It wasn’t, of course – as John Armstrong in the New Zealand Herald understands.
And Key knew that too. All his protests to the contrary amount to him pulling our collective leg.
So what was it?
As I’ve commented before, Key presents himself as someone who just loves to ‘muck around’. He’s such a relaxed, ordinary guy with so few airs that he doesn’t mind having a joke, pulling a prank and having others on.
That, at any rate, is the euphemistic self-description he – and his defenders – routinely trot out.
But there’s much more to his behaviour than that. And what the ‘more’ is tells us a lot about not only John Key but also our world in general and the New Zealand political environment in particular.
The Prime Minister’s supposed love of ‘fun’ actually has many aspects – pulling hair, pulling pranks, pulling rank and ‘pulling power’. It’s also now about ‘pulling a swiftie’.
When the waitress at the centre of the events went public in a post at ‘The Daily Blog‘, she detailed a pattern of continued harassment of her by the Prime Minister. The ponytail pulling was the centre-piece of that claimed harassment.
The first point to highlight, though, is that the so-called hair pulling was as much the vehicle of the harassment as it was the harassment itself.
The general demeanour and responses of the Prime Minister – to the expressions, gestures and words of the waitress that were described in the post – paint a damning picture of an all too common predatory and aggressive attitude expressed under the guise of humour.
In fact, it’s so common that it seems some people think it’s therefore no big deal. Given that, it’s worth reminding ourselves of just what happened, according to the waitress’ account:
I stood with my back to him filling water glasses, and he pulled my hair before once again pointing the blame at Bronagh. I couldn’t believe it, he was still persisting and by now he had definitely got the message that I was not enjoying it – that seemed to be why he was enjoying it so damn much.
Despite my best efforts to avoid the situation, without literally running away, he just couldn’t help himself and still attempted, from directly in front of me, to reach around behind me in search of my hair, as he walked by.
As he approached me he thought it would be fitting to raise his hands high and make scary, suspense sound effects, like the music from the movie Jaws that we all know so well, and still gestured as if to reach behind me. As he towered overhead I slunk down, cringing, whilst Bronagh told him to “leave the poor girl alone”. I looked him in the eye and asked “is it self defence, with your security here, if I have to physically stop you from touching me?” and he countered, with a smile, “defence against what?”.
If this account is accurate it’s clear that John Key was well aware of the continuing discomfort he was creating for the waitress. The childish recourse to “scary, suspense sound effects“, for example, only makes sense – is only ‘funny’ (!?) – if he knows the level of discomfort he is inflicting.
What this account describes is not just ‘hair pulling’ but a process of toying with a person in a way that is known to be unwelcome and not remotely enjoyed by them. One telling phrase is “defence against what?” … delivered with a smile.
In other words, ‘I know perfectly well what it is a defence against – but defence is pointless because I can always say ‘I’m only joking!”.
The other telling phrase comes from his wife Bronagh Key: “leave the poor girl alone“. It’s a phrase you only use when you detect deliberate teasing and bullying. Did Bronagh – like the waitress – also not appreciate her husband’s harmless, ‘fun loving’ nature?
My guess is that, in saying that and in knowing her husband all too well, Bronagh Key was in a perfect position to appreciate just what her husband was doing in these continued interactions with the waitress – harassing her.
There is also a further disturbing aspect to Key’s behaviour that others have implied or alluded to.
Some have directly labeled his handling of the waitress’ hair and that of various young girls as a ‘fetish’ – e.g., John Armstrong states “It would also be a good idea to suggest to the Prime Minister that he gets his pigtail [sic] fetish under control“.
[Others have now even inserted an entry – presumably mischievous – in the Wikipedia post on ‘Hair Fetishism’ that has a one-person list of ‘Famous Hair Fetishists‘ that features the Prime Minister – Edit: now deleted from the Wikipedia post, though the title still exists. Update: His name is back up on the site – here’s a screen shot
As that same post explains “A fetishist may enjoy seeing or touching hair, pulling on or cutting the hair of another person. Besides enjoyment they may become sexually aroused from such activities.”
