Greed

Excessive desire for more.

Note the word «excessive» in the definition above.

This word has been coming up frequently these days with the Occupy Wall Street protests happening. It comes up in two contexts. First, on cardboard signs, t-shirts, and website manifestos, usually paired with the word, «corporate.»

The second is in reaction to the first context where those offended by the protesters mock the fact that the protests themselves are facilitated by corporations and «corporate greed.» From brand-name clothing to the smartphones people are using to report the events of the day to the websites they post their pithy slogans on to the coffee they sip on in between chanting, all these things are the products, some say, of the corporate greed that they are so vehemently opposed to.

This of course evokes Gordon Gekko (who in fairness started by saying «greed, for lack of a better word») and Ayn Rand (who I don’t believe ever wrote «greed is good» but did describe it as a virtue eg Galt’s Gulch, «the Utopia of Greed.») The question is raised: is greed good, bad, or a neutral word with only those associations we ascribe to it?

The Chambers Dictionary has four listings each for greed and greedy. All but one from each includes a modifier indicating excess—too eagerly, longing for more than one’s share, excessive—or else a word that indicates sinful or unhealthy desire eg covetousness, gluttony. One of the listings that seems neutral, «an eager desire or longing» for greed corresponds to a similar entry with a modifier for greedy: «craving or longing eagerly, esp too eagerly.» It seems clear that the negative uses (meaning those definitions with negative attributes as part of the definition, not just implied) far outweigh the neutral, and that there aren’t definitions with positive modifiers at all.

Who knows what «excessive» means and in what contexts? I don’t know. But I stand by this, and the dictionary (Chambers) backs me up: self-interest and ambition are good. Greed, by definition, is not. When someone (or a system as in a corporation) is described as greedy, it should be assumed in the absence of other contextual clues that it is meant not just to denote a healthy advocacy and defense of one’s own interests. It should be assumed that the intent is to describe that person or institution as having desire for acquisition that goes beyond that which is healthy or appropriate. Turning it around on whoever uses the word greed as though they are criticizing the virtues of self-interest or ambition is an unfair distortion of the proper use of the word.

Do some people mean to denigrate healthy self-interest or ambition when they use the word greed? Unfortunately yes, but that is a distortion by the author of such an association and should be deplored on its face, not countered with another distortion that leaves the meaning of the word spinning in the breeze. It is meaning, after all, which gives value to words. While entertainment and amusement can be honestly wrought from intentional ambiguity in meaning, when used in earnest one ought be clear and use a word like ambition if one means the virtue rather than a fault.

Does this take away from the value of Gekko’s monologue? Of course not. The normal association of the word greed gives a bit of cognitive dissonance to the exhortation «greed is good!» It is that very shock and surprise that lends rhetorical weight to the phrase and calls attention to Gekko’s point: that self-interest is indeed valuable and necessary, and that we’re too quick to accuse the ambitious of avarice.

Is that not exactly the kind of rhetorical trick I warned against in the paragraph before last? Yes, but the inversion of meaning is the focus of the monologue, which is a carefully scripted part of a work of fiction in which the character has the microphone and can explain his position fully without interruption or distraction. Michael Douglas had the advantage of rehearsals and retakes, the screenwriters had the luxury of taking weeks or even months to craft the short speech, and the director working with the editors could manipulate pauses and timing cues to emphasize the desired understanding of the speech. As with so many other things in the movies, one is best advised not to try this at home.