Dear Open Letter Writers,

Good day, hope this open letter finds you in the best of spirits. The reason I am writing this is because I was a bit perturbed at the concept of an open letter, not to mention the recent spate of open letters going around in local newspapers these days, so I decided it best to engage in the practice of learning by doing rather than not doing anything and not learning at all either.

So I am writing an open letter, primarily because I don't completely understand what an open letter is supposed to imply (hopefully this will change as I inch closer towards filling up this endless page with words addressed to everyone, and no one in particular at the same time).

Open letters… what are they? And how can someone like me be writing an open letter without even knowing what it is. And there's so many open letters flying around these days, like paper planes in the calm skies which hang unbeknownst over the sheer political chaos being orchestrated underneath.

It started from open letters to the political higher-up-on-the-echelon, like the president, the prime minister etc. Now it seems that the phenomenon has caught on to an unprecedented degree. Now the military, the agencies, the judiciary, everyone, (even Imran Khan for goodness sake!) is receiving open letters.

Letters are generally considered a medium of exchange for private reflections and personal thoughts or narrations shared between two people in confidence. So what I'm imaging an open letter to be then is a kind of letter that is addressed to someone specific but can be read by anyone, in fact is encouraged to be read by everyone. As a recent open letter writer astutely notes: "Whispers there always have been. But now much is being said aloud."

So an open letter must imply:

a) That it is open, as in open to the public, therefore there is nothing to hide and no illicit or lewd content is included.

b) That the receipt of the letter has been acknowledged by the entire newspaper reading public, especially who enjoy reading open letters.

c) That the person the open letter was addressed to in fact reads newspaper editorials OR that the open letter would be so scandalous and/or imminent that that person's newspaper-reading friends would inform him of the open letter.

d) Just like how silence can have a meaning too, the decision to address an otherwise personal letter to the whole jing-bang awami populace implies that there is something in the letter that the general public needs to take note of.

So an open letter could be read by other people but is addressed to a person or a group. Wait a second, doesn't this sound a lot like writing on someone's Facebook wall, or sending a public tweet @ someone? This development could be something new altogether, and at the rate these things are coming out there's no telling what to expect.

I was thinking of writing an open letter to the driver of LXJ 25141 who cut me off in traffic the other day, but I didn't expect him to read the daily newspaper editorials so I cursed at him under my breath instead. Seriously though it seems, newspapers, the medium that had been discounted as a dying industry has made a comeback as an entirely novel medium of expression. At the rate things are going, open letter writing is soon going to overtake Twitter and Facebook as the fastest growing social-media phenomenon in Pakistan.

Also open letter writers, of course there is serious turmoil that needs to be addressed, and sometimes rushing to grab the nearest pen and writing an open letter to everyone to get back in their senses might seem like the quickest way to make effectual change. But sometimes, dear open letter writers, it seems the urgency to get everyone back in their senses overwhelms you to drive yourself out of your own senses temporarily. A dilemma that one of you have so beautifully captured in the words: "The problem ... is thus that it attracts what it sets out to avoid. Therein lies both the irony and the paradox."

Let me quote a few more highly illustrative lines from a recently published open letter to better communicate:

*Sometimes the sheer urgency and emotional overflow causes some of you to tend to get caught up in a lack of self-criticism and absence of good old-fashioned humbleness: "...this being no time for mincing words, let me assure you that I understand the theoretical and practical dimensions of statecraft better and more deeply than your entire agency."

Alienating your audience from the subject matter by looking down upon them is no way to engage in persuasive writing dear open letter writers, if you desire to convince the person you are writing the letter to you should not start with the assumption that you know much more of something that the other person claims to specialise in. You must use rhetorical writing strategies more efficiently, if you are to employ them at all.

*Sometimes your poise as the writer of an open letter writer addressing his/her words to everyone might obscure your reality through delusions of self-grandeur: "You, sir, are therefore a servant twice over, as are all your officers and other personnel. You are answerable to our representatives and those representatives are answerable to us."

Now, this is no way to address your primary addressee, since this person is the person you are "actually" writing the letter for, you need to be more humble and not be overly demeaning just because everyone else is privy to what you are saying to this person. Such a tone could embarrass the person addressed in front of everyone such that they secretly begin to resent you and nothing will become of your pleading overtures.

*Also, providing useful advice might be a good way to bridge the gap and develop common ground with your reader, but you must not insult their intelligence by doing so, (and especially if that is their most prized asset): "And you can’t beat people into submission; nor kill them and expect all will be hunky-dory."

Trying to pass off common sense knowledge as something of an epiphany to the addressee would only annoy them with you further. It is important to be more respectful, even when the urgency has you in its grips.

A rising stylistic trend in recent open letter writing these days suggests that its important to offer some advice, or an agenda, or something meaningful in conclusion so that the principal addressee as well as the completely waila voyeuristic readers prying over other peoples letters and dirty laundry don't part with your letter empty handed.

So because I am addressing this to you dear writers of open letters, I will try to align myself with this tradition as best as I can by passing some comments on topics and suggestions in recent open letters:

1) First of all, leave the armed forces, the military, navy, rangers, agencies etc. all alone! They are brave defenders of your proud nation and should not have to deal with your endless bickering. The army is composed of professional soldiers and commanders who have more important things to occupy themselves and they do not appreciate you wasting their valuable time by your public displays of aggravation. If you must express yourself, do it in private, ideally in a "closed" environment so others don't have to put up with your groaning either.

2) Journalists should understand that they need to stop talking sometimes! And especially at times when the nation is facing a serious crisis. This is no time for dangerous adventures and there is no need to act as the spoilt kids who spill the family secrets in front of guests at the dinner.

3) Since there is no return-to-sender button on the open letter delivery mechanism these days, open letters should not be addressed to people who stopped reading open letters a looooooong time ago. Like the Chief Justice for example, who one fine day during the lethargic long march days, sent an FWD: Email open letter riddled with typos and grammatical gaffes to someone or the other, and lost all faith in the medium when he didn't receive a RE: Reply in his email box.

4) Who writes Imran Khan an open letter? Someone who can't add up two logical deductions to formulate a conclusion shouldn't be needlessly stressed with things that would force him to think.

5) Open letters can be a great learning experience some times, even if one isn't the person the letter was addressed to. For example, I have learned a lot about open letters while writing this present open letter. One thing that became apparent early on is that this is extremely therapeutic and relaxes the nerves, helping vent a lot of frustration by taking them out on the writing apparatus. Also imagining the whole nation reading these words does feel a little grand to tell you the truth. But I also realised that open letters are generally not as appealing as they initially sound.

I must be more open here... half way through writing this open letter to you, dear open letter writers, I began suspecting that I too, like the Chief Justice's might not receive a reply in writing and a resounding despair began to prevail. It has seemed to me, open letter writers, that writing an open letter might be an act as ironic as throwing a rock tied to a letter at the moon, or putting a message in a bottle, or writing a little note to the all-present oneness. These words that you are reading right now, whether you are an open letter writer or just a playfully curious open letter reader (whom this letter is not addressed to but can read it anyway) probably will not accomplish anything at all.

And with this final dismal thought, dear open letter writers, I must confess I can no longer go on writing these empty words and continue to fool myself that they are some how going to fix the world.

Yours Regretfully,

Asif Akhtar

Asif Akhtar is one of Pakistan's most prominent Tiwtterati. Based at the Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research in New York City, he is a specialist in strategic analysis and political affairs; an informed cultural observer and critic; a social commentator and socialite; as well as a professional writer whose collected works can be accessed here.

 

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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