Formal diagnosis being what it is, it would be purely speculative to claim that John Key has such a condition. But irrespective of a formal diagnosis it certainly seems – at least from the waitress’ account – that John Key does gain pleasure from and, to that extent, has desires related to touching other people’s hair.
For example, he is said to have stated that the waitress’ ponytail was “tantalising” which is a clear reference to desirability. It also seems that he both mentally focuses upon and pays attention to women’s and girl’s hair.
The innocent explanation would be that such attention is based on aesthetic and perhaps sensuous pleasure. Hair – especially women’s hair – has been elevated to aesthetic and even erotic status in many cultures as fairy tales such as Rapunzel make clear. Modern-day advertisements for shampoo exploit just such a cultural tradition. The fetishisation and commodification of women’s hair, in that context, is just one more aspect of our particular culture’s treatment of women.
In and of itself, hair fetishism is not usually viewed as a concerning condition. And the point is not whether or not the Prime Minister has a mild paraphilia. But, as I’ll discuss below, the more serious aspect is when whatever interest he has in women’s hair overlaps with high status and power.
The hair-pulling, according to John Key, was just part of “horsing around” – a popular pastime at his local watering hole apparently – and his predisposition to be ‘casual’ and just to have ‘fun’.
In this interview on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, Key’s own words – expressed some days after the initial blog post by the waitress – provides us with his ‘reflections’ on his own behaviour.
It was a place of “fun” and “hi jinks“, apparently, although it’s unclear just how much ‘fun’ and ‘hi jinks’ of this kind there would be without the presence of John Key – he may have been the one-man fun fair at the café. Absent John Key the place would presumably have been much the same – on the ‘fun and hi jinks’ scale as any other café
But let’s get back to his own words:
You know, it’s been one of my strengths that I’m pretty causal and laid back and good for a laugh a lot of times but, but that’s also led to a situation where I’ve been too casual, having too much fun, if you like, in the situation and playing along a little bit and that’s .. aah … very silly on my part.
This is quite a well-crafted ‘reflection’ (no doubt done without any advice from his PR advisors or the latest polling by David Farrar’s Curia polling agency). It positions John Key as the “good for a laugh” guy who was, perhaps, innocently “having too much fun” in the way that, as we are reminded, has (until now) “been one of [his] strengths“.
Yet, in a dour world that has no tolerance – it seems – for such lighthearted banter and horse-play John Key stands, contrite, having to publicly confess his ‘silliness’ like a witness at the McCarthy hearings or Stalinist show trials having to ‘confess’ their treasonous iniquity.
Or that at least is the clever inference that his spin on the events invites us to take.
In the misty hinterland of Key’s reflective musings it’s almost as if Don McLean’s song ‘Vincent’ (about the tormented and suffering Dutch artist) could have been written for our Prime Minister’s current plight …
“I could have told you [John] this [PC?] world was never meant for one as [fun-loving] as you …”
[Then, the plaintive final chorus!]
“Now I think I know, what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your [hilarity]
And how you tried to set them free
They [your critics] would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will …”
Yes, a very well-crafted ‘reflection’ on Key’s part.
Unfortunately, however, it does put all of Key’s explanatory eggs into the ‘light-hearted’, ‘fun’loving’, “horsing around” category – and that is not necessarily a safe place to store them.
Pulling Pranks – aka ‘horsing around’
The use of ‘humour’ to defend and deny offensive attitudes and behaviour is common-place – and we are all familiar with the strategy. The aggressive use of humour is all about power assertion and power hierarchies, as a 2009 German study found:
The research, which was published in the Journal of Pragmatics, suggest that the role of humour is not to make other people laugh as much as it is to make others know who is in charge.
“Those ‘on top’ are freer to make others laugh. They are also freer to be more aggressive and a lot of what is funny is making jokes at someone else’s expense.
“Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status, which before the 1960s meant women rarely made other people laugh – they couldn’t afford to.
