Time to stop
shooting the messenger
Quite a few messages have been going around during the pandemic about ‘Don’t Shoot The Messenger,’ so I decided to focus on this as it applies to all spheres of life and leadership. It’s something I have been telling young graduates for over 20 years during my lectures on leadership and finance-related subjects.
I caution them that if they are going into the world of finance they are going to have to develop a thick skin and high degree of resilience. They need to accept that one day they are going to be the messenger of bad news, as news by its nature is never only good. And they need to accept that the messenger is often shot or blamed as people don’t want to receive or acknowledge bad news.
The origin of shooting the messenger goes back to ancient times when kings and armies used messengers to communicate with each other. Very often, when messengers delivered bad news, they suffered the consequences, often with their lives. In about 440BC Sophocles referenced this in his play Antigone with the line: No man delights in the bearer of bad news.
The tendency to blame the messenger has persisted as a psychological reality to today. Share bad news and people might not kill you, but they will tend to blame you or like you less or avoid you. Especially when the stakes are high, and the perfect example is the Covid-19 pandemic, it becomes even more challenging, with so many conspiracy theories flying about, shared on social media or tweets or spoken about.
From theories about attempts by certain countries to take over the world by causing the virus in order to change the economic order to theories about laboratories deliberately releasing the virus and then coming up with the vaccine to cure it so that they can make packets for the associated pharmaceutical companies and investors.
There is no end to the conspiracies as they are driven by the fact that human beings don’t like uncertainty. This extends to our country and President, who, by virtue of his position, is the national messenger for the pandemic. We don’t like it that we don’t know what the future holds, so when the President shares a message that lockdown is only moving from Level 4 to Level 3, or from Level 3 to 2 only in certain areas, the temptation to turn on him with guns blazing is quite profound.
At the same time it unleashes a new round of conspiracy theories. One of the theories, and I don’t hold this view, is that it suits some politicians to create the idea that Covid-19 is a war to be beaten, which justifies a police state and freedoms being taken away from the citizens. Hence, any delaying of the return to normal by the President is cast in this ‘warmongering’ shadow.
The messenger-shooting scenario is well explained in an article in the American military and security studies journal JFQ 2018 by First Lieutenant Michael P. Ferguson titled Don’t Shoot the Messenger—Demoshthenes, Churchill, and the Consensus Delusion, repeats itself in contexts—Ferguson is the American Aide de Camp to the Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations and Intelligence, Allied Joint Force Command–Brunssum, Netherlands.
He illustrates the strong parallels between Churchill and Demosthenes (4th Century BC Greek statesman in ancient Athens) and what is happening today: Sadly, the stories of Demosthenes and Churchill are the bookends to a long and ignoble history of marginalizing the bearer of bad news, or shooting the messenger, that endures into the 21st century. These “blind spots” usually appear in the wake of protracted or debilitating wars, or during periods of economic instability when offensive military action–or the maintenance of a robust defense–are less palatable to populations beleaguered by war and economic depression.
He makes that point that in both cases when Churchill and Demosthenes raised concerns about decisions taken to disarm, which they felt were more populist than strategic (people were tired of war), they were both accused of being warmongers. In truth, both were vocal about war being horrific but concerned about premature and uncoordinated disarmament for the safety of their nations. In Churchill’s case, his concern about disarmament was during the period between World War I and World War II as he felt that disarmament was only desirable if it strengthened prospects for peace. Their concerns were spot on but as the messengers they were shot down.
The issue at a business level is further discussed by sociologists Vanessa Bowden and Terry Leahy ( both of the University of Newcastle, Australia) in an article titled: Don’t shoot the messenger: How business leaders get their bearings on a matter of science, published in 2016 in the Journal of Sociology
Their article discusses how top scientists and environmentalists warning about the effects of climate change are shot down, just as the scientists and doctors warning about the effects of Covid-19 and what can happen if lockdown is lifted too quickly and the pandemic is not astutely controlled, are shot down. In both cases they are shot down by certain politicians, economists and business people. Why? Because they are either more concerned about their own election or they don’t care or because lockdown is destroying livelihoods and they maintain the lives saved during lockdown will pale in comparison to the economic devastation of keeping closed.
While the latter is obviously a massive issue, instead of weighing up caution and consequence, the response is to shoot the messenger. With Covid-19 the scenario takes a new twist where in South Africa, for example, everyone praised the President for being proactive about early lockdown and everyone was behind him until it continued way beyond the initial 21 days. Then mistrust started growing alongside the uncertainty about when lockdown would end. People stopped trusting the message of science and they stopped trusting the message of politicians. Anyone presenting uncertain or bad news about the pandemic or regarding the economy, joined the escalating number of targets for shooting the messenger.
The late German sociologist Ulrich Beck, quoted by Bowden and Leahy, theorises that a global scale risk like climate change, creates an opposition between global capital, governments and civic movements: Global risks empower states and civic movements … on the other hand, they disempower globalized capital because the consequences of investment decisions give rise to global risks, destabilize markets and awaken the power of the sleeping consumer giant.
Global-scale risks, he adds, break down traditional class allegiances. In the case of climate change, certain sectors of business and labour work together to resist progressive green policies to address climate change because, for example, it means moving away from the coal industry (a threat to business owners’ profits in this industry) and the associated jobs (a threat to labour as they haven’t been reskilled for renewable energy or green jobs). With Covid-19, business and labour are widely working together to call for the economy to open.
