Tall Poppy Syndrome by Angela Caldin

Definition of Tall Poppy Syndrome

I had never heard the term Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) until I came to New Zealand. But once I’d heard it, I kept on hearing it, so I decided to find out what it meant. It’s a term frequently used to describe a phenomenon in which people of success and merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements raise them above the norm. They are seen in some way as a threat.

History of Tall Poppy Syndrome

The specific metaphor concerning the cutting down of tall poppies occurs in Livy’s account of the Roman King, Tarquin. He is said to have received a messenger from his son Sextus in Gabii, asking for advice on how to rule. Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and swept it across the flowers, cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies. When the messenger reported what he had seen, Sextus realised that his father’s advice was to kill all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

This same approach was put forward by Machiavelli, author of The Prince, based in Florence during the Renaissance. As a political scientist, Machiavelli emphasised the occasional need for brute force to purge the community of those strong enough to rule, who would inevitably attempt to replace the ruler. In other words, he advised the elimination of tall poppies.

More Recent Examples of Tall Poppy Syndrome

An example nearer our time is that of Trotsky. After leading a failed struggle against the policies and rise of Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and the increasing role of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Trotsky was removed from power, expelled from the Communist Party, and finally deported. He continued to oppose the Stalinist bureaucracy in exile in Mexico where he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, a tall poppy who even in exile was perceived as a threat to the state.

In our own century is Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukrainian politician. She co-led the Orange Revolution and was twice Prime Minister. Tymoshenko was a candidate in the presidential elections of 2010, but lost to Viktor Yanukovych. Since then several criminal cases have been brought against her and in 2011, she was sentenced to seven years in prison after she was found guilty of abuse of office over a gas deal with Russia. The European Union and other international organisations see the conviction as ‘justice being applied selectively under political motivation’. In other words, as a tall poppy, her political rivals wish to silence her. Worse still, in January this year, Tymoshenko was told she was a suspect in the killing of an MP and businessman in 1996.

Evolved Meaning of Tall Poppy Syndrome

Nowadays, TPS is not only concerned with threats to the state and the preservation of power, nor do its practitioners use only the weapons of killing and imprisonment. They use the weapon of words to bring down people who are successful achievers, sniping, criticising and pushing for their downfall. The media play a huge role in this, ferreting into possible romantic indiscretions, tax evasion or underhand financial dealings. Two examples in the UK spring to mind: Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer, both successful politicians, until they were found to have committed perjury and to have perverted the course of justice, both ending up in prison. Newspapers played a big part in their downfall, although both maintained their innocence until the bitter end, claiming the high moral ground until they were exposed as having feet of clay.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well in New Zealand. People with TPS will cut down with words those who succeed or who have a talent. It’s a negative, passive-aggressive response to achievement, a tendency to rubbish those who succeed, an envious desire to keep someone at the same level as everyone else. A recent example is Paul Henry, presenter of Breakfast on TVNZ1. Henry was a controversial presenter whose sometimes outrageous remarks made him admired by some, but unpopular with others. Finally, he made two remarks considered racist, and both press and public were out for his head. He bowed to pressure and resigned. Many rejoiced at his downfall, thinking it well deserved as he had appeared too cocky by half. Meanwhile, rugby players such as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter seen immune to such attacks, perhaps because they lack arrogance and are perceived as ‘good blokes’.

Mrs Thatcher and Tall Poppy Syndrome

I’m surprised to find myself quoting Mrs Thatcher in opposition to TPS. She said in a speech to an American audience: “I believe you have a saying: ‘Don’t cut down the tall poppies. Let them rather grow tall.’ I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so. Because we must build a society in which each citizen can develop his full potential, both for his own benefit and for the community as a whole, a society in which originality, skill, energy and thrift are rewarded, in which we encourage rather than restrict the variety and richness of human nature.”

Stirring words indeed, but what a pity she didn’t practise what she preached.

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