Is It a Contradiction in Terms?

There is no shortage of white-collar crime in business and in government.  The press is full of it.  But there is little reference to white-collar “criminals.”  Is that a term reserved for the poor?

Just last week, the SEC accused Rajat Gupta, a senior executive at McKinsey & Company and a former director of Goldman Sachs, of providing inside information to a hedge fund.  The New York Times noted that the U.S. attorney in the case, “has secured guilty pleas from 29 people for insider trading and charged 17 others. They include high-profile traders, midlevel executives and relatively minor players. (See, “From the Top.”)  That’s a lot, and strongly suggests how many more must have gone undetected.

To be sure, Mr. Gupta has not been tried and convicted, but there is a long list of executives, traders and politicians who have actually gone to jail.  It’s easy to understand the temptation they must feel to profit from their positions, and even the sense of privilege and immunity that may have caused them to believe they’ll never get caught.  But even when they do get caught, we seem to collude sparing them the humiliation of calling them “criminals.”  They are getting special treatment in our language.

They are accused of “wrong-doing” or “abusing trust” and “breaking laws.”  They are even accused of “criminal behavior.”  But that’s as far we go.

Last week, Madoff asked on the cover of Newsweek,  “Am I a Sociopath?”   In a real scoop, Steve Fishman managed to get to interview Bernie Madoff in jail for his account of his 65 billion dollar Ponzi scheme.  Madoff lamely asserts that he is not a “bad person,” strongly denying that he was a “sociopath,” someone without moral scruples or conscience.  And he quoted the therapist he was seeing in jail to support his claim.

As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I would agree.  He seems to have felt tormented while engaged in his fraud, and he seems to feel remorse now.  For what it’s worth, my own diagnosis is “narcissism,” an inability to tolerate the guilt and shame of exposing his wrong doing and destroying the idealized image he had cultivated for so many years.

But personally I think any psychiatric diagnosis misses the point.  He did not commit a disorder.  He is not to be blamed for his emotional dysfunction.

How about calling him a “criminal?”