It seems like a new open letter headlines the news every day — to a football coach about how he coaches or speaks, a CEO on how she runs a company or a parent on how he views a social issue. It’s the trendy, and too often self-fulfilling, thing to do. The subject matter of these controversies is not my primary contention — I don’t pretend to be an expert on social issues and race relations — but open letters, and what they subtly promote, is my issue: bullying.
Specifically, bullying is rampant in our culture. Despite efforts, it continues to be a significant childhood problem. A recent study revealed that almost 90 percent of children between grades 4 to 8 have been the subject of bullying at some point in their life. Twenty percent of kids are bullied on a regular basis. Among many other organizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called bullying an epidemic.
The consequences of bullying are multiple. It leads to low self-esteem, depression, health problems (both short- and long-term) and poor academic performance. Kids that are bullied are at a higher risk of substance abuse and sexual or interpersonal violence. Bullying is a significant risk factor for suicidal ideation and suicide. Just a few weeks ago a 9-year-old killed himself due to others tormenting him.
There’s virtually nothing good that can be said about bullying.
There are many aspects that factor into our bullying epidemic but one specific avenue used to perpetuate the problem is social media and the internet. Sadly, with the advent of cyberbullying (and its ease and convenience), over 50 percent of kids admit to saying something cruel or spiteful about another on social media.
My contention is that open letters are too often used as masked forms of passive aggressive behavior, and a form of social interaction that easily leads to harassing and personally insulting others. Open letters closely resemble the rise in peoples’ comfort responding to others with very hatefully rhetoric over the internet or on social media blogs. It offers a venue to attack others without directly addressing that person, by easily hiding behind a keyboard and not truly accepting the ramifications of our words. We are too quick to insult others, often with significant vitriol and specificity, because a computer screen shields us from the actual person affected by the attack.
While some may argue that an open letter is making him or herself accountable by publically stating an opinion, a more praiseworthy and constructive approach is to deal with an issue on a direct and personal level. The problem, though, is that doing so is more difficult because it requires true vulnerability and courage – there’s no hiding if we approach each other face to face. In this light, I contend that most angry open letters are acts of cowardice.
Furthermore, in our quickness to send out open letters or offer scathing opinions on someone’s social media page, we are modeling behaviors that encourage our children to use similar routes to deal with peers, leading to their acceptance of cyberbullying as an appropriate response to controversy. I contend that the children who tormented the 9-year-old who committed suicide learned their behaviors from somewhere, and I think it’s time that we start considering our responsibility and culpability when similar tragedies occur.
Our culture is currently struggling through many social issues, and I’m not sure what the answers are. However, I do believe that discussing issues directly and personally is a more courageous and appropriate approach than hiding behind open letters and Facebook posts. With our current means of addressing problems, I worry greatly what we’re teaching our children.
And, yes, I get the irony here. Please feel free to speak to me directly with comments.