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From Siegfried Sassoon to Sinead O'Connor, those who write open letters know their power

A whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.

New Statesman
Was Sinead O'Connor really just one half of a 'catfight'? Image: Getty

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

The boldness of this passage; the opening sentence of Siegfried Sassoon’s public letter to his Commanding Officer, still has the power to shock. I know this because several years ago as an A Level student I opened my set text, Regeneration by Pat Barker, and seeing these words was taken aback by their frankness and courage.

In making this ‘act of wilful defiance’ Sassoon knew of the risks he was taking. Lauded as a war hero and decorated with the Military Cross, he was now risking not only his reputation, but also his life - he only avoided a court-martial because he was deemed to be shell-shocked and not in his right mind. Yet Sassoon was in his right mind, and did know what he was saying. He was trying desperately to bring to an end the slaughter of his friends, his comrades and of similar young men fighting on the other side.

The letter, which was read out in parliament and printed in The Times, did not bring about an end to the war. It did, however, create unease and tension by drawing attention to the brutal realities of World War I.

We care about this letter now as a historical document, a reminder of why we wear poppies on November 11th - but there is more to it, I think, than that. It is also a cry against suffering and war. Its continued power is its timelessness - it is at once very specific to the war that Sassoon fought in and simultaneously something which can be applied to many conflicts, highlighting the terribleness of lives wasted for an inch of land.

43 years later, another letter would be written which would become representative of the ways in which Open Letters can effect change. The letter, written in a cramped jail cell on the margins of a newspaper, became known as Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this letter its author Martin Luther King addressed his fellow clergymen, responding to a letter they had written calling for an end to anti-segregation demonstrations, claiming these were ‘unwise and untimely.’  The response was to leave a far greater impression than the piece it sought to answer.

The letter, gentle yet unyielding in tone, perfectly mirrored the spirit of non-violent resistance which it advocates: ‘You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.’

It was published in The New York Post, The Christian Century and Atlantic Monthly, becoming one of the most influential texts of the Nonviolent Resistance movement. The letter, alongside King’s other work, doubtless played a part in bringing about an end to segregation in America. We care about this letter today as an example of the power of the written word - it is much anthologised perhaps because it proves true the old maxim about the pen being mightier than the sword. It demonstrates that the open letter can absolutely work as a convincing polemic.

But there is something going on with open letters which takes them beyond the traditional remit of a polemic. Rather than opening with a direct assertion, an open letter lays its ground. It addresses an individual or a group, addressing the correspondent at once directly, through means of the letter, and indirectly, through the public and other commentators who will read and have a reaction to the letter.

Open letters are designed to provoke discussion, and therein lies much of their strength. There is also something defiant about the open letter as though it is saying ‘I defy you not to respond.’

This was very much the case with Émile Zola’s famous letter to President Félix Faure. The words ‘J’accuse’ blazoned atop the front page of leading newspaper Aurore, was deliberately and importantly provocative. It had to be were it to succeed in its goal - that of drawing attention to the horrible injustice done to Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who had wrongly been convicted of espionage and exiled to the evocatively named Devil’s Island.

By pointing the finger at those responsible in a public address, reciting J’accuse before a list of names like an incantation, Zola set himself up to be challenged, knowing this was the only way to lead to Dreyfus exoneration. Soon after the letter Zola was erroneously found guilty of libel and fled the country, but the tale of Dreyfus’ unfair conviction was out there and could not for long be suppressed.

Do we still need open letters and should we still care about them? Was last weeks open letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus important, or was it, as it has been widely portrayed, a salacious 'catfight' between female celebrities?

I would like to argue that yes, we should still care about open letters. The freedom to express oneself, thanks to the internet, is greater than ever, but this does not need to dilute the discourse or stop the momentum of the important open letter. Open letters nowadays, if anything have more momentum because they can reach a wider audience.

Was O’Connor’s letter to Cyrus important? Perhaps. It is not a letter which will spark a revolution or dramatically change society, but it raises issues which we need to talk about. Does the music industry exploit young women? Do young women feel compelled, by society, to behave in a certain way? Should we be concerned about young stars?

That the letter has opened up discussion on these fronts is important. A friend who is studying for a sociology doctorate made the following point - ‘Ridiculous bickering and bantering notwithstanding, a whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.’

I think she makes a brilliant point.