Don't trust the messenger
April 28, 2008 9:10 AM   Subscribe

EpigramFilter: What's the converse of "Don't kill the messenger"?

You frequently hear the expression
Don't blame the bearer of bad news.
But you don't often hear the converse, and I believe it is equally valid:
A scoundrel or a fool can make the best of news seem bad.
"Don't judge a book by its cover" is the usual way of saying this, but it doesn't really convey the emotional weight of situations like
  • A brilliant symphony is premiered by an unsympathetic or incompetent orchestra and its genius remains unrecognized for years.
  • A child abandons her faith because her only reference point for the religion is her hypocritical family
  • An admirable proposition can be distorted into ridiculous Straw Man argument.
  • A new or nuanced idea is almost certainly going to be greeted with ridicule when it is first presented, especially if it threatens the status quo.
Surely this is an ancient insight. Am I just missing the obvious adage?
posted by Araucaria to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Wouldn't the converse be "blame the bearer of bad news"? Don't really need an aphorism for that one.
posted by Aquaman at 9:21 AM on April 28, 2008

The technical converse would be: If you killed the messenger, it wasn't because he brought bad news.
posted by delmoi at 9:25 AM on April 28, 2008

A = Bad News, B = good messenger, turns into not B implies not A. Sorry, looks like I meant contrapositive, not converse.
posted by Araucaria at 9:36 AM on April 28, 2008

Reminds me a little of "the medium is the message." I've also seen: "Good message, bad messenger."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:39 AM on April 28, 2008

Going along with ClaudiaCenter here. I've said things like "the messenger killed the message."
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 10:02 AM on April 28, 2008

Huh. I actually thought of "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". Sort of similar to your "don't judge a book by its cover".
posted by madmethods at 10:07 AM on April 28, 2008

Fuzzy Skinner and ClaudiaCenter are pretty close. Yes, that's the literal contrapositive. I guess what I'm after is something that says, Use some critical thinking when you're hearing something second hand. Either find out for yourself or get a second opinion. Even the Catholic Church uses a Devil's Advocate to give the opposing viewpoint its best shot.
posted by Araucaria at 10:12 AM on April 28, 2008

"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" seems relevant, though probably more broad then what you're going for.
posted by vytae at 10:13 AM on April 28, 2008

It seems like there should be some aphorism along the lines of "a recipe is only as good as its cook" or "a song is only as good as the singer." I don't know if there's a commonly used phrase with that construction and concept (it looks like there isn't), but that's how I'd put it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:20 AM on April 28, 2008

vytae and Metroid Baby are getting pretty close. But baby/bathwater comparison is pretty broad. A good message is more like the bathwater, but it can take a long time to clean it up after the baby releases one microgram of poop.
posted by Araucaria at 10:44 AM on April 28, 2008

Perhaps not what you're looking for, but I'm partial to "The messenger had it coming."
posted by fvw at 10:53 AM on April 28, 2008

"do kill the messenger" - too hostile?
posted by you're only jung once at 10:55 AM on April 28, 2008

"He who smell't it, dealt it."
posted by briank at 11:40 AM on April 28, 2008

I'm beginning to think the reason there isn't a pithy aphorism is because there's more than one pith. All of these are sort of relevant:
  • You can't see the forest for the trees.
  • Don't let one little cloud ruin your whole day.
  • There's a bad apple in every bunch.
  • The song hasn't found its singer.
  • That's like hiring a fox to guard the henhouse. (if you trust a malicious bearer of bad news)
  • Taste the soup before you season it.
I guess what I want to convey is that there might be a bigger picture, even if you can't see all of it yet.
posted by Araucaria at 12:16 PM on April 28, 2008

It finally came to me why this seems like an old idea: Noah and the raven. Even when Noah tried sending out a dove, it took 3 tries before he got the information he was looking for.
posted by Araucaria at 1:05 PM on April 28, 2008

"A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house." --- Jesus (who, really, ought to know).
posted by SPrintF at 1:33 PM on April 28, 2008

"Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" - while not exactly the opposite, means you should at least be wary of the messenger and their motives
posted by falconred at 5:20 PM on April 28, 2008

"Take it with a grain of salt."

(Surprised no one's said it already.)
posted by saveyoursanity at 8:46 PM on April 28, 2008

consider the source?
posted by GaelFC at 9:29 PM on April 28, 2008

These are more "focus on the message, not the messenger" than "don't trust the messenger:"

"It is the tale, not he who tells it." (Stephen King)
"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
posted by zanni at 1:32 AM on April 29, 2008

Thanks, zanni, you nailed it.

Perhaps my cogitation about this filtered into the ether somehow, because in Obama's speech after the Indiana & North Carolina primaries, he asked us not to give up on the message because it comes from an imperfect messenger.
posted by Araucaria at 2:33 PM on May 8, 2008

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