Friday, October 08, 2010

Character Flaws of the Rich and Powerful

In an odd column about The Social Network, simultaneously emphasizing that it is a fictionalized account of Mark Zuckerberg's rise and treating it as if it's fact, David Brooks laments,
The Zuckerberg character is without social and moral skills. It’s not that he’s a bad person. He’s just never been house-trained. He’s been raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct. The character becomes a global business star without getting a first-grade education in interaction.
and concludes,
Many critics have compared this picture to “Citizen Kane.” But I was reminded of the famous last scene in “The Searchers,” in which the John Wayne character is unable to join the social bliss he has created. The character gaps that propel some people to do something remarkable can’t be overcome simply because they have managed to change the world.
It seems worth noting that the psychological factors that Brooks ascribes to not being "house trained" as a result of being "raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct" should evoke in his mind something a bit more contemporary than a John Wayne movie. It's interesting that he rejects, without any real analysis, the comparison to Citizen Kane, a fictionalized account of William Randolph Hearst. Who was more ruthless, "Caine" or Zuckerman as depicted in the movie? Who was more vengeful, less moral, more selfish? Were "Caine's" character flaws a manifestation of his being "raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct"?

The fact is, darn few people claw their way to the top of the economic pyramid while playing the part of the socially conscious gentleman. The novelty in the rise of somebody like (movie) Zuckerberg is not so much that he's ruthless with his friends and enemies alike, but that (as Brooks points out) he's a "nerd" - somebody who wouldn't have been able to penetrate the class system that Brooks assures us no longer exists at Harvard. Yes, the information age has allowed a huge number of "nerds", including many with weak social skills", to become wealthy and lead companies. Historically many of those same people would have been stuck working for somebody else. But let's not pretend that the history of capitalism stands as a monument to moral, ethical, well-socialized businessmen.

I sometimes come across platitudinous assertions about the wealthy and powerful, such as "Great men have great appetites" or "Great men have great faults." The fact is, every human being has faults, and most of us have pretty significant faults. Appetites? The same thing - I doubt that there's a person on the planet who hasn't, at some point in time, wanted or felt driven to do something that was wrong or immoral - but when you're wealthy you can either find "legal" ways to exercise your desires, or use your wealth to insulate yourself from consequence. Think of Rupert Murdoch and the way he looted his companies for personal gain - he is indignant at his prosecution because, in effect, he "stole the money, fair and square". He and his lawyers found a way to loot the companies that they believed to be legal. Take a look at Elliot Spitzer and his prostitutes, or Tiger Woods and his affairs. Their wealth brought them opportunities (or is it temptations) that most people don't get, and they made choices based upon their own character. On one level, most certainly, it's easier to avoid crossing a moral line if you don't face temptation. But on another level there's nothing special about them that compelled them to surrender to temptation. It's still a matter of personal choice - what type of person do you want to be?

I think you will find that, among people who manage to climb to the top of the economic pyramid, there's a tendency to put concerns about others - their wishes, feelings, needs, whatever - to the background. There is often a single-mindedness to their push to the top. In some cases that's highly contextual, with the driven individual simply not allowing others to stand between him and his goal. With others it branches out into all areas of his life. That has a lot less to do with being "raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct" and a lot more to do with their childhood experiences and their personality. How many generations of wealthy people would have told you that their station was a manifestation of the will of God, and would happily explain why their actions were morally proper if not dictated by their faith?

I don't want to sound like Brooks, and oversimplify the wealthy into two classes of individual. But I do think it's fair to observe that the tendency to run roughshod over others within the context of business does roughly break down into two varieties: those who simply don't care, and those who recognize what they are doing and seek forgiveness after-the-fact - adherents to the principle that it's easier to get forgiveness than to get permission. (If you succeed, odds are you'll get that permission. And if you successes significantly outweigh your failures, you'll probably still get forgiven.) Forging ahead when others around you are urging caution can be reasonably described as leadership. But, as one would hope that movie Zuckerman learned by the end of the screenplay, you don't have to be an ass to be a leader.


  1. TeacherPatti10/8/10, 12:12 PM

    This isn't limited to folks like Zuckerberg...we are seeing so many kids who simply have neither prior knowledge nor social skills. Some are (often incorrectly, IMO) being labeled as "autistic". It's amazing how many times I say something that the kiddos have NO idea what I mean or have no idea how to react. I know that when I was in elementary school, I had had enough conversations with adults (to be fair, I was the only child/only grandchild so I had lots of opportunities) to know how to react to things, how to be social and so on.

  2. I think Brooks overstates his case with Zuckerberg who, yes, as depicted in the movie has some social deficits but who at another level seems to both understand that. The depiction isn't far off from some computer types I've known who interface very well with computers and numbers but not so well with people. That has to do in part, I think, with the social hostility toward "nerds" that still exists, particularly at the jr. high to high school level, but some of it is organic - in a prior generation the same people might have been poring over accounting books in a back office. Computers and the information age make it possible for them to achieve phenomenal things despite some social difficulties.

    But I think Brooks is confusing that with the type of antisocial personality that has often appeared at the top of the economic food chain. There was a Simpsons episode a good number of years back in which Homer started a website that became popular, until it reached the point 'every developer dreams about', gaining takeover interest from Microsoft. The takeover turned out to involve Bill Gates and a couple of goons smashing Homer's equipment in the manner of Goodfellas mobsters.

    Humor, yes, but highlighting something important - the type of conduct attributed to the antisocial "nerd" who leads a company by the likes of Brooks is simply another form of the antisocial behavior - "Looking out for Number One" - that has manifested itself in traditional scions of business including Hearst, but also the scions of industry who attempted to break the early union movement with brutal violence, who happily had children working 14 hour days, who locked young women in firetrap sweatshops because otherwise they might gossip or take too many breaks, etc., with no sign that they value or even regard their workers as human beings.

    I suspect that there will be more of the type of issue you describe as our society continues to move online for social interaction. When your socialization occurs through a screen, losing most of the social cues of face-to-face conversation, you're not going to learn facial cues and you're not going to practice traditional social interaction.