Madoff: A Scoundrel Or A Sociopath? Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the proper terminology for describing white-collar fraudster Bernie Madoff, from the Dickensian "scoundrel" to the plebeian "scumbag."
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Madoff: A Scoundrel Or A Sociopath?

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Madoff: A Scoundrel Or A Sociopath?

TERRY GROSS, host:

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been listening to the different words people use to describe Bernard Madoff and the other financial miscreants in the news. Some of the words are old, like scoundrel. Some are new, like sociopath. And some are, well, a little blue. He has these thoughts about the changes in our moral vocabulary.

Dr. GEOFF NUNBERG (University of California at Berkeley School of Information): After it came out that Elie Weisel had lost his life savings and most of the assets of his foundation to Bernard Madoff, somebody asked him if he thought Madoff was a psychopath. Psychopath is too nice a word for him, Weisel answered. Sociopath, psychopath, it means there's a sickness, a pathology. I'd simply call him thief, scoundrel. Scoundrel, that's a word you'd expect to hear from Weisel, whom people looked to as an emissary from a more absolute old world moral order. In fact, it's the very word Dickens used to describe a character who eerily foreshadows Madoff right down to his name.

Mr. Merdle is the unscrupulous banker in "Little Dorrit," probably the darkest of Dickens' novels, which by pure serendipity has been running on PBS in a BBC adaptation. Despite his obscure origins and awkward manner, Merdle is lionized by people of fashion who jostle to invest with him, until his suicide reveals that he was a swindler who left everyone who trusted in him destitute. As Dickens described it, old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse. Legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mighty scoundrel.

Scoundrel and the like don't have that Dickensian rumble anymore. The problem isn't that we've rejected Victorian morality, but that we've rejected the class system that it rested on. Scoundrel, wretch, knave, rogue, bounder, cad, just about every word in the Victorian moral vocabulary originated as a name for the lowborn or for vagabonds, or menials or the like. And each of them implied a specific deficiency of breeding. When somebody asks Merdle's Jeeves-like chief butler after the suicide, why he wasn't surprised to learn of his master's behavior? He answers, sir, Mr. Merdle never was the gentleman.

It's true that scoundrel hasn't gone quite the way of wretch or bounder. People still use the word when they want to suggest high-collared Victorian rectitude. That's presumably what Lillian Hellman was reaching for when she used "Scoundrel Time" as the tile of her 1976 memoir of the McCarthy years. But unless you're Elie Weisel, it's hard to use scoundrel in earnest without coming off as starchy or superior. Mostly the word is just jocular now. You think of the movie "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," with Steve Martin and Michael Caine playing rival con men on the Riviera. You knew from the title alone that it was a comedy.

We'd have a different take on the movie if it had been called "Dirty Rotten Sociopaths." That's not a word we use affectionately. It's reserved for unsympathetic malefactors, particularly when they operated a Madoffian scale. We tend not to waste it on small time crooks and grifters. This isn't the kind of clinical language that Weisel was alluding to, which exonerates badness by reframing it as illness. That's the phenomenon that sociologists call the medicalization of deviance and that Steven Sondheim described crisply in "Gee, Officer Krupke," I'm depraved on account of I'm deprived. Nowadays, sociopath has become a lose term of abuse for anybody you want to claim as unfettered by the pangs of conscience.

No major political figure has escaped the label - from Obama and both Clintons to George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich. You even see people calling Dick Cheney a sociopath. I say, even because most of the lists of diagnostic criteria for the label start with superficially charming. When it comes to the crunch, sociopath doesn't add anything to what the Victorians expressed as heartless wretch. Except that now the moral judgment comes draped in a white coat. It purports to be the kind of objective scientific classification that confers the authority to police and punish in the modern world. You can't suspend a kid from school nowadays just for being unruly or obstreperous. You need a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder.

And you can't put somebody away just for being a scoundrel. Of course, we still have words to describe those derelictions in purely moral terms. But most of them are colloquial or vulgar. The tabloid New York Post had its writers calling Madoff, Bernie the Bum, evoking the front stoop language of guys from the old neighborhood. Donald Trump called them a sleazebag. And others compared him to a heaping quantity of ordure.

And a number of people called him a scumbag. Mad magazine even ran a spoof poster for a movie about Madoff called "Scumbag Billionaire." As it happens, that's the word Bill Clinton used during the campaign last year to describe the author of an unflattering article about him in Vanity Fair. The next day he had a spokesman apologize for his language as inappropriate. But that's exactly what makes this language effective when you want to manifest genuine indignation. It proves that your anger is strong enough to burst through the normal restraints.

I certainly wouldn't wax elegiac about words like scoundrel and wretch, not with the baggage they carried. But it's odd that we have to step outside of the language of public life when we want to express authentic indignation or forcefully reprehend somebody simply for being bad, which, while I'm at it, is another word that Dickens took a lot more seriously than we do.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book, "The Years of Talking Dangerously," will be published next month. I'm Terry Gross.

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