Conscious Capitalism: This is Rape Culture

Vice President Joe Biden, champion of the It’s On Us campaign, said last week about those who commit sexual assault, “We’ve got to shame these people. We’ve got to make them the pariah.”

I previously wrote about Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey’s relationship with accused sexual abuser Marc Gafni. A former rabbi, Gafni has been accused of sexually assaulting two teenage girls in the 1980s. Here is the brief backstory if you’re unfamiliar:

In December of last year, The New York Times reported Gafni describing one of his accusers, “She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.” And: “A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni ‘a bold visionary. He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.”

Sara Kabakov was the then-14-year-old girl whom Gafni described as “going on 35.” She came forward publicly for the first time in an opinion piece in the Forward in January: I was 13 when Marc Gafni’s abuse began.

Another of Gafni’s then-teenage accusers, Judy Mitzner, has also come forward publicly.

The Washington Post reported on coordinated protests at Whole Foods stores in New York City and Los Angeles in May. Matthew Sandusky, the adopted and abused son of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, joined protesters in New York. Gafni has never been charged with a crime. He has said both girls were “willing partners,” as reported by the NY Daily News.

Myka Held, former staff attorney at SurvJustice and Georgetown Law Center Fellow, emailed in March: “Regardless of [Gafni’s] arguments about consent, it is a crime in this country to have sex with a minor, and his defenders cannot hide behind the argument that sex was consensual.”

Mackey quietly “chose not to renew his role” as chairman of the executive board of Gafni’s nonprofit center in March, according to a statement on the Whole Foods Market Newsroom. A spokesman for Gafni said, “There was no break between Mackey and Gafni,” as reported by the Forward.

In June, Mackey pledged his loyalty to Gafni, as reported by the Forward. He said in a statement:

“I have known Marc Gafni for several years, and he has continued to tell me that he is innocent of the allegations being made about him. Loyalty and the presumption of innocence are important values to me, so I will not join those who are condemning him.”

Why does any of this matter? The repercussions range from retraumatizing Gafni’s accusers who suffered “the most painful and unspeakable of experiences,” as Sara Kabakov emailed last week, rippling out to all survivors of sexual assault, and to the culture-at-large.
Why should we care about the plight of this marginalized community, survivors of child sexual abuse? (approximately 43 million in the U.S.)

David Clohessy, Executive Director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as featured in the Oscar®-winning movie Spotlight) said: “Most survivors have at least some span of their lives where they’re addicted to something harmful — drugs, alcohol, sex, work — all designed to numb them from what feels like unending pain. Many survivors are unemployed, unemployable, underemployed because they have serious anger or trust issues. Many are incapable of intimate relationships and end up isolated, deprived of the love of family or friends. To use Thoreau’s phrase, many survivors lead lives of ‘quiet desperation,’ clinging precariously to their mental and emotional health, crippled by deep-seated shame, confusion, suffering and self-blame.” How do survivors heal deep-seated shame?

Author Brené Brown is a research professor of social work at the University of Houston and an expert on shame. Her TED talk Listening to Shame has garnered nearly 6.8 million views. Brown is also founder and CEO of both COURAGEworks and Brave Leaders, Inc. Brown is a scheduled speaker at the Tenth Annual Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit in Austin, October 18–20. John Mackey is a founding board member of nonprofit Conscious Capitalism, Inc., leader of the movement, and author of the book Conscious Capitalism. What are Brené Brown’s thoughts about this situation? She hasn’t responded to email inquiries or Facebook posts.

What about healthy shame, the kind that compels us to act with empathy and decency? San Francisco Psychologist John Amadeo wrote in his article The Power of Healthy Shame: “A positive aspect of shame is that it tells us when we’ve hurt “A positive aspect of shame is that it tells us when we’ve hurt someone, when we’ve crossed a boundary that violates a person’s dignity.”

