The problem. 2018 will mark the 40th anniversary of the collective suicide of the Jim Jones cult. In 1978, over 900 people left California, set up a commune in Guyana in South America, and ultimately died there together, notoriously drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
How does one make sense of this? How do you get 900 individuals to do something so extreme—and obscene—as to collectively kill their children, their spouses, their other relatives, and themselves? And why, in general, do so many people believe and do such weird things?
Critical thinking and rhetoric. Perhaps what happened at Jonestown can be demystified—at least a bit—by thinking about the nature of critical thinking and rhetoric. We live, after all, in a culture saturated with messages—everybody’s trying to sell something—from consumer products, to services, to political candidates, to religions. Like the followers of Jim Jones, we’re all susceptible to being conned, in large and small ways, and being taken-in by messages.
From Josephus to market bubbles. So when I think about Jonestown, my first thoughts go to Josephus—the Jewish historian of the first century CE—who gave us the famous tale of Masada, in which a group of Jews, high on a mountain fortress, held off the Romans, until finally, when their resistance could no longer be sustained, and so as not to be taken into slavery—committed a collective act of suicide. I also think of the collective delusions that have gripped people throughout history, from millennial madnesses to witch crazes; from tulip manias to housing market bubbles. People have long jumped on bandwagons and suspended their critical thinking in fundamental ways in the service of beliefs, greed, and collective projects.
The question is why.
Self-destruction. Think of collective and individual self-destructiveness, and the psychology that underlies self-destructive behavior. In the 40 years since Jonestown, suicide has become an ever-more shocking feature of global culture. Examples range from Japan to England, and include the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego. Most virulently, suicide takes the form of suicide terrorism. And even democracies can commit collective suicide, handing their collective wills and the rule-of-law over to the whims of authoritarian, alpha-males. In some sense, Jonestown weirdly marked itself, 40 years ago, as being a canary in the coal mine of our collective unconscious—foreshadowing an era of new and murderous religious and political manias.
But how might we demistify such human self-destructiveness? Why, for example, did so many Americans give Donald Trump the keys to America’s nuclear codes? Do we chalk-up such behavior to imprecisely defined causes, such as collective hypnosis, spell, or magic–or can we get some genuinely rational grasp on this matter? I think we can find rational ground here.
Pleasure and pain, harmony and confusion. To get our heads around human self-destructiveness, it might be best to start with evolutionary psychology. First, we can safely say that human beings have a highly evolved mechanism for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain—and one way this manifests itself is in anxiety reduction. When our environment seems to us in harmony, whole, and safe–and when we seem to understand what’s going on around us–we tend to enjoy a feeling of calm. This is deeply rewarding; it signals to us that we are okay. But when things around us seem out of harmony, confusing, and potentially dangerous, our anxiety-system is aroused, and we seek some way of feeling harmonious, whole, and safe again. Few human beings can live free of anxiety without this feeling that the world around them makes sense—that there is, at some level, meaning and harmony and purpose underlying the world.
Liquid times. Though we long for anxiety reduction, we live in a world that is highly fluid and alienating. It’s full of big cities, technologies, forces, and complexities that we can scarcely comprehend. The internet, for example, is larded with contradictory currents of information that resist harmonization or full sense. And the cosmos itself is packed with mysteries that resist our sense-making—as when our loved ones die or we try to contemplate the vast emptiness between the stars.
The world, in short, is, to echo Wordsworth, “too much with us.” The more we think about it, the more confusing and scary it can become. It’s a place where change is constant; where stability is not the norm.
Daddy, daddy. For a time, in our infancy and childhood, we may have had a strong father who guarded our innocence, protected us, and gave us simple and calming answers when we had questions about the world. But the invariable movement from innocence to experience, from childhood to adulthood, leaves all of us in a state of Mel Brooks-like, high anxiety. And because we are social animals, and there is strength in numbers. It makes sense for us to join a group where the individuals in it will look after one another as brothers and sisters. And so it hardly seems surprising that people might flock to religious, political, and social movements that promise to reduce anxiety, to make sense of the world, and to bring us into a place of safety, wholeness, and harmony.
