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Just Plain Fun

Don’t shoot the messenger



Two disabled veteran sailors, employed by an admiral as messengers, delivering a letter to the servant at the front door of a town-house. Coloured etching after G.M. Woodward, 1790. The veteran on the left has his right arm in a sling and a patch over his right eye, while his companion on the right has lost his left leg and walks on crutches. Created May 1 1790. Disabled veterans – Vocational rehabilitation. Row houses. Leg – Amputation. Postal service – Mail-messenger service. Contributors: G. M. Woodward (approximately 1760-1809). Work ID: rjb953nu.

What does it mean when someone says don’t shoot the messenger?

The phrase was first used in a play some 2500 years ago. Sophocles said in his play, Antigone, “For no man delights in the bearer of bad news.” In “Lives,” Plutarch wrote, “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”.

In the Bible, upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan were dead, David slew the messenger. This ancient action reflects a timeless human tendency: reacting negatively or even aggressively towards the bearer of bad or unwelcome news rather than addressing the actual content of the message.

The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” serves as a warning against this impulse. It encourages individuals to refrain from blaming or punishing the person delivering an unfavorable message and instead to focus on the substance of the news. It is often invoked when someone conveys a difficult truth or unwelcome information, urging the recipient to address the news itself rather than directing their frustration or anger at the messenger.

Modern politicians, as described by Bruce Sanford in 2001’s “Don’t Shoot the Messenger”, “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.” Getting rid of the messenger may be a tactical move, but the 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”

Cultures and organizations that choose to overlook unsettling facts in favor of eliminating negative sentiments often pave the way for cult-like behaviors and a phenomenon termed “bubble-itis.” This mindset was a major contributor to the 2007-2008 banking and housing crash, which subsequently led to the great recession. Such a perspective can have dire consequences, such as a surge in criminal activity.

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