“Comedy and satire are based on aggressiveness and not being nice,” she said. “Until the 1960s it was seen as unladylike to be funny. But even now women tend to prefer telling jokes at their own expense and men tend to prefer telling jokes at other people’s expense.”
She said humour, including teasing, was a mix of ‘bonding and biting‘ … both sexes use comedy as a means of controlling others.
She said: “For example, doctors sometimes use humour to comfort patients but also to silence them if, for example, the patient displays too much knowledge of a medical condition.
“Nurses and midwives tend to tell jokes about patients but not when the doctor is present. And when someone initiates a joke they tend to be ignored if they are in the presence of someone of a higher status.”
As this very interesting chapter on ‘Humor as Aggressive Communication‘ makes clear – it really is worth a read if you want to understand the variety of functions of humour – the capacity for humour to be a tool of aggression and control has long been recognised:
Distinguishing between innocent and tendentious jokes, Freud (1960) characterized hostile humor as “disguised aggressiveness” (p. 129). He asserted that by using hostile jokes, one is able to evade the demonstration of overt aggression against another person.
This uncontroversial point about the interpersonal use of humour puts John Key’s defence of his behaviour as being simply “fun and games” and “horsing around” in a very different light from the one he presumably intends.
The question, that is, isn’t whether or not Key likes to characterise himself as a ‘joker’. Instead, it’s what he uses his ‘joking’ for?
If the waitress’ account is anything to go by, it seems his ‘banter’ had the effect on the waitress of dominating, demeaning and cowing her while, simultaneously, asserting his power in the situation.
As the research on humour makes clear, far from being entirely ‘innocent’ and ‘naive’ such “horsing around” may function primarily to aggress against and control others.
So, which was it?
If, in this case, the humorous intent was to serve one of the more positive functions of humour – “the expression of affection and the use of humor to identify and connect with others” and “[t]o help others relax and feel comfortable” – then it clearly failed.
At best, that is, Key is an utterly inept innocent ‘joker’ with absolutely no sense of the effects of his ‘pranks’ on others.
But that’s being too generous to the Prime Minister.
Given the evidence for John Key’s enjoyment of the continuing harassment expressed through “horsing around” with the waitress’ hair it could only have served the more negative functions of humour – “the use of humor to demean and belittle others as a form of entertainment” and “[t]o control others“.
In other words, Key’s humour was – and, in fact, often is when you observe it closely – an exercise in power. It either serves to belittle others (e.g., the ‘gay shirt’ ‘humour’) or enhance his status and ensure he remains at the centre of attention.
Pulling rank – and ‘pulling power’
As many commentators have pointed out, as Prime Minister, John Key has a high social status and considerable power. Such status and power in almost every human society in history (prehistory being something of a different case) confers considerable rights (e.g., to determine the lives of others) and, correspondingly, generates considerable deference and subordinate behaviour amongst the broader population.
As Brent Edwards, political editor at Radio New Zealand National notes under ‘Questions about of Power’:
Questions about power
As Prime Minister, Mr Key carries a lot of power. He is, as he was to the cafe, always accompanied by diplomatic protection squad officers.
It is unlikely serving staff at a cafe would feel confident about challenging him.
Indeed, according to the café owners, John Key is a frequent guest at the place where the waitress worked and the staff do not appear to be in the kind of social and emotional space that might suggest the Prime Minister would ever be challenged:
“The Prime Minister is a regular at Rosie and he’s well loved amongst the staff. He always comes in with his wife Bronagh and his security detail, and the staff are always happy to accommodate them.”
Obviously there was a least one staff member who was an exception to this general adulatory attitude towards John Key but it seems that he certainly has ‘won friends and influenced people’ in that particular environment – which is just the result you would expect for high status individuals in public settings.