New York Rabbi David Ingber, author of a petition to Whole Foods, co-sponsored by more than 100 rabbis and Jewish leaders, and organizer of the protests at Whole Foods, said: “Shame on you, John Mackey. Shame on you for your ‘loyalty’ and for your abhorrent callousness towards real victims, real women, real abuse, real stories that are not only from some mythic past but are still happening, right here and right now. Shame on you, Mackey, for trusting a sociopath instead of reaching out to those whom Gafni has abused. Shame on you and Conscious Capitalism for calling your complicity with sexual exploitation anything other than what it is — being an accomplice and enabler to a very disturbed and sick man.”

What about Brené Brown’s other area of expertise — courage?

Jill Tolles, Adjunct Professor of Communications Studies at the University of Nevada, said in her TEDx talk Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse: “I believe every single one of us can be a hero. We just need to have courage — the courage to have an uncomfortable conversation.”

Do John Mackey and leaders of Conscious Capitalism have the courage to have an uncomfortable conversation about this matter?

Steven Murphy, dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, co-authored a 2016 paper with Sandra Kiffin-Petersen of the University of Western Australia: The Exposed Self: A Multilevel Model of Shame and Ethical Behavior, published by the Journal of Business Ethics. In it, the authors examine: “How an organization’s culture normalizes behavior (whether unethical and corrupt, or ethical and decent) and the impact on workplace norms.” When considering sexual assault, what should be our workplace norms?

Biden admonished business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, on sexual violence against women: “We have to change the culture,” saying, “the most cowardly men I know are the ones who know it’s happening, but do nothing because it’s not good for them,” As reported by The Huffington Post.

The Vice President has been a tireless advocate for the It’s On Us campaign. He teamed up with Lady Gaga at the Oscars, urging everyone to “take the pledge,” as follows:

To RECOGNIZE that non-consensual sex is sexual assault.
To IDENTIFY situations in which sexual assault may occur.
To INTERVENE in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.
To CREATE an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.

The It’s On Us initiative has been largely aimed at college campuses. But can the principles apply to business environments? Rebecca Kaplan, Director of the It’s On Us campaign said: “It’s On Us can absolutely relate to the business community — many of the partners that we work with have changed their corporate environment after getting involved with It’s On Us. SB Nation has even changed their community blog guidelines and have banned language that perpetuates rape culture.

Business leaders can take the principles of It’s On Us to change their own corporate culture — it’s important for business leaders to create environments in which bystander intervention is applauded and survivors feel supported. It’s On Us at its core is about empowering everyone to be a part of the solution to end sexual violence. We all have a role to play.”

Are Mackey and Conscious Capitalism creating environments in which survivors feel supported?

In his statement, Mackey said loyalty is an important value to him; generally, an admirable quality. But in pledging loyalty to his friend Gafni, has Mackey crossed a boundary — hurting survivors of sexual assault, violating their dignity, and obstructing culture change? Clohessy said: “Mackey’s declaration of loyalty to a credibly accused child molester amounts to dangerous disloyalty to kids and survivors. We all like to stand by our friends. But at a certain point, when kids’ safety and survivors’ healing is at stake, responsible adults put the vulnerability of youngsters and survivors ahead of personal preferences.”

Nonprofit organization SurvJustice works to increase the prospect of justice for survivors by “holding both perpetrators and enablers of sexual violence accountable.” Myka Held said in March: “Gafni’s attempts to shift blame to his young victim, stating that she was ‘14 going on 35’ are despicable and show both his lack of remorse for his crime* and his inability to recognize the seriousness of his crime.* For these reasons alone, it is important for us as a society to hold him accountable, and part of the mechanisms for doing so require us to demand that his powerful friends end their support.” (*Gafni has never been charged with a crime.) What about business ethics and corporate governance considerations?

Donde Plowman, James Jr. and Susan Stuart Endowed Dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska said of Mackey, who spoke at the University last week: “He challenges business leaders to reimagine capitalism, and encourages a way of doing business grounded in ethical consciousness.” Are Mackey and Conscious Capitalism acting in a way that is grounded in ethical consciousness?

