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.

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We care about this letter now as a historical document, a reminder of why we wear poppies on November 11th - but there is more to it, I think, than that.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.

Was Sinead O'Connor really just one half of a 'catfight'? Image: Getty
Show Hide image

What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood