Greed

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](http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xex9rz_gordon-gekko-greed-is-good-full-spe_shortfilms) (who in fair­ness start­ed by say­ing «greed, *for lack of a bet­ter word*») and [Ayn Rand](http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_ayn_rand_aynrand_biography) (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](http://atlasshruggednovel.blogspot.com/2005/08/chapter-22-utopia-of-greed.html).») The ques­tion is raised: is greed good, bad, or a neu­tral word with only those asso­ci­a­tions we ascribe to it?

[The Cham­bers Dictionary](http://www.chambers.co.uk/) 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.