feel towards these authors is actually a projection of the anger you feel towards yourself, for clicking on yet another Open Letter in the first place?
I remain, &cetera,