Why we need the Aaron Gilmore story

Don’t we know who he is? Aaron Gilmore wore a name tag just in case.

Media in my country, NZ, have been having a field day with the story of MP Aaron Gilmore who is a lowly ranked politician yet, apparently, quite puffed up in terms of his ego. He has popularised a saying “Do you know who I am??” to the point that I’d bet good money that it will appear on a t-shirt before the end of the month.

In this case he used the phrase when shouting at a waiter who had wisely refused to serve the MP any more alcohol.  Gilmore threatened to have the waiter sacked, and stated more or less that all he had to do was call the Prime Minister’s office and make it happen. In embarrassment Gilmore’s own friends marked the occasion by leaving the restaurant or, in the case of a lawyer friend, apologising to the restaurant.

Gilmore, must have seen the error in his ways, because next day he issued a powerful apology of his own. Powerful? get this:

  1. It was on Twitter rather than in person.
  2. It tried to frame the rowdy behaviour as coming from his group – rather than from himself. Eye witnesses said there was only one loudmouth in the room.
  3. It used the weasel language we’ve all come to loathe: “I apologise if for any reason anyone may have taken offence…” (See the George Carlin video on political language.)

In other words not an apology at all. It incensed the lawyer friend enough that he went to the media with the story.

On the scale of things, Gilmore’s vile behaviour (he later admitted that he’d had one and a half bottles of wine) is small potatoes. The man has been shamed to the point that he’s closed his FB and Twitter accounts, and for the rest of us, the world will keep on spinning.

For me the interesting thing is why these small stories – of stars and leaders – seem to be such rich targets for the public conversation. Why do they become trending topics when they are really so small?

The answer can be explained by the great American sociologist Robert Merton who caused a stir in the early 1950s when he suggested that criminals, while not to be encouraged, actually do society a favour by acting out a passion play in which sin is duly found out and punished. These dramas get tut-tutted by the community and help us affirm acceptable versus unacceptable behaviours.

This is part of the dynamics surrounding reputation. Reputation isn’t just about what people do, but about their motivations for taking their actions. We’ll accept that somebody might get drunk at a restaurant – it is hardly newsworthy. But it does become newsworthy when that person is an MP and he puts his venal pride on display.  Did Gilmore in his intoxicated state reveal his deep sense of humanity?

We expect of MPs at least a show of public service. Gilmore didn’t bother with that – he simply demonstrated through words and actions what  a jumped-up, self-interested prat he could be.

Now it takes more than Gilmore’s actions to get into the headlines. What gave the story traction was the public’s underlying concern that all MPs might be like this. In other words the Aaron Gilmore story was just the proof we were already looking for. His actions fitted like a glove with our worst fears.

I keep returning to this lesson. Reputation depends on three things. What you do. What your real motivations are – are they good and true?  Are your motivations in sync with the public agenda.

Aaron Gilmore (“regalia moron” said one acronym posted on Twitter) did us all a favour. He kept alive our latent cynicism, and his boorish behaviour will ensure that from now on, we’ll all know who he is.

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