High status tends to lead to positive assessment by those of lower status as this interesting article by Anderson et al. (2012) – on why some people choose lower status – makes clear in its introduction:
High social status comes with a wealth of social, material, and psychological benefits. Individuals with higher status enjoy more prestige and respect in the eyes of others (Sherif, White, & Harvey, 1955), more autonomy and control (Berger, Rosenholtz, & Zelditch, 1980), greater access to scarce resources (Savin- Williams, 1979), elevated self-esteem (Barkow, 1975) and better mental and physical health (N. Adler, Epel, Castellazzo, & Ickovics, 2000; Marmot, 2004).
In one sense Key’s power is of course institutional – he is the Prime Minister, travels around with a ‘security detail’ of physically imposing men and, as his government has repeatedly shown, has the power to dispense favours to those he favours.
But whatever the basis of power – institutional and structural or personal and interpersonal – the point is that it enables one person either to get others to do what they might otherwise not do or to prevent others doing what they otherwise would do. That power is enhanced in the ambiguous setting that supposed humour provides.
And Key also has other forms of power than institutional power.
Most obvious is his ‘celebrity status’ in our national ‘celebrity culture’. And celebrity culture is a very modern invention:
The proliferation of celebrities in our culture is relatively recent. In the past, writers and actors sometimes became celebrated, well-known, even famous, but it was seldom something they aspired to. A by-product of exceptional achievement, usually, fame was often awkward for the person thrust into the limelight.
But the media’s voracious appetite for content is, no doubt, the major driver of celebrity culture today.
And it doesn’t take any particular skill, just a good publicist, determination, and the knack of being in front of the cameras. It’s a career.
This celebrity status tends to be more a function of some careful PR management rather than any personal qualities or attributes. It is remarkably easy to get a significant proportion of people to revere – or at least pay special attention to – celebrities merely by repeatedly stating that such persons are celebrities.
Celebrities serve various social and psychological functions – few of them of any intrinsic value. In a world of autonomous fulfilled individuals celebrities would gain little purchase – indeed, hunter-gatherer societies went out of their way to ensure no-one started to think of themselves as a ‘celebrity’.
In essence, celebrity is a technique used to exploit various psychological predispositions – e.g., for spectacle, gossip, deference, social comparison, etc. – in order to achieve economic or political gain.
Leveraging off that celebrity status, however, is the peculiarly political aspect of Key’s fame – his political popularity; his continued high poll ratings; simply, his pulling power.
This is his real power. What has preserved his ‘preferred Prime Minister’ ratings, and a good slice of the voting preferences for National, has been the pulling power of ‘brand Key’.
There is growing dissatisfaction among the business community and elements of the National Party caucus and cabinet about Mr Key’s lack of policy ambition. His prime ministership is kept alive by his personal popularity and the emotional return he draws from it. If either fades, Mr Key will want to throw in the towel.
And, under those circumstances, many on the political right will be pleased to see him go.
If Hooton’s analysis is correct, then it is only Key’s ‘pulling power’ (aka his ‘personal popularity’) that provides him with sufficient power to counter his ‘enemies’ within the National Party caucus and the business community. Without their backing, of course, he has no power to remain Prime Minister.
So John Key’s ‘power’ ultimately resides in the power granted to him by those in the public who support him, approve of him and vote for him.
Lord Acton famously wrote that “”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
A little less famously, he also wrote – a sentence or two before his famous comment – that:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases.
Given that Lord Acton was discussing the power of Pope’s (and the suggestion that they be designated ‘infallible’) he presumably was speaking of the corruption of individuals by the power they are allowed to acquire.
But there’s another way in which power corrupts and it relates directly to Key’s power to pull voters. Power – all power – doesn’t just corrupt those who directly possess it (or are granted it by others); far more importantly, it also tends to corrupt those around about.
Pulling a swiftie
The recent development that involves the waitress’ accusation that an interview between her and Rachel Glucina of the New Zealand Herald (in this article already linked to) was carried out under subterfuge is one of several ‘push backs’ against the waitress’ account of the repeated episodes of hair pulling by John Key.
