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Monday, November 18, 2013

"Drinking the Kool-Aid": Lessons From Jonestown

Thirty-five years ago today, 918 people lost their lives in what became known as the "Jonestown Massacre."  Until September 11, 2001, the Jonestown Massacre held the unfortunate distinction of being the event that resulted in the largest loss of life among American civilians.

It is from this horrible incident that we draw the metaphor, "drinking the Kool-Aid," because the victims of this terrible tragedy drank a poisoned concoction that combined Kool-Aid and cyanide.

Virtually all of us see Jonestown for what it ultimately was: a horrific cult whose membership had been brainwashed by their evil leader, Jim Jones. Most of us would like to think that we would be intelligent enough to avoid becoming members of such an organization.  After all, only "crazy people" join cults, right?


The members of the "Peoples Temple" (this was the official name of Jim Jones' movement) came from all walks of life.  Though it is true that the majority of its members came from blue collar roots, the Peoples Temple also had members who were employed as doctors, teachers, bankers and even a couple of lawyers.  Simply put, Jim Jones' message appealed to a wide range of people from all walks of life.

And who could blame them?  Here are just a few of the more popular teachings of Jim Jones (keep in mind, Jones founded his organization in 1955 and many of these beliefs were cutting edge for the day):
-God wanted racial integration and for all people to be treated equal.
-Poverty and hunger are unacceptable to God and should be eradicated by any true disciple of Jesus Christ.
-We should all live together and attempt to establish a Utopian society that is free of social status, hunger and poverty.
-We are to be "in the world" but not "of the world," meaning that true disciples will band together, regardless of race, and work to shed the evil ways of the world.
-All men are created equal under God, and deserve the chance to fully develop themselves as they see fit.
Not exactly the ranting of a madman, right!?!

So why then did the Peoples Temple movement degenerate into utter chaos and downright madness?  This has, of course, been a topic of conversation for many sociologists, psychologists, historians and theologians for nearly four decades, and it will likely continue for many more in the future.  Obviously we have to recognize the leadership abilities of Jim Jones and his capacity to persuade his flock as being a major contributing factor, but at the same time we cannot give him all of the credit.  Why is is that people, intelligent and dim-witted, get sucked into groups like these? Do such groups exist today? How do you recognize them? Might we unknowingly be members of such groups right now?  All of these questions are worthy of consideration.

According to the research of Dr. Janja Lalich and Dr. Michael Langone, two Ph.D. Professors of Psychology who have studied the characteristics of cults in great detail, it can be difficult to conclusively pin down a cult, since many organizations (even businesses, musicians and professional athletic teams) exhibit cult-like behaviors or have cult-like followings.  With that said, they do provide a few key characteristics that all cult organizations seem to have in common.  They are:
1.) Excessive, zealous and unquestioning commitment to a leader, who is not accountable to anyone in the organization (and in some cases society at large).
2.) Mind-altering practices (i.e. meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, debilitating work routines) used to suppress doubt about the group and its leader.
3.) Leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, feel, etc., and defends it with severe punishments for violation of these new rules.
4.) The group becomes elitist, claiming special or exalted status for its members and leaders over the rest of humanity.  This creates an "us v. them" mentality in which members of the cult see outsiders as undesirable and potentially dangerous.
5.) The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends and purpose justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in activities that most would deem reprehensible or unethical (i.e. suicide bombing).
6.) Leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control its members.
7.) The group becomes preoccupied with bringing in new members.
8.) The group is preoccupied with making money.
9.) Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group or group-related activities.
Dr. Ron Rhodes, an Evangelical minister, essentially agrees with the assessment above, but simplifies what he sees as cult-like behaviors into 6 key attributes: Authoritarian leadership, exclusivity, isolationism, fear of being "disfellowshiped," threats of satanic attack, and opposition to critical thinking.  In essence, both the scientific perspective of professional psychologists and the appraisal of religious leaders are in agreement on this matter.

Personally, I agree with the assessments mentioned above. In my estimation, all cults exhibit these attributes.  I do not, however, believe that we should liberally apply these categories to all alleged cults.  In fact, I believe that the term "cult" is used far too freely in the world today and in reality, very few organizations can and should be considered true cults.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) I have seen how the term "cult" can be applied in a wanton and reckless manner.  Whether it be Pastor Robert Jeffress' accusation during the Romney campaign or the Reed Smoot hearings in which many members of Congress made the same allegations, the term "cult" is oftentimes employed as a "scary word" to invoke shock more than being a true appraisal of an organization's actual behavior.

With that being said, and instead of arbitrarily pointing fingers at which groups are and are not cults, I believe that a far better way to learn from cults like Jonestown is to focus on the behaviors of the individual as opposed to the group as a whole.  Too often we lump people in with others simply by their association with a group or cause.  And though it is true that association can tell us a great deal about an individual, it is a far too simplistic method of understanding why people do what they do. After all, most followers of the Jonestown community were good, honest and sincere people who left long before the Peoples Temple ventured down the path of the insane.

What I am ultimately trying to say is this: instead of labeling a group or organization as being cult-like, perhaps the correct course of action is to assess the behaviors of individuals (and certainly assess our own behaviors by looking inside ourselves) to determine if they are cult-like.  For example, a devout follower of liberal or conservative politics, who cannot or will not even consider the opinions of those who do not share his/her views, is, in my opinion, drinking the Kool-Aid every bit as much as his/her Jonestown counterpart.  Does this make the Democratic/Republican Party a cult?

Or take the example of my faith, which as I have mentioned above has been accused of being a cult on numerous occasions.  To be certain, there are Mormons out there (I know many of them) who esteem their leaders as demigods, who become elitist in their views, who believe that only fellow Mormons will be saved in heaven, etc., etc., etc.  They are, however, the exception and not the rule.  Most Mormons are free thinking, non-elitist and at least try their best to accept all people and views.  They come from different walks of life and have differences of opinion (i.e. Mitt Romney v. Harry Reid).  They participate in many different types of activities, jobs and trades (everything from Quarterback Steve Young to lead singer Brandon Flowers of The Killers).

And it's not just faith traditions that could be (at least according to the guidelines listed above) considered cult-like.  Take for instance many atheists, who esteem the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. above all others.  Many will become elitist in their world view, never questioning the "doctrines" of atheism as prescribed by science.  They see their world view as being THE WORLD VIEW and all others are either diluted in their thinking or too stupid to reach their level of "enlightenment."

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Democrats, Republicans, Mormons or atheists are cults, but I am suggesting that many of their respective followers are often very cult-like in their world view and behavior.  They drink the "Kool-Aid" of their respective "creeds" every bit as much as the Jonestown dead.

I think my point here is clear (or at least I hope it is).  Though cult-like organizations certainly exist and need to be opposed, they are few and far between.  What is far more prevalent is the existence of cult-like individuals, who adopt absolutist mentalities about their respective positions, creating an "Us v. Them" mentality in the process.  They fully drink the Kool-Aid, oftentimes unaware of the poison that exists therein.  They allow personal pride, peer pressure and cognitive dissonance to convince them that their way is THE WAY.  And these cult-like people are everywhere: in business, politics, religion, science, etc.  The key to guarding against this plague is to recognize the poison that exists in every single batch of Kool-Aid.  As Author Robert Anton Wilson put it:
Only the madman is absolutely sure.

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