What's the origin of the phrase "we shouldn’t just be pulling people out of the river. We should be going upstream to find out who’s pushing them in"?

More yak-shaving for my MSc. A book I read was discussing data pipeline problems. How so much of the work of ETL is cleaning up crappy data and reformatting it to something useful.

We should be going to the source of the data, the book suggested. Rather than wasting time cleaning - get better at production. Or, as it pithily put it:

Photo of Desmond Tutu next to the quote.

Whenever I see a generic quote like that, attributed to an authority figure, my Spider-Sense goes haywire. Did they really say that? Where's the evidence?

First step, as always, Twitter!

Twitter's quite a good way to search for something like this. Now that I have an upper-bound for the quote, I don't need to waste time looking in books published after that date.

WikiQuote is another good source, a discussion there was unable to source the quote.

Lots of places have it as a Tutu quote - without giving a specific date or place where he said it. Even the Noble foundation and the Sydney Peace Foundation use the quote. So it isn't just mawkish fluff on Pinterest.

My Internet minions good online friends help track down an early source of the quote.

That leads us to the 1975 paper "A Case For Refocusing Upstream: The Political Economy Of Illness" by John B. McKinlay"

My friend, Irving Zola, relates the story of a physician trying to explain the dilemmas of the modern practice of medicine:
“You know," he said, “sometimes it feels like this.There I am standing by the shore of a swiftly flowing river and I hear the cry of a drowning man. So I jump into the river, put my arms around him, pull him to shore and apply artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, there is another cry for help. So I jump into the river, reach him, pull him to shore, apply artificial respiration, and then just as he begins to breathe, another cry for help. So back in the river again, reaching, pulling, applying, breathing and then another yell. Again and again,without end, goes the sequence. You know, I am so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore, applying artificial respiration, that I have no time to see who the hell is upstream pushing them all in.”1

That reference points to "I.K. Zola, “Helping Does It Matter: The Problems and Prospects of Mutual Aid Groups.” Addressed to the United Ostomy Association, 1970."

Now, Tutu has been going since well before then (and long may he continue to do so) - but this gives us another earlier bound for our investigations. Did anyone say it prior to 1970-75?

First up, can wee see that original paper by Zola? No. There's a similarly named one at https://doi.org/10.1037/h0091061

Address  delivered  at  the  Annual Convention  of  the  United  Osteory  Association,  Boston,Mass.,  August  29,  1970.  My  thanks for  editorial  and  substantive  suggestions  go  to   EdithLenneberg,  Mara Sanadi ana Beatrice  Wright. Dr.  Zola  is  Professor  of  Sociology,  Brandeis  University,   Waltham,   Massachusetts

But that 1972 reprinting doesn't have the (in)famous "Rivers" anecdote. I've contacted a past-president of the UOA to see if they have copies of the original, but no luck yet.

There are a cluster of mentions of "going upstream to see why people are falling in" in the 1971 record of the US congress:

Dr. Reginald Lourie, Chairman of the President's Commission on the Mental Health of Children, tell the story of several men who saw a child in the river, drowning. They rushed out and rescued him. Suddenly, while applying artificial respiration, they noticed there were two more children in the river and they rushed out and saved them. Then there were four more children, then eight and 16. They began calling tor help and marshalling greater resources to form a human chain to save the children who were drowning in alarmingly increasing numbers. At last one of the men broke away from the group on the bank and walked away up the river. The others yelled. "Where are you going? You have to help us save these children "The hell with that," he replied, "I'm going upstream to see who's pushing them in,"

So Dr Lourie was also using the story in 1971 - albeit in saltier language!

I've no idea if Lourie and Zola met - or whether it was just one of those zeitgeist tales which was doing the rounds back then.

Perhaps Tutu read it, or heard it somewhere, and then retold it? Perhaps... but there are fairly complete archives of his writing, speeches, and marginalia. There's absolutely no evidence to suggest he said anything even remotely resembling the quote.

But someone, probably in the early part of the 2010s, linked his name to it. A meme was born. And who can be arsed to fact check a fucking meme?


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8 thoughts on “What's the origin of the phrase "we shouldn’t just be pulling people out of the river. We should be going upstream to find out who’s pushing them in"?”

  1. Judy Oehler Fountain says:

    As a psychology student many years ago , I heard this story told as an old African tale. Perhaps it has an oral tradition.

  2. Sleepy Joe says:

    Perhaps oral traditions are born when someone attributes a modern construct to oral tradition.

  3. Ken Dutton says:

    I was also sceptical {of the Tutu attribution} as I had heard it as an anecdote from a Canadian child psychiatrist (name long since forgotten) possibly also another misattribution of the Lourie reference above.
    Boy it's complicated - but interesting to see someone actually trying to track this back to source..... good luck in that endeavour .

  4. Willy says:

    I heard the "River Story" as retold, though not originating with the community organizer Saul Alinsky in the middle 1950s from a psychology professor ~1975 who had lived in Chicago.

    1. @edent says:

      Thanks for that. I've taken a brief look through his works, but can't find where Alinsky wrote that. I see lots of people quoting him without reference.

  5. says:

    I'm not even sure anymore that Irving Zola used the parable at all in his 1970 talk to the Ostomy (or is it 'Osteory', as the APA calls it??) association


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