An Open Letter to the World Domination Summit (cc: The Food Babe)

I moved to Portland just over a year ago, on the strength of a few blogging connections and with a goal to move into an intentional community. One of the things that all of my contacts told me I had to do was to attend the World Domination Summit.

The conference, which takes place each July, is a gathering for a “small army of remarkable people.” It’s a place for writers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, life coaches, activists, digital nomads, and more to be surrounded by people as passionate and open-minded as them.

My involvement with the community has connected me with dozens of spin-off groups, meetup events, clients, and productivity partners.

That said, I was surprised to hear about one of the scheduled speakers for this year’s event, and am calling on WDS to reconsider.

A few days ago, this tweet popped up in my news feed:

I’d glanced at the list of speakers before then, but I hadn’t made the connection between Vani Hari, who “will tell us what happens when people hate you for a cause you believe in,” and her brand, The Food Babe, which relies on alarmism and misdirection to stoke fears about food.

The description on the World Domination Summit website attributes her “success in her writing and investigative work” to “her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth.” A Slate reporter sees it a little differently:

Via Slate

It’s not that they’re aren’t legitimate reasons to be concerned about what’s in our food supply. But Hari uses sleight-of-hand to link awful-sounding food additives with common grocery store items — even when there is no evidence that such a link exists. As the New York Times puts it:

Via NYTimes

Of ice cream, she says “there’s a chance you’ll be swirling secretions from a beaver’s anal glands around in your mouth.” While it’s true that castoreum has historically been used in perfumes and food additives — a legitimate concern for a vegan like me — it’s not in your ice cream.

In one video, Hari goes so far as to claim that beavers “flavor a ton of foods at the grocery store….with your little butthole, don’t you, Beaver?

It’s embarassing to watch — like Sarah Palin meets Jenny McCarthy.

Hari has made claims about other additives too, such as “coal tar dye,” which — surprise! — doesn’t contain coal tar.

That doesn’t mean food additives are healthy, or that we shouldn’t ask companies to remove them — but false claims deligitimize real problems, and make the conversation about Hari, not about the food.

When I asked Chris Guillebeau, the event’s founder, about Hari’s presence on the schedule, he said this:

The thing is, the World Domination Summit isn’t structured as a platform for debate. Hari will be addressing a 3,000-seat theater from the main stage, likely delivering an inspirational story of how she built up her “small army” to take on multi-national corporations like Kraft and Chipotle.

WDS is all about “small armies” — about using the power of your story to inspire a community and change the world. It’s a positive message, and the emphasis is generally on personal development and vulnerability.

But Hari’s army is built on silencing and shutting down anyone who disagrees with her. As Gawker writes:

Via Gawker

Hari’s invitation to speak at the event raises serious questions about its vetting process and speakers’ credibility. Her claims have been debunked repeatedly, by Reddit, NPR, the New York Times, and On The Media.

If these are the kinds of strategies that WDS attendees want to hear about, by all means keep her on the docket. But for those of us who care about honesty and authenticity, consider replacing her with any number of qualified speakers who would love to appear on your stage.