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 a 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.

"Attacking the messenger" is a subdivision of the ad hominem logical fallacy.[1]

Origins of the concept[edit]

Plutarch's Lives states: "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 dared 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."[2]

The advice "Don't shoot the messenger" was expressed by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2 (1598)[3] 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."[4] Prior to that, a related sentiment was expressed in Antigone by Sophocles as "no one loves the messenger who brings bad news" or "no man delights in the bearer of bad news" (Greek: στέργει γὰρ οὐδεὶς ἄγγελον κακῶν ἐπῶν).[5]

An analogy of the phrase can come from the breaching of an unwritten code of conduct in war, in which 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.[6]

Freud and defense[edit]

Sigmund 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.'"[7]

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."[8]

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". It may be in part one’s links to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded in early childhood by the conscious mind . V.G. Hufnagel bioethics expert wrote, “the shadow of the institution protects its own fraternity".[9] 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.[10][10]

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.

Current application[edit]

A modern version of attacking the messenger can be perceived when someone blames 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 unwelcomed news, but it is not a very effective method of remaining well-informed."[11]

Getting rid of the messenger may be a tactical move, but danger found in nondisclosure may result in either hostile responses or negative feedback from others. "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."[12] 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"[13] of the 2000s.

Reactions to the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks led to calls not to shoot the messenger.[14]

Similar phrases[edit]

A syntactically similar expression is "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best." 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.[15] This phrase (like many witty sayings of that era) is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, but neither Wilde nor Twain ever claimed authorship.

Alternative expressions:

  • "Killing the messenger"
  • "Attacking the messenger"
  • "Blaming the bearer of bad tidings"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J. Rothwell, In Mixed Company: Communicating in Small Groups. 2015. Page 421
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ II, 5; cf. I, 2 : "The nature of bad news infects the teller."
  5. ^ Sophocles (1891). "Line 277". The Antigone of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge University Press.  At the Perseus Project.
  6. ^ "Top town crier to be crowned as Hebden Bridge hits 500". BBC. 2010-08-20. 
  7. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 454-5
  8. ^ Freud, On Metapsychology p. 455
  9. ^ Hufnagel,V.G. (2014) “The Truth Hurts”, Introduction :Kill the Messinger, Kill the Message.
  10. ^ a b Jung, C.G. (1938). "Psychology and Religion." In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
  11. ^ Bruce W. Sanford, Don't Shoot the Messenger (2001) p. 10
  12. ^ Mike Robson/Ciaran Beary, Facilitating (1995) p. 135
  13. ^ Barbar Ehrenreich, Smile or Die (London 2009) p. 188-9
  14. ^ "Julian Assange: 'Don't Shoot the Messenger'". London: The Independent. 7 December 2010. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  15. ^ "Oscar Wilde in Leadville". Retrieved 23 February 2015. 

External links[edit]