Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall poppy syndrome (TPS) is a pejorative term primarily used in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and other Anglosphere nations to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.

Australia’s usage of the term has evolved and is not uniformly negative. In Australia, a long history of ‘underdog’ culture and profound respect for humility in contrast to that of Australia’s English feudal heritage results in a different understanding of the concept.

The term originates from accounts by ancient Greek historian Herodotus: ‘He (Periander) had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the corn, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Cypselus, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Cypselus, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner.

Aristotle uses Herodotus’ story in his ‘Politics,’  referring to Thrasybulus’ advice to Periander to ‘take off the tallest stalks, hinting thereby, that it was necessary to make away with the eminent citizens.’ The specific reference to poppies occurs in Livy’s account of the tyrannical Roman King, Tarquin the Proud. He is said to have 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, Tarquin 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 realized that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

The phrase can be found as early as 1864 in a controversy over the awarding of a knighthood: ‘It is more difficult to find a similar recommendation for such a dignity as the Order of the Garter. But then it derives a collateral value from the fact that it is always given either to people of singular distinction, or else to men whose social position is sufficient to make them formidable to the Minister of the day. It is a kind of public proclamation that you are a tall poppy and that, as in these days your head cannot be struck off, it is worth while to buy you.’

The phrase has been in more common use since Jack Lang, Premier of New South Wales, described his egalitarian policies as ‘cutting the heads off tall poppies’ in 1931. ‘Mr. Lang made some of the tall poppies suffer who could be made to suffer.’ ‘The tall poppies of the party had dragged Mr. Lang’s name into the debate to cloud the issue.’ Of the Australian definition, Peter Hartcher of the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ writes; ‘(Australian) Citizens know that some among them will have more power and money than others… But according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of leveling derision. It has a name – The ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome.’ The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others. This is sometimes misunderstood… It isn’t success that offends Australians. It’s the affront committed by anyone who starts to put on superior airs.’

Prior to becoming British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher explained her philosophy to an American audience as ‘let your poppies grow tall.’ 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. Tall poppy syndrome is related to what some conservatives, liberals, and libertarians call ‘the politics of envy’. Some commentators have argued that tall poppy syndrome is a universal phenomenon, that is more common in some cultures. The concepts of the ‘Law of Jante,’ in Scandinavia, and ‘A kent yer faither’ (‘I knew your father’) in Scotland, are very similar. Similar phenomena are said to exist in the Netherlands (where it is called ‘maaiveldcultuur’). In the USA, Benjamin Franklin Fairless, president of United States Steel Corporation (1950), criticized such behavior 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.’

Some sociologists, notably Max Weber, believe that in certain social groups, the acquisition of prestige and power is a zero-sum game, and this situation may provide a rationalization for the hatred of ‘tall poppies.’ In such groups, there is only a limited amount of prestige for its members to share in and only a fixed quantity of attention, authority and material resources that its members can give to each other. Status is a relative value, so for someone to rise in status, another person must fall. A person who is more prestigious is an obstacle to another person’s rise simply by being more prestigious, and a person who suddenly rises is an outright threat to the other’s current status. Humiliating or sabotaging a popular member of the group will lower that person’s status and thus make it possible for the aggressor to supplant him in the group hierarchy.

This zero-sum pattern can be found in small groups characterized by fixed hierarchies and where there is little movement in or out of the group. Examples include poor American communities and some street gangs. A related concept is that of a crab mentality in which members of a disadvantaged community are seen as undermining the success of other 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.


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