KELLY: Business Talk

There's a file I've created, labeled "I Can't Believe They Said That" -- containing outrageous utterances of business people. Lately, I've been studying it. What is it about these quotes that makes me want to run around the room tearing my hair and howling?Upon reflection, I see it's not content but tone -- a tone that's ruthless, brutal, even cruel. Savage, my thesaurus offers, bestial. You get the point. It's a tone so uncaring as to sneer at the very idea of caring. These are Real Businessmen (and they are all men). Here is how they talk."'What do you do when your competitor is drowning?' asks Coke President Doug Ivester. 'Get a live hose, and stick it in his mouth.'" That's from Fortune, October 28, 1996 (thanks to Sherry Sweetnam of Eden Prairie for sending it). What's remarkable is, oddly, how unremarkable the quote is how commonly we hear such things. If competition requires us to be brutal, we'll be brutal with gusto. We're Real Businessmen, they say, grabbing the vine and swinging away. Barbaric quotation number two: This one is from an editorial commentary by Thomas G. Donlan in Barron's, August 12, 1996. It was before the election, and he was writing about tax cuts Bob Dole was trumpeting. Ridiculing one proposed Dole cut, Donlan wrote: "He proposes a $500 tax credit for taxpayers with children as if having children were an economic advantage to the nation or conferred some special entitlement."But on second thought, maybe Donlan's right. Maybe parents should be ridiculed for using precious national wealth to feed their children when it could go toward something useful, like interest-rate derivatives. The thumping of Armani-clad chests can be heard in the distance, growing closer.I come to barbaric quotation number three. In The Wall Street Journal, October 29, 1996, columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. defended the behavior of Archer Daniels Midland which had just settled criminal charges of price fixing by saying price-fixing was a "crime" that "exists mostly in the eye of the beholder." Collusion "can be a good thing," he wrote. (I'm not making this up.) And trying to fight it "is like fighting the weather." What's a little collusion among friends, anyway? We all know the real problem isn't illegal corporate behavior -- it's greedy parents wanting their criminal $500 tax cuts.Closing the file and smoothing my hair -- what's left of it -- I realize what is so disturbing here. These sentiments, stated so confidently, are reminiscent of Southern racism of the 1960s, or sexism of the 1950s. There's a callous self-centeredness that is contemptuous of any group other than one's own. It is discourse like this that creates a climate in which it is acceptable to lynch blacks, or beat wives, or cheat employees -- or collude on prices.Margaret Moorman said it well, in Waiting to Forget. "There are climates of approval or disapproval that cloud or clear the moral weather of a time and place and make it possible or impossible to feel all right about certain actions," she wrote. These climates "affect us so pervasively that we honestly believe that we are making individual moral choices, while in reality we are simply responding to the Zeitgeist."She was writing, in fact, about reproductive choice for women. But the sentiments apply in an uncanny way to business. The moral weather of business today makes certain unethical choices not only likely but nearly mandatory. Executives choose to ignore filthy, subhuman conditions in overseas sweatshops, believing "global competition" justifies this. Boards pay CEOs obscene amounts and look the other way as employees get stiffed, believing "market forces" require this.We think we are making necessary business choices, while in reality we are responding to the spirit of the times. It 's a spirit that is totalitarian: demanding a heartless way of thinking that may not be overtly challenged. And it's spirit that is nurtured by the talk we weave around ourselves everyday. In business, we have both more and less ethical choice than we acknowledge. The real choice we make is in what moral climate we condone. For in condoning a brutal discourse, what we truly condone -- indeed require -- is brutality itself.

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