Whole Foods, Its Employees, and Mackey's Euphemism

Just over a year ago, The Economist published a lovely essay on the euphemism and its generally pernicious effect on civilization -- in the bedroom, the boardroom, in politics, and so on. It's been firmly in the back of my mind lately as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey tours to promote Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.

This section, on business, is particularly apt vis-à-vis the language of Whole Foods:

Business euphemisms are epitomised by the lexicon of property salesmen. A “bijou” residence is tiny (it may also be “charming”, “cosy” or “compact”). A “vibrant” neighbourhood is deafeningly noisy; if it is “up and coming” it is terrifyingly crime-ridden, whereas a “stone's throw from” means in reach of a powerful catapult. Conversely, “convenient for” means “unpleasantly close to”. “Characterful” means the previous owner was mad or squalid. “Scope for renovation” means decrepit; “would suit an enthusiast” means a ruin fit only for a madman.

As I noted in a recent piece about his beloved company, Mackey is not immune to such linguistic evasions, as when he says team members and stakeholders when he's referring to workers and shareholders. Now, one could fairly argue that amid all that is objectionable about the man -- his stance on unions, his interpretation of history, his opposition to the Affordable Care Act -- an embrace of socially-acceptable mini-lies (which, at their core, is what euphemisms are) is not so terrible. Perhaps. But, at the very least, Mackey's fondness for euphemism is at odds with the popular image of this corporate secular saint.

According to Mackey, his own emphasis on transparency and honesty is not a feint. As he informed Organic Lifestyle:

In my opinion, honesty and forthrightness should be fundamental traits of those who run businesses. However, I believe there is too little honesty and openness in the world today.

This simply is not true, as evidenced by Mackey publicly placing each "stakeholder" -- customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers -- on the same plane. There is a corporate pecking order, at every company, in which employees and the environment are on the low end. Mackey is not candid about this. The honesty he professes to prize should compel him to acknowledge the driving force behind Whole Foods -- and, of course, capitalism itself: for a small number of individuals at the top to become vastly more wealthy than those at the bottom, who in a shaky economy are disproportionately vulnerable to the knuckles of the invisible hand.

Instead, the soothing thrum of euphemism, so loved by the public, serves to pad the bottom line of Whole Foods. Consider this story, care of Gawker, of how the company deprives a worker of $2.50 per hour:

One man working here has been ordering the dairy products for over a year. But since he doesn't have the official title of "Dairy Buyer", he is paid $13.50/h instead of $16/h, which is the base wage for a "buyer". He buys the dairy. But he is not a Dairy Buyer. It's newspeak. This happens all over the company.

George Orwell, coiner of newspeak, wrote that the purpose of political language is "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." This is true of corporate-speak as well, which allows Mackey, despite his fealty to honesty and forthrightness, to deprive an employee of the hourly equivalent of subway fare based solely on de-capitalization.

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