Doug White, former director of the Graduate Program in Fundraising Management at Columbia University, where he taught board governance and ethics, and author of the book The Nonprofit Challenge: Integrating Ethics into the Purpose and Promise of Our Nation’s Charities, said:“There are three basic categories to consider: 1. those actions governed by law, 2. decisions that have no impact — like where you’ll eat dinner tonight, and 3. what we’re talking about in this case — things people care about, but where the law doesn’t go. Gafni’s uncontested, public admission of having sex with a 14-year old girl is relevant. By definition, as a minor, she could not grant consent. By ignoring this relevant information, Mackey and Conscious Capitalism are violating one of the basic mores of ethical decision-making.” What is the responsibility of members of the board of directors of Conscious Capitalism, Inc.?

Sandra J. Sucher, Professor of Management Practice, Joseph L. Rice, III Faculty Fellow at Harvard Business School and author of the book The Moral Leader: Challenges, Tools, and Insights, said: “Mackey’s fellow board members of Conscious Capitalism have legal duties of care and loyalty to the nonprofit. They need to ask how Mackey’s association with Gafni may affect the reputation of the organization.” Is Mackey’s pledge of loyalty to Gafni damaging to the reputation of Conscious Capitalism?

Brad Hecht, Vice President and Chief Research Officer at Reputation Institute, commented in January on Mackey’s affiliation with Gafni, and its impact on Whole Foods’ reputation. Is Conscious Capitalism facing the same reputational risk? Hecht said:“As the founder of, primary spokesman for, and emotional leader of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey has a responsibility to immediately and directly address this issue. Whether he is willing to admit it or not, Mackey’s personal actions and associations will have a direct impact on the reputation of Whole Foods Market, and therefore the willingness of customers to support the company he leads.”

Mackey cited “the presumption of innocence” in his pledge of loyalty to Gafni. By legal definition, he is correct. But is adjudication the best gauge for deciding to whom we pledge our loyalty?
Myka Held said: “Given the dismal rates of prosecution of rapists, and the fact that even rapists who are prosecuted are not always convicted or appropriately punished, we cannot use the wide-spread failure of the criminal justice system as an excuse to let offenders off the hook.”

Bill Murray, founder, and CEO, NAASCA (National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse), wrote in an article Justifying Institutional Enabling: “John Mackey’s public position is that Gafni enjoys ‘the presumption of innocence,’ and Conscious Capitalism, Inc., the global nonprofit that Mackey co-founded, says that should be the end of it. But Marc Gafni has admitted his guilt. There is no ‘presumption of innocence’ here. There is an escape from justice. And it’s an escape that is available and all too well known by clever predators in New York State.” How has Gafni avoided facing any criminal charges or civil complaints?

A legislative battle rages in New York State over the Child Victims Act, a bill proposing statute of limitations reform for claims of child sexual abuse. The Catholic Church paid $2 million to lobby firms to block the legislation, as reported by the New York Daily News in May.

The Protect NY Kids Political Action Committee is backing candidates who will support the bill. Sara Kabakov joined lawmakers in Albany in May, lobbying for the legislation.

Nikki DuBose, a board member of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, founded by Matthew Sandusky, wrote on Huffington Post: “Regardless of whether or not Gafni was ever charged with a crime, or in spite of the statutes of limitations, we are obligated as a society to support victims of child sexual abuse and give them a voice.”

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the film Spotlight) said:“The laws [in New York] are woefully inadequate. They are revictimizing the victims. In order to prevent child sexual abuse, there needs to be a change. There is no reason why due process concerns would be any different from what they are for murder.” What is Conscious Capitalism’s response to all of this? A spokesperson for the organization reiterated their statement last month, distancing from Gafni, as I first reported in March on Epic Times. But Conscious Capitalism has not responded to complaints about Mackey’s pledge of loyalty to Gafni. Their spokesperson emailed me in June:“I’d respectfully request that you look for an alternative avenue for your crusade against Marc [Gafni] so that our team can continue our focus on elevating humanity through business.”

