An Open Letter to Open Letters

Ah, the open letter.  We see these all the time now.

They clog our RSS feeds (is that what people even call them anymore? well that’s what i call it whoops).  They fill Huffington Post.  They are written by offended customers and the workers who offend them.  Breastfeeding mothers and disgruntled celebrities.  They have sort of become a staple of internet culture.  There is no better way to declare to the world, “I HAVE AN OPINION THAT EVERYBODY SHOULD LISTEN TO.”

Because in a lot of ways, that’s what the internet has become: a vehicle by which all may voice their (obviously very important) opinions.

Since the Internet is a place where all posts are launched into the world equally capable of being read, heard, and processed by others, it hasn’t taken us very long to realize that now everyone has a forum within which to air grievances and make broad declarations about life and the way it should be.  And in a lot of ways, that can be a good thing.  We can all learn from each other.  We can witness the different perspectives offered by the world.  We can listen to voices that we would have no ability to listen to otherwise.  And that is good!  I love learning and, slowly, I am beginning to love listening.  I am beginning to discover (as I probably should have ages ago, but I can be pretty dense) that there is no sharing of the gospel until I have listened.

Alas, there is a dark side to every bright spot of internet freedom, and open access to an audience in front of which to air one’s grievances is no different.  Because everybody is capable of shouting their opinions into this giant mass of people, there is something of an arrogance that has developed in internet culture.  We see it everywhere–anonymous hate mail, the pits of darkness and despair that are YouTube comment threads, passive-aggressive facebook statuses.  But I think the Open Letter is probably the most eloquent expression of human arrogance the internet has created.

You see, for the most part, when people write open letters, it’s not even about the issue that they say they’re discussing.  Oh, it may be tangentially about that.  They’ll want you to think it’s about that.  But it’s not.  It’s about getting offended and having everyone agree with them.  It’s about getting pats on the back for having the “courage” to speak up.  It’s about the obsession that internet has with righteous (or perceived righteous) indignation.  Everybody loves to think that they are part of the crusade against injustice, whether that injustice is something real and tangible like racial inequality or something incredibly petty like the behavior of an errant Starbucks barista.  Maybe if we all shout about the slights visited upon us by the world, and then shout about each other’s slights, we’ll accomplish some real good!

Except we won’t.  More often than not, open letters do nothing except generate meaningless anger and lots of pageviews.  Occasionally one will actually effect some change in the world–Taylor Swift’s recent open letter to Apple is now famous for prompting the tech company to alter its policies for musicians in its upcoming streaming service, Apple Music.  But make no mistake, that is the exception and not the rule–and it is an exception made possible only by Taylor’s incredible fame, overall good reputation among fans, and the general culture’s predisposition to distrust big corporations.  This is not to take away from her victory, which will benefit lots of independent musicians who couldn’t speak with the voice of authority that she has.  It’s just to say that her success says a lot more about the influence of Taylor Swift than it does the efficacy of open letters.

It’s a delicate line to walk, critiquing the ways that the internet addresses problems.  Because, as I mentioned, some problems do need to be addressed.  If we can’t use this wonderful tool to accomplish some real work in the world, then it’s basically just a vehicle for cat pictures and shopping that doesn’t require pants.  Which, to be fair, are virtues of the internet that I highly value.  But the internet is, and can be, so much more.

I’m not sure what the solution is.  I do think, though, that it begins with less shouting and more listening.  I’m learning that those are the first steps to a LOT of different solutions.  Let’s all challenge ourselves to get off our soapboxes a little more often.  Let’s challenge ourselves to broadcast fewer self-righteous thoughts out to the people of the web, and instead really listen and learn about the world around us.  Let’s be willing to tone down our righteous indignation and settle for curious study.  Maybe we can penetrate some of the meaningless anger and replace it with some creative problem-solving.

At the very least, we’ll learn that maybe the world can live without our angry thoughts about public breastfeeding after all.

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