And these movements are not likely to be terribly rational because reason takes a great deal of effort, both intellectual and in terms of discipline. To remain in the realm of the rational, you have to research things, and think about things, and read books, and live with your anxiety. To be reflective necessarily means you don’t know all the answer yet. And oftentimes reason does not bring you to a harmonious, satisfying, or conclusive answer to your concerns. Indeed, it often raises as many questions as it solves. And so it is extraordinarily difficult for people to live genuinely rational lives; lives that do not run primarily on oversimplifying cognitive maps and heuristics (rules of thumb). The temptation is to gamble on the easiest, nearest-to-hand, and most emotionally satisfying answers to anxiety-inducing questions.
Advertisers recognize this—and so rarely appeal to reason as such—but offer all sorts of shortcuts to persuasion: flashy colors, attractive images, sing-song slogans, etc. And likewise, religious, political, and social movements engage in similar appeals. Thus, what might at first seem mysterious—how could people follow Jim Jones—actually makes a good deal of sense. Jim Jones came across as someone supremely confident, and with a utopian vision of a better life. He had an authoritarian, father-figure ethos that can be extremely appealing to frightened people. He represented a short-cut to anxiety reduction.
A father for your thoughts. So the reasoning runs as follows: If I follow the father figure, I don’t have to think. My anxiety will be reduced, and he will lead me to the Promised Land (however that gets defined). If I join Jim Jones in his vision, I will have a community of brothers and sisters to look after me, and for me to love and look after in return. I’ll sing with them; I’ll dance and work with them. I’ll never be alone or lonely. The world will make sense, and life will have a purpose.
Family dynamics. But of course, once you enter into a relationship with a father and a family, all of the psychological dynamics of childhood come into play: desire to please the father, guilt at disappointing the father, and peer pressure to conform to the norms of the family. And once you are in such a dynamic, it’s tricky to get back out, for there are all sorts of ways that the group has for suppressing your legitimate questions and doubts. You sing each day harmoniously together, enforcing your connection to the group; you listen to the same sermons of the father-figure; you go out together and tell others about your way of life. And by telling others how great your life is, sharing your testimony, you reinforce the story for yourself.
And when you are in a group where miracle claims are being made, it becomes a bonding mechanism to solder you to the group. Miracles seem to be heaven’s warrant for the very existence of the group. How can you leave a group that heaven is showering with such powers? And how can the group be wrong if miracles are happening in the midst of it in the first place?
Ganfalloons and the stages of commitment. Another thing binding one to such a group is what the novelist Kurt Vonnegut calls ‘granfalloons.’ These are cultural markers that seems to make people imagine they have more in common than they do (as in all wearing similar clothes). Still another thing binding you to the group are the stages of commitment. The more you give to a group or family, the less you want to admit to yourself that you are wrong and over-committed. So each step of commitment may be small compared to the last step, but each step brings you, in an ever more extreme fashion, into the group. It’s like a frog in hot water. You might end up reaching a point where collective suicide is a relatively small step, given how far you’ve already come with the group.
The sacrifice of minds before bodies. So as we reflect in 2017 and 2018 on what might seem to be incomprehensible and rare–a mass suicide of over 900 people 40 years ago–it is in fact actually an all too human occurrence. The bodies of large groups of people may not be sacrificed en mass, but their minds might be. There are groups all around us in which the price for belonging amounts to the suicide of the critical faculties. Jonestown is an extreme example of the human ability to be swept-up in movements that are hyped, utopian, father authoritarian, and function as a kind of extended family. Jonestown is remarkable for the sacrifice of bodies, but all around us are groups that daily lift up on altars of sacrifice, and in vastly larger numbers, human minds.