I am sick and tired of open letters. It’s a meme I wish would die a thousand deaths.
Some time ago, I posted my response to Joe Dallas’ “To My Gay Angry Friend” (you can read those posts here, here, and here). The other day, I read a post titled, “An Open Letter To The Girl In The Dressing Room.” Those are only two examples of this “open letter” idea, two among a sea of similar blog posts.
The thing is, I understand why people write these things. We all have feelings that we need to explore after our encounters with others and the world. Situations can be triggering for us due to our own past or because of what we’ve seen loved ones experience. As a person who loves words, both written and spoken, I understand this need.
But, people, this is not the way to deal with our feelings. There are three serious problems with these “open letter”-style blog posts.
First, the open letter puts our own overlay onto the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others. Both the posts I mentioned above, as well as nearly all other similar posts, make assumptions about the people to whom the letters are written. Joe Dallas assumed that the man with the sign was gay and that he was angry. Lauren Alexander made assumptions about what specific thoughts the woman in the dressing room was having. It’s entirely possible that they were right, but they could not possibly know that without speaking directly to the people in question.
What they did do, however, was an inappropriate hijacking of those people’s inner life. They confused their own prior experiences and feelings for those of another person. This is wrong. It takes away someone else’s ownership of his or her feelings and actions. It takes away that person’s right to express him- or herself as he or she chooses. It reduces another human being to an object, something that feeds our own personal need to express our feelings.
Second, the open letter fails to take any real action, or to make any real human connection. Both Joe Dallas and Lauren Alexander comment that they did not engage with the other person of whom they spoke. Mr. Dallas chalks this up to business; Ms. Alexander to not wanting to be creepy. The sad thing is, their failure to connect didn’t just prevent them from knowing what real feelings those people were having in that moment. It also prevented them from doing any real good in the lives of those individuals.
I strongly suspect that one reason some people (and I am not specifically referring to the aforementioned bloggers) don’t engage is exactly for that reason. They don’t want to deal with whatever they might have to face if they take the risk of interacting. They would rather use their almost-meetings as blog post fodder, rather than find ways to connect and help. I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel uncomfortable walking over to strange people in restaurants and stores. But if we don’t take the risk and meet the other person, then we lose our right to impose our view of their feelings on them.
Third, the open letter almost never reaches its purported audience. I realize that’s not usually the point. The point is to write something that will possibly touch people who are struggling with similar issues. If that’s the reason for the blog post, however, why not write it generically? Or write about our own feelings and thoughts? Or respond to a blog post that someone else wrote on a similar subject? There are many better ways to handle tough subjects than coming at them sideways through the lens of what we think a random stranger might have been feelings.
Again, I believe there is an underlying fear in these open letters. Sometimes, it can be hard to admit that something we saw stirs up past pain. We may need a way to get ourselves into a place where we can freely write about our deepest wounds. But I believe this can be done without transferring our feelings onto others. Instead of making claims about what someone might have been thinking in a dressing room or outside a restaurant, why not admit that their actions—rather than their feelings—stirred the waters in our souls?
I am sure that reading (and perhaps writing) these open letters can be healing for some people. But we need to be careful that our own healing doesn’t come at the expense of usurping someone else’s agency over his or her own experiences and feelings.