On the Form and Function of Open Letters

(I’m not sure which blog exactly is the best fit for this, but in keeping with the tradition that ‘this shall be the blog for things that don’t neatly fit’, I’m leaving this here. Relevant context may be found at USP Notebook, however.)

The open letter is a form that is easy enough to describe. It is correspondence between two (potentially more) parties that is deliberately made un-private. The key operation is the overturning of the expectation that the correspondence is of primarily private interest and for a private audience. This subversion is, however, accomplished unilaterally, with one party leveraging the medium to provoke the other into a public engagement.

At the same time, however, it must be pointed out that the open letter is not a purely offensive tactic. The best open letters set themselves up to be about an issue of clear enough public interest that the invitation for the other party to engage should ideally have a clear upside, e.g. where the addressee is in a position to prosecute a useful response that the public audience will appreciate.

Note (and I hope this point will be obvious without too much explanation) that not all writing or even all correspondence intended for a wide audience would qualify as an open letter. An Aljunied resident’s review of, say, the controversy over the administration of AHPETC would not count as an open letter, nor would, say, an email from the NUS president to the university.

Also according to the description I proposed above, I think the public letter (example) would have to be regarded as a closely related but distinct genre. In the case of the public letter, the letter is not a tactical instrument that invokes the weight of public attention; rather, because the discussion is already public, the author simply addresses another author’s public.

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So I can’t think of a non-obnoxious way to state this fact, but, yeah: During my time as USC President, I wrote several club addresses, but only one open letter (see footnote 1.). This was an open letter which, I might add, I find cringe-worthy on several points; but I take some comfort in the fact that if it was not well crafted, it was at least well addressed, in that it sought to publicly engage certain agencies in pursuing a policy that they had a demonstrable interest in pursuing. Indeed, after some discussion we did manage to reach a practical compromise (less than ideal in some ways, but, hey, compromise…). Something else I regard as a victory was the fact that the solution later moved forward on the participation of individual students with the skills and willingness to facilitate its implementation.

The point I’m reaching for is that I think the open letter can be a good instrument under some circumstances, but it has several defects that are uncharitably exposed in other circumstances.

I think something that writing an open letter necessarily involves is presumption. The writer is always to some extent involved in making representations about some audience’s interests. This is true even of the more mundane examples of open letters, like complaints about receiving bad service (e.g. from a restaurant, airline, etc.); when the writers in these examples appeal to some notion of service standards defined according to some accepted norm, or notions of equity based on some model of public morality, they are purporting to represent the view of some public. In the case I describe in the footnotes (1.), this is a weakness mitigated by the fact that the letter-writers were already holding official positions that constrained them to represent (or at least purport to represent) the interests of their respective constituents. On the practical level, this also meant that subsequent engagement between parties could be sustained.

A second weakness of the format is the transparency of the letter-writer’s intention to provoke a public response (by definition of the form). When a subject is not well addressed (and frankly even when they are), open letters can come across as shrill and impassioned, while leaving the reader still mystified about the cause for alarm.

Another example of an open letter that I recall from a USP context was this one, about Houses in USC (incidentally, a letter I’ve criticized before, but focusing on content and context). The first level on which it failed to be well-addressed was that the letter-writers addressed an office-holder with whom they were committee members, and as such the letter contained the implication that the committee’s normal functioning was insufficient to even discussing the issue. However, even assuming that the issue was simply irresolvable for political reasons, as a tactical manoeuvre, it fails again because no discernibly useful course of action emerges from the representation made of the situation.

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All in all, open letters are a form which I approach with no great fondness. In the technological context of the present, one wherein speech so often has a public component to begin with, it is a form that has to contend even harder with the difficulty of being pertinent, well-addressed, or more generally right and opportune2.


Footnotes
1. Document: Follow-Up to Open Letter, 12 November 2012. An update to the club that contains the letter. See also the response from ComCen to an article in Studentry (the online version of the Ridge) about the wireless situation.
2. No, I did not take WCT in ‘Civic Discourse in a Fractious World’.