Shooting the messenger

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"Shooting the messenger" is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of blaming the bearer of bad news.

Until the advent of modern telecommunication, messages were usually delivered by human envoys. For example, in war, a messenger would be sent from one camp to another. If the message was unfitting, the receiver might blame the messenger for such bad news and take their anger out on them.

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


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.

An early literary citing of "shooting the messenger" is in 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]

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).[3]

The sentiment that one should not shoot the messenger was expressed by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2 (1598)[4] and in Antony and Cleopatra: Cleopatra threatens to treat the messenger's eyes as balls when told Antony has married another, eliciting the response "Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match."[5]

The term also applied to a town crier, an officer of the court who made public pronouncements in the name of the ruling monarch, and often including bad news. Harming a town crier was considered 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, a 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 a part of the "psychology of institutions". Institutions have enormous funds to use unlike an individual whistleblower. Institutions also have massive communication systems and a loyal population that supports the institution.

Current application[edit]

A modern version of "shooting the messenger" can be perceived when someone blames the media for presenting bad news about a favored cause, person, organization, etc. "Shooting the messenger" may be a time-honored emotional response to unwanted 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 "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best". It originated around 1860 in the Wild West of the United States when Oscar Wilde, during his 1883 tour of the United States, saw this saying on a notice in a Leadville, Colorado, saloon.[15] This phrase 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. ^ Sophocles (1891). "Line 277". The Antigone of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge University Press.  At the Perseus Project.
  4. ^ 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."
  5. ^ II, 5; cf. I, 2 : "The nature of bad news infects the teller."
  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]