I recently read a book (whose author and affiliation will remain nameless — for now) that purported to be addressed to one group of people, people the author disagreed with. But it was clearly actually addressed to people who already believed what he believed and wanted to be patted on the back for being so right. It annoyed me.
It’s the same problem I have with “open letters.” Open letters pretend to be addressed to a certain person or group, but that’s a fiction. If the writer only cared about the addressee, it wouldn’t be a public letter; it would be a private, “closed” letter. An open letter is a rhetorical tool to address one group of people while pretending to address another.
I think most writers are aware of this, which is why they write open letters in the first place. But I think this same phenomenon occurs all the time in everyday communication, between people who probably aren’t aware of who their language is addressing and what it’s actually saying.
This is what I’m afraid of: even when we think we’re talking to people who disagree with us, we only end up communicating to people on our side. Because we tend to seek out information that confirms what we believe and ignore information that contradicts it, we’re more likely to reach people who already agree with us and be ignored by people who don’t.
But it gets worse. Because we’re so good at rationalizing, viewing arguments that contradict our beliefs actually makes us work harder to defend them, so that we often end up believing more strongly in our original position after confronting disconfirming evidence. Which means that your argument could end up making the person you’re addressing more confident in their beliefs, not less.
This doesn’t mean we can’t say anything. It just means we should be careful what arguments we make and how we address them. Everything posted to Facebook is, in a sense, an “open letter.” Because your audience is so undefined, you can’t predict how people are going to react to it. It could have consequences opposite to what you actually intended for it.
Keep your eye on the ball. Know your audience. The more specific your audience, the more specific you can make your message. If you want to talk to the world, fine. Just make sure to manage your expectations.