To further explore this idea, Bowden and Leahy make use of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1989) theorization of class as a matrix, with class positions based on different forms of ‘capital’. On the one hand there is economic capital, based in material possessions. On the other, there is cultural capital, competence in the skills legitimated by the educational apparatus (mainly intellectuals, including scientists and medical specialists, and all those in the humanities and arts).
These differences are the basis for social antagonism where business owners and industrialists (the rich) share an affinity with the working class, albeit at very different levels of economic capital or material possessions. They are in the opposite camp to those with cultural capital who are not as focused on material possessions and place a high value on knowledge and aesthetics.
Based on this, business and labour, write Bowden and Leahy perceive the warnings of scientists and the instructions of environmentalists as coming from a section of society towards which they have a long-standing animosity—those with high cultural capital and less economic capital than their own.
If we look at how American physician and immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci has come under attack in the US for offering the facts from a medical and scientific perspective, we see how this lobby plays itself out. Fauci is the messenger who is shot down even by President Trump who appointed him, because Trump is focused on being re-elected and he is therefore siding with business and labour about getting back to work. That Fauci has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 does not come into the picture. Why? Because it is his duty to warn people about the danger of rushing back to work, and business and labour do not like his message.
Bourdieu says the only way to solve mega-hazards such as climate change, and we can now add health pandemics to the list, is to take a cosmopolitan approach to risk where civil society, business, labour and science are willing to proactively break down their traditional history of mistrust and come together to find common ground. It won’t be the ideal solution for any sector but it will be good enough to attract wider audience consensus and start bridging opposing positions.
Climate change and Covid-19 has given the world an opportunity to reboot and reassess how we engage with each other, how to have clean air, how to improve our economies for the betterment of all, how to achieve better healthcare for all, how to live together more consciously and stop population-wide scourges such as gender based violence.
No matter how we try to shut ourselves off, we cannot change the fact that we are all connected—the Covid-19 and climate pandemic are the messengers of this. And there are plenty of other messengers that something is very wrong in the world. Who could have predicted that oil would go into negative value?
Has this been enough of a wake up to change our behaviour or will we just revert to the old normal with potentially devastating consequences down the line? We’ve been asking these same questions for many years, but when will we change?
Back in 2008 in an article titled Climate Change, Travel And Complex Futures, the late sociologist John Urry examined various sociologies of the future, which, with alarming prescience, apply to the Covid-19 global pandemic. I’m taking the liberty of quoting a few paragraphs from his conclusion:
So my argument is that two possible sociologies of the future are: regional warlordism and the digital panopticon. Regional warlordism involves a barbarism of unregulated climate change, increased flooding and extreme weather events, the elimination of many existing ‘civilizing’ practices of economic and social life, and the dramatic collapse of long range mobility and related developments of the past decades.
A digital panopticon is an all seeing ‘big brother’ digital system where people are observed 24/7, which, Urry suggests, is inevitable:
The future of human life seems to depend upon moving across a tipping point towards a system based upon the extensive and intensive ‘digitization’ of each self. Such a system of tracking and tracing involves step changes in the character of life. In order that much of the population can continue to move around, a new Faustian bargain to be struck fast. This involves a digital Orwell-ization of self and society, with more or less no movement without digital tracing and tracking.
This may tame the car system (and other energy systems) if many developments take place simultaneously, including the tracking and tracing of each person’s carbon allowance which should come to function as the public measure of worth andstatus. So life goes on and indeed extensive co-presence through travel wouldbe still achievable for many, but only because each individual self is trackedand traced enabling the individualized car-system to tip into a nexus, organicvehicle system.
But moving to the digital panopticon model of a nexus vehicle system is beset with enormous difficulties, especially cost, the problems of implementing on a worldwide scale, and likely opposition on grounds of curbing the ‘freedom to drive’ and thethreats to the ‘freedom of the individual’ resulting from its panoptic character.
This will require exceptional political leadership worldwide to ensure thatpolitical rights are significantly protected if the scenario of the digital panopticon is developed.
So far there is no sign whatsoever that states recognize the sheer economic, social and political complexities of implementing a sociology of the future that would dramatically slow down the rate of carbon emissions without huge reductions in certain kinds of personal freedom.
Urry passed away in 2016, so he didn’t live to experience the Covid-19 pandemic or what the complex future holds and what personal freedom means. Do we barricade every country and adopt a stance of every country and continent for themselves or do we accept digital systems that allow us to travel but that require the t tracking of all our movements through technology inserted into our smartphones. Through contact tracing it would raise the alert if we come into contact with someone with the virus but is this a step too far in curtailing freedom of movement? In the same breadth, do we keep locked down or open up and build herd immunity?
These are very complex issues, but however we choose to move forward, business, science and civil society need to find ways to meet each and stop shooting each other’s messengers. Business is saying you have to trust us enough when we say we will make sure our people are safe. Science is saying you need to trust that we are conveying findings to try and keep people healthy, we are not trying to destroy livelihoods and freedom.
Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to decide what freedom means but to reach any cosmopolitan resolutions is going to require considerable leadership to weigh up so many different viewpoints and find the most effective way forward—a way where the social consequences are balanced with economic and ecological sustainability; where people can step into life again, feeling free but committed to mutual safety and to a future where cultural, environmental and economic capital are on the same side.
Professor Owen Skae,
Director of Rhodes Business School