Blame the Messenger After All?

In my latest FindLaw column, I argue that it is not necessarily a sign of human irrationality when we forgo a benefit to ourselves that would have been distributed unfairly. I suggest that such "spiteful" behavior may be occurring right now, in the context of mass opposition to recent (and proposed future) bailouts, and that it mirrors other, highly respectable, instances of our legal system's sacrificing overall wealth enhancement for distributional fairness. Here I want to discuss another apparently irrational behavior that, in fact, may reflect the same phenomenon as spite: the inclination to "kill the messenger."

When a person brings us bad news, our tendency is to be angry with the person who brought us the news (and, if we are angry enough and enjoy monarchical power, kill that person). The irrational aspect of such conduct is clear – a person who tells us bad news did not create the circumstances that generated the bad news; he or she is simply conveying information.

On second thought, however, in an age when most of us do not have official messengers, the person who bears news – whether good or bad – is likely to be pursuing an agenda rather than neutrally conveying facts. This is, after all, what readers mean when they identify a "media bias" in favor of a particular point of view. One example that I notice from time to time is the eager presentation of data to the public whenever a study indicates the possibility that children with a parent "at home" might fare even slightly better than children in daycare. The agenda: keep professional women (the ones who might have the option of becoming full-time mothers) out of the workforce.

These days, what may leap into our consciousness is the fact that the administration officials who originally argued for the urgency of a 700 billion dollar bailout have previously exhibited a desire for unbridled discretion to address "emergencies" (even when their discretion might include the option of violating the law). When people who mock the "reality-based community" and speak of creating their own reality come to us with facts, it is particularly rational and understandable for us to question not only the accuracy of the facts themselves but also the innocence and neutrality of those who claim simply to be reporting those facts. Mightn't the messenger who previously who pressed for less oversight of business be properly blamed when announcing the consequences of de-regulation in the course of asking for a huge amount of money?

Perhaps this is a limited phenomenon, though. Are messengers always to be blamed? Maybe not, but it is no accident that someone communicating news – even people other than Bush officials – will have some action they want their listeners to take in response to the news. When so much human behavior is an effort at manipulation, the rationality of directing anger, skepticism and ultimately blame at people who announce that something terrible has happened may be the most sensible course. Now that the bailout plan has been modified in a variety of ways and accepted by the leadership of both parties in Congress, as well as both Presidential candidates, perhaps the messenger will prove more worthy of belief.

Posted by Sherry Colb