Shooting the messenger
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"Shooting the messenger" or "killing the messenger" is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of lashing out at the (blameless) bearer of bad news.
Until the advent of modern telecommunications, messages were usually delivered by a human envoy. For example, in war the messenger was sent from the enemy camp. An easily provoked combatant receiving such an overture could more easily vent anger (or otherwise retaliate) on the deliverer of the unpopular message than on its author.
Origins of the concept
Plutarch's Lives has this line: "The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus' coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him."
The advice "Don't shoot the messenger" was expressed (very obliquely) by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2 (1598) and in Antony and Cleopatra: when told Antony has married another, Cleopatra threatens to treat the messenger's eyes as balls, eliciting the response "Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match." Prior to that, a related sentiment was expressed in Antigone by Sophocles as "No one loves the messenger who brings bad news."
An analogy of the phrase can come from the breaching of an invisible code of conduct in war, where a commanding officer was expected to receive and send back emissaries or diplomatic envoys sent by the enemy unharmed. During the early Warring States period of China, the concept of chivalry and virtue prevented the executions of messengers sent by opposing sides.
The term also applied to a town crier, an officer of the court who made public pronouncements in the name of the ruling monarch. This often included bad news, such as tax increases. Harming a town crier was considered to be treason.
Freud and defense
Freud considered shooting the messenger a "marginal case of this kind of defense...of fending off what is distressing or unbearable," citing the example of "the famous lament of the Spanish Moors Ay de mi Alhama, which tells how King Boabdil received the news of the fall of his city of Alhama. He feels that this loss means the end of his rule. But he will not 'let it be true....He threw the letters in the fire and killed the messenger.'"
Freud added that "a further determinant of this behaviour of the king was his need to combat a feeling of powerlessness. By burning the letters and having the messenger killed he was still trying to show his absolute power."
In Rome, messengers were sent about the roads, which were a revolutionary change in communications. If you knew of a message that was not favorable to your plans (be it war, business, or love), killing the messenger was a known extreme, but an effective, practiced tactic. One had to simply kill the messenger to prevent the communication from taking place.
Today the messenger is often a researcher, investigator, or employee who is a whistleblower trying to speak out on an issue. The corporation or institution that will be affected negatively by a message literally kills the messenger or silences them by discrediting them.
A few marketing companies have specialized in "disinformation". Abelson Taylor, located in Chicago, is known for its disinformation in science and medicine. Abelson Taylor was hired by Nestle to silence the fact that it exported infant formula to Africa that could not sustain life. Nestle had a campaign in Africa claiming that their formula was better for babies than breast milk. Hundreds of thousands of infants died from this deficient formula.
Abelson Taylor was able to put out an enormous fire with a campaign of disinformation about the women trying to inform the nation of this crime. Killing the messenger is part of active corporate business conduct. Victims have no knowledge that a marketing company is hired to direct the attack on them.
The majority of victims are destroyed and the message is silenced. Jeffrey Wigand (who spoke out on the tobacco industry) had some retribution in that the movie The Insider told his story. Many whistleblowers lose their careers and their families from the relentless attacks upon them.
Carl G. Jung, a peer of Freud’s, describes the Shadow in the individual as part of the unconscious mind, which is largely negative. “Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is" (1). It may be in part one’s links to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded in early childhood by the conscious mind (2). V.G. Hufnagel bioethics expert wrote, “the shadow of the institution protects its own fraternity" (3). The fraternity members form a collective and share a collective consciousness with a predatory instinctive animal in nature and hold the fears of childhood. These fears stimulate actions to destroy any message that may harm them. There is no cognitive process in these actions. These are forced on death of an individual and of an idea through human sacrifice. There are religious aspects to these actions. The fraternity of authority believes it holds a right to exterminate those who could harm them. The Shadow is also part of the psychology of institutions. Institutions however have enormous funds to use unlike the individual whistleblower. Institutions also have massive communication systems and a loyal population that supports the institution.
1/ Jung, C.G. (1938). "Psychology and Religion." In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131 2/Jung, C.G. (1952). "Answer to Job." In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.12 3/Hufnagel,V.G. (2014) “The Truth Hurts”, Introduction :Kill the Messinger, Kill the Message.
A modern version of attacking the messenger can be seen when persons blame the media for presenting bad news about a favored cause, person, organization, etc. The fact remains that "shooting the messenger may be a time-honored emotional response to unwelcome news, but it is not a very effective method of remaining well-informed."
Getting rid of the messenger may be a tactical move, but the danger is that an ethos of nondisclosure may follow any hostile response to negative feedback. "People learn very quickly where this is the case, and will studiously avoid giving any negative feedback; thus the 'Emperor" continues with the self-delusion....Obviously this is not a recipe for success." Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-sided/Smile or Die argued that a culture of "thinking positive" so as to "purge 'negative people' from the ranks...[fed into] the bubble-itis" of the 2000s.
A syntactically similar expression is "Don't shoot the piano player; he's doing the best he can." It originated around 1860 in the Wild West of the United States. During his 1883 tour of the United States, Oscar Wilde saw this saying on a notice in a Leadville, Colorado, saloon. This phrase (like many witty sayings of that era) is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, but neither Wilde nor Twain ever claimed authorship.
- "Killing the messenger"
- "Attacking the messenger"
- "Blaming the bearer of bad tidings"
- Plutarch's Life of Lucullus (Dryden transl.), paragraph 25; a slightly different account (the messenger was hanged) is in Appian's Mithradatic Wars, paragraph 84
- Act I, scene 1, lines 95-103; "Thou shakest thy head and hold'st it fear or sin to speak a truth. ... Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office, and his tongue sounds ever after as a sullen bell, remember'd tolling a departed friend."
- II, 5; cf. I, 2 : "The nature of bad news infects the teller."
- (lines 276-277)
- "Top town crier to be crowned as Hebden Bridge hits 500". BBC. 2010-08-20.
- Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 454-5
- Freud, On Metapsychology p. 455
- Bruce W. Sanford, Don't Shoot the Messenger (2001) p. 10
- Mike Robson/Ciaran Beary, Facilitating (1995) p. 135
- Barbar Ehrenreich, Smile or Die (London 2009) p. 188-9
- "Julian Assange: 'Don't Shoot the Messenger'". London: The Independent. 7 December 2010. Retrieved 7 January 2011.
- The dictionary definition of don't shoot the messenger at Wiktionary