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Tall Poppy Syndrome

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Tall Poppy Syndrome
Tall Poppy Syndrome
(TPS) is a pejorative term used in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to describe what is seen as a levelling social attitude. Someone is said to be suffering from tall poppy syndrome when his or her assumption of a higher economic, social or political position attracts criticism, being perceived as presumptuous, attention seeking or without merit. Alternately, it is seen as a societal trait in which people of genuine merit are criticized or resented because the attention given them elevates them above their peers.

The term originates from accounts in Aristotle’s Politics (Book 5, Chapter 10) and Livy’s History of Rome, Book I. Aristotle wrote: “Periander advised Thrasybulus by cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn, meaning that he must always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest.” In Livy’s account, the tyrannical Roman King, Tarquin the Proud, received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquinius went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

This phenomenon is often interpreted as being based on and resulting from a resentment of others’ success[citation needed]. On the other side of the coin, however, such critics see themselves, not as jealous, but as justly deflating the pretensions of those who take themselves too seriously or flaunt their success without due humility.[citation needed] Apparent cases of tall poppy syndrome are thus often explained as resentment not of success but of snobbery and arrogance. Those whose approach to success is seen as suitably humble can escape. Some Australasians who have achieved success and wealth without attracting such hostility include Dick Smith and Stephen Tindall

Tall poppy syndrome is frequently invoked as an explanation when a public figure is on the receiving end of negative publicity — even if such publicity can be seen as a result of that person’s own misconduct.[citation needed] In Australia, this claim has been made in the cases involving John Laws, Alan Jones, Alan Bond, Ray Williams, Carl Williams.

Belief in the strength of this cultural phenomenon, and the degree to which it represents a negative trait, is to some extent influenced by politics. Conservative commentators often criticise Australians for their alleged desire to punish the successful. Sometimes, tall poppy syndrome is claimed to be linked to the concept of ‘The Politics of Envy’. Critics of the tall poppy syndrome sometimes declare that the United States is relatively free of “tall poppy” attitudes. Americans are thought to appreciate the successful, seeing them as an example to admire and attempt to emulate. In the cultures of the UK and Commonwealth nations, such commentators assert, many resent success of their fellows.

In Australia, tall poppy syndrome is thought to be on the wane:

Top of the decline list is what is know as the “tall poppy syndrome,” a phrase used to denote the ordinary Australia’s lack of respect for wealth, power and assorted pretensions. Tall poppies could once expect to be cut down. This social leveling attitude went hand in hand with belief in concepts such as giving everyone a “a fair go.” This was a working man’s country which believed — in theory at least — in a fair distribution of income and wealth, thanks in part to some of the world’s most highly unionized workers plus a highly formalized system of wage bargaining and of compulsory arbitration of labor disputes. But where once the “tall poppy syndrome” was a source of pride for many Australians, it is now widely viewed as an obstacle to success, wealth creation and excellence. None other than [former] prime minister John Howard has argued, “If there’s one thing we need to get rid of in this country it is our tall poppy syndrome.

Those who view themselves as victims of tall poppy syndrome can also be seen as elitists or narcissists. Such people would interpret criticism of their anti-social, sociopathic, corrupt or exploitative behaviour as unjustified because they are, in fact, intrinsically special. A related Australian cultural trait is that of Mateship which prizes equality, loyalty and friendship, i.e. the working-class ethos.

Some commentators[citation needed] have argued that tall poppy syndrome is a universal phenomenon, that is more common in some cultures. The concepts of janteloven, or “Jante law”, in Scandinavia, and A kent yer faither (English: I knew your father) in Scotland, are very similar. Similar phenomena are said to exist in the Netherlands and American minority communities. Benjamin Franklin Fairless, president of United States Steel Corporation (1950), criticized such behaviour when he stated: “You cannot strengthen one by weakening another; and you cannot add to the stature of a dwarf by cutting off the leg of a giant.

A related concept is that of a crab mentality in which members of a disadvantaged community are seen as undermining the success of community members. The image is drawn from the observation that a crab clawing its way out of a bucket (or barrel in other versions) is pulled back down by his fellows.

The Japanese proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is particularly well known, although this proverbial phrase applies more to conforming to social conventions than to resentment of high achievement and the accumulation of wealth. Also closely related is the German concept of “Schadenfreude” or epicaricacy, meaning pleasure taken from someone else’s misfortune.

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