Here’s another particularly egregious one from Mike Hoskings. As well as reference to “the angry undergrounders on social media” he had this to say about the waitress’ motivation:
To quote the waitress concerned today, “I felt New Zealand should know”. What a puffed up, self-involved pile of political bollocks.
Apparently, the ‘real victims’ were the café owners (who own many cafés beyond the café in question).
Why are they the victims? Well, because the waitress’ claimed “selfishness” in “hanging the Prime Minister out to dry” apparently caused “needless upset and attention to a couple who have done nothing but go about their business“.
The “needless upset and attention” the Prime Minister visited upon the waitress for some reason does not appear to rank quite so highly for Hoskings. Perhaps now that Rachel Glucina – with the involvement, wittingly or otherwise, of the cafe owners – has done her bit to “hang the [waitress] out to dry” Mike Hoskings’ indignation will abate?
If the accusations against Glucina and the Herald are true, it represents a blatant pulling of a ‘swiftie’ – essentially playing a confidence trick on the waitress and, ultimately, on the Herald’s readers.
If it was carried out under subterfuge then it is also a gross violation of journalistic ethics (the allegation was denied by the Herald – the editor’s statement is included at the end of the link above).
But what I want to emphasise is that, given Glucina’s relationship as a committed friend of John Key, if true, the allegation suggests a corruption of the ethical procedures that supposedly underpin mainstream journalism in order to serve the interests of the current Prime Minister.
Power tends to corrupt … and it tends to corrupt everyone associated with it.
By ‘corrupt’ I mean that it distorts and disfigures the way things should be – the way we should interact interpersonally, the way we should make judgments about each other, the way we should treat each other.
And if we, as a society, ever needed evidence of the corrupting influence of the ‘pulling power’ of John Key – and the need continually to maintain that power – then we simply need to look back on the revelations in Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics‘.
The ‘two track’ approach explained there is the almost inevitable result of the corrupting influence of the levels of popularity Key and his supporters try to cultivate and have almost entirely come to depend upon. The sole purpose of having ‘two tracks’ is to ensure the ‘power base’ (i.e., the popularity) continues by maintaining a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the Prime Minister’s public reputation.
The real crime of the waitress has been to ‘shift the points’ so that the two tracks converged bringing the previously parallel trains crashing together.
Or, better, like a burst appendix, the ‘cordon sanitaire’ has been breached and the toxic fluids are now flowing in the open, in public sight, around the body politic. And the cordon was breached by the only person really capable of breaching it – the Prime Minister himself.
The waitress’ feelings were right – this is something that “New Zealand should know“.
The tendency to ‘corrupt’ our politics flows from Key’s popularity – the basis of his power. That tendency goes much further than Key himself. It even goes beyond those who most intimately associate themselves with him and whose interests are tied up with that power.
I suspect that it also tends to corrupt the judgment of that proportion of the population who have invested heavily (psychologically) in the popularity, the ‘Kiwiness’ and the ‘ordinariness’ of John Key.
Aligning oneself with the powerful, identifying – vicariously – with their power involves paying a price. That price is the withering of one’s independent moral faculty.
More simply, it involves continuing to support the powerful when they do wrong, when they have abused their power. It involves finding any excuse to attack those who reveal the truth about the powerful person to whose star you have psychologically hitched your wagon.
When Cyndi Lauper sang her pop hit ‘Girls just wanna have fun‘ it referenced a group in society (women – revealingly called ‘girls’ in the song) which has (relatively) little power.
Here’s a reminder of the positive vitality of ‘girls just wanting to have fun’:
By contrast, when powerful people are ‘having fun’ the most likely motives are to assert their power, maintain and enhance their status over others and indulge their desires, irrespective of the upset it may cause.
When powerful people like the Prime Minister ‘just wanna have fun’, when they are up to some ‘hi jinks’ and generally “horsing around” in public there’s one thing you can almost guarantee: Those who are without power in the midst of the hilarity – such as the waitress at Rosie’s – won’t be having much fun.
All in all, if the Prime Minister were any more ‘lighthearted’ he’d have no heart left at all.