Open letter

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J'Accuse...! is an influential open letter written by Emile Zola in 1898 over the Dreyfus Affair. J'accuse.jpg
J'Accuse…! is an influential open letter written by Émile Zola in 1898 over the Dreyfus Affair.
Bill Gates's Open Letter to Hobbyists from the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter, January 1976 Bill Gates Letter to Hobbyists.jpg
Bill Gates's Open Letter to Hobbyists from the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter, January 1976

An open letter is a letter that is intended to be read by a wide audience, or a letter intended for an individual, but that is nonetheless widely distributed intentionally. [1] [2]


Open letters usually take the form of a letter addressed to an individual but are provided to the public through newspapers and other media, such as a letter to the editor or blog. [3] Critical open letters addressed to political leaders are especially common.

Two of the most famous and influential open letters are J'accuse...! by Émile Zola to the President of France, accusing the French government of wrongfully convicting Alfred Dreyfus for alleged espionage; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail , including the famous quotation "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". [3]


In previous centuries, letter writing was a significant form of communication. Letters were normally kept private between the sender and recipient. Consequently, an open letter, usually published in a newspaper or magazine, was a then-rare opportunity for the general public to see what a public figure was saying to another public figure. [4] Open letters, published in newspapers, became more common in the late 19th century. [3]

In the 21st century, documents labeled open letters are common and similar to press releases, with large volumes of open letters being sent automatically to large volumes of newspapers and other publications. [4] [3] In other cases, blog posts and posts on social media are considered open letters. [2] Another shift in the 21st century is the increasing prevalence of open letters with many signatories (similar to an online petition). [3]

When academic scientists publish open letters about science, they may use some of the same features that they use in academic writing, such as seeking informal peer review before publication or believing that the act of communicating itself is a meritorious scholarly activity. [5]

Motivations for writing

There are a number of reasons why an individual would choose the form of an open letter, including the following reasons:


Eric Kaufmann characterizes the authoring of open letters in academia calling for the dismissal of academics as a form of "hard authoritarianism" accompanying political correctness and cancel culture. [9] Others associate open letters with bullying, divisiveness, safetyism (suppressing ideas to ensure a reader's immediate emotional comfort), and a culture of complaining. [6] Online open letters have some qualities in common with gossip, including the impossibility of un-saying what has been disseminated and its use by marginalized groups to complain about others. [10] As the format (a letter, written to one person or group but self-published openly by the writer) does not determine the contents, the contents could be good, bad, or indifferent; they could be helpful or harmful; they could be accurate or inaccurate; they could be thoughtful or thoughtless; they could represent a complex situation with fairness and nuance, or they could reduce it to an overly simplistic "with us or against us" rhetoric. [4]

Open letters tend not to win hearts and minds, especially if there is a limited connection between the writers, the subject, and the nominal addressee. [4] A close connection, such as university faculty writing to the university president about their hopes and goals for university students, is more likely to be effective at influencing a decision than an absent or distant connection, such as students writing to the internet at large about the students' beliefs about a political situation in a country that most of the students have never visited. [4]

Signatories may feel pressured to sign an open letter written by someone else instead of writing their own. [4] Even if the letter is badly written or does not fully or accurately reflect each signer's own views, to refuse to endorse it may be taken as complete disagreement with the general concept. [4] In other cases, the signer may not fully understand the contents. [4]


See also

Related Research Articles

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<i>The Life of Emile Zola</i> 1937 film by William Dieterle

The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about the 19th-century French author Émile Zola starring Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Émile Zola</span> French journalist, playwright and poet (1840–1902)

Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola was a French novelist, journalist, playwright, the best-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism, and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism. He was a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus, which is encapsulated in his renowned newspaper opinion headlined J'Accuse…!  Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dreyfus affair</span> 1894–1906 political scandal in France

The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. The scandal began in December 1894 when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a 35-year-old Alsatian French artillery officer of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason for communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent overseas to the penal colony on Devil's Island in French Guiana, where he spent the following five years imprisoned in very harsh conditions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alfred Dreyfus</span> French artillery officer (1859–1935)

Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry from Alsace whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most polarizing political dramas in modern French history. The incident has gone down in history as the Dreyfus affair, the reverberations from which were felt throughout Europe. It ultimately ended with Dreyfus' complete exoneration.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Letter to the editor</span> Letter sent by readers to a publication

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J'Accuse…! is an 1898 open letter by Émile Zola concerning the Dreyfus affair.

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<i>Prisoner of Honor</i> 1991 British TV series or programme

Prisoner of Honor is a 1991 British made-for-television drama film directed by Ken Russell and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Oliver Reed and Peter Firth. It was made by Warner Bros. Television and distributed by HBO, and centers on the famous Dreyfus Affair. Richard Dreyfuss co-produced the film with Judith James, from a screenplay by Ron Hutchinson.

<i>JAccuse...!</i> 1898 open letter by Émile Zola

"J'Accuse...!" is an open letter, written by Émile Zola in response to the events of the Dreyfus affair, that was published on 13 January 1898 in the newspaper L'Aurore. Zola addressed the President of France, Félix Faure, and accused his government of antisemitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army General Staff officer who was sentenced to lifelong penal servitude for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the front page of the newspaper, and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted for libel and found guilty on 23 February 1898. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England, returning home in June 1899.

Events from the year 1898 in France.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jean-Baptiste Billot</span> French general and politician

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I Accuse! is a British 1958 CinemaScope biographical drama film directed by and starring José Ferrer. The film is based on the true story of the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish captain in the French Army was falsely accused of treason.

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Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam was a French army officer, an amateur graphologist, and a key figure in the Dreyfus affair.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Auguste Mercier</span> French Minister of War

Auguste Mercier was a French general and Minister of War at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Auguste Scheurer-Kestner</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Georges-Gabriel de Pellieux</span> French army officer

George Gabriel de Pellieux was a French army officer who was best known for ignoring evidence during the Dreyfus affair, a scandal in which a Jewish officer was convicted of treason on the basis of a forgery.

<i>An Officer and a Spy</i> (film) 2019 film by Roman Polanski

An Officer and a Spy is a 2019 historical drama film directed by Roman Polanski about the Dreyfus affair, with a screenplay by Polanski and Robert Harris based on Harris's 2013 novel of the same name. The name J'accuse has its origins in Émile Zola's article in l'Aurore in January 1898 in which the famous author accused many people of France of continuing to support the increasingly blatantly erroneous accusations against Dreyfus.


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