“Conscious Capitalism exists to elevate humanity,” according to their slogan.

Doug White said, “Elevating humanity? Well, that sounds insincere.” The Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit is “designed to activate a deep conversation,” according to their flyer. In the interest of elevating humanity, are Conscious Capitalism proponents willing to have a conversation about this matter?

John Paul Rollert, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and writer of the “In-House Ethicist” for the Chicago Booth Review said:“As a moral matter, I find it notable that, as I understand it from our discussion, Conscious Capitalism doesn’t want to have a larger conversation about this situation. If we look at the Sandusky problem at Penn State, or abusive priests in the Catholic Church, or the current Bill Cosby situation, we sometimes ask, ‘How could this have happened?’ One answer may be that people who are in power inadvertently create a culture of silence around them, with others not wanting to speak up or even address a situation for fear of harming their own interests. Who knows if that is the case here, but the unwillingness to have a frank conversation can protect and embolden an abuser and, in some cases, allow for problems of abuse to flourish for decades.”

Conscious Capitalism, Whole Foods Market, and Brené Brown have all blocked me on Twitter. Are other proponents of Conscious Capitalism willing to have a conversation about this situation?

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez is also a scheduled speaker at the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit. Biden swore him into office in 2013. What does Secretary Perez think of this matter? His office has not responded to email and phone inquiries.

I believe Mackey and Conscious Capitalism genuinely want to do the right thing. A slide from one of their presentations shows “Qualities and Virtues of Conscious Leaders” include: loving and caring, high integrity, emotionally intelligent, and spiritually evolved. Their values suggest they might want to help facilitate healing for survivors of sexual assault, and contribute to culture change.

How can Mackey, Conscious Capitalism, and Whole Foods Market effect healing, resolution, and culture change? Since they may have inadvertently created a culture of silence, they can rectify by publicly announcing remedial actions.

Here is a proposal:

  • Rescind the pledge of loyalty to Gafni. Mackey needs to issue a statement of disavowal. His pledge of loyalty is an affront, offensive to all survivors of sexual assault, and damaging to efforts to change the culture.
  • Apologize to all survivors of sexual assault, especially and including Gafni’s accusers.
  •  Take the It’s On Us pledge, and partner with the campaign to institute a formal program so that survivors of sexual assault feel supported.
  •  Pledge support for the Child Victims Act of New York, the statute of limitations reform for claims of child sexual abuse. Donate to the Protect NY Kids PAC.
  • Create an endowment fund, supporting academic programs that research the prevalence of child sexual abuse, outcomes, and preventive strategies.
  • Initiate a grant-making program to support nonprofit advocacy organizations that are raising awareness of child sexual abuse and prevention.

It’s impossible to ignore the cultural backdrop of this story; the collective outrage ignited by Donald Trump’s recorded comments about sexually assaulting women, first reported by The Washington Post last week.

Let’s not consider the Mackey-Gafni matter in a vacuum, but rather, as part of the larger fabric of society, and ask how we might truly elevate humanity.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,”

Said Mitchell Garabedian’s character in Spotlight. And it takes a village to heal one.

Call to action:

Urge John Mackey and Conscious Capitalism leaders to demonstrate their support for survivors of sexual assault.

Share this article using hashtag #CEOSummit16

Photo Credit: jpcolasso Flickr via Compfight cc

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine is the author of the four-book series beginning with The Tao of Pug (Penguin) has just been released. She spent 30 years in corporate recruiting and human resources roles, starting at American Express Company. More recently, Nancy has devoted herself to advocacy efforts, working to eradicate child sexual abuse and amplifying the voices of survivors. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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