It has been almost 34 years since the tragic deaths in Jonestown of nearly a thousand people, most by their own choice, under the control of a charismatic leader who had managed to exploit their vulnerabilities into an unconditional loyalty.
So powerful was the impact of that event that its method has become a widely used metaphor for unconditional acceptance of a way of thinking that might even be detrimental to one’s own well-being.
It is easy to see “drinking the Kool-Aid” in these extreme movements that pull people into groups – to commit suicide to be reunited on a passing comet, to require the abandonment of relationships in order to be loyal, to impose the commission of acts of violence or other crimes as initiation rites.
Why, we ask, as we wring our hands, would anyone do that? Why would anyone embrace a way of thinking that is so contrary to one’s own or society’s well-being?
A half-century ago, journalist and social observer Vance Packard focused a perceptive study on the world of advertising: The Hidden Persuaders.
He targeted a novel approach called “subliminal advertising.” His work also invited general attention to the way consumer behavior can be subtly conditioned to respond in ways that benefit the interests of the advertiser, even if the behavior is not in the interest of the consumer.
It is a sobering read, even now. The Kool-Aid is now being served.
We can think of abundant examples of this tasty beverage, and with hindsight the recognition of its toxicity: tobacco advertising, the marketing of unhealthy foods, even the general yielding to encouragement to buy things we don’t need.
There is a level of gullibility in all of us that makes us vulnerable to manipulation to act against our own better interests. In small ways, we yield to that encouragement every day in many contexts.
On a larger scale, retrospect also provides many examples of drinking the Kool-Aid of racism, uncritical nationalism, destructive rebellion, unbridled hedonism and “progress” that does irreparable harm to the planet.
Collectively, we have embraced ways of thinking that are not in the best interest of our human community; we often have acted on those ways of thinking to the detriment of our well being.
The rearview mirror provides clarity about this feature of our lives that is often harder to come by as the Kool-Aid is being served.
Of course, the relative toxicity of the Kool-Aid means that some of the ways of thinking we unconditionally accept are more harmful than others.
Minor doses can be relatively harmless and even instructive. One of the gifts of life is that we can learn from our choices a wiser way to live.
Sometimes, however, the serving is concentrated enough and of such a size that it can render significant damage – recall the victims of Jonestown, the perpetrators of 9/11, the architects and citizens of the system that led to the Holocaust, the violence that resisted the civil rights struggle, the widespread support of enormously costly wars launched on false assumptions.
We look back and ask, “How could people embrace something so detrimental to their own and others’ well being?”
Dare we answer that the power of interests that benefit from these ways of thinking can sometimes outweigh our better judgment and lead us to embrace visions and perspectives carefully wrapped in packages that appeal to things we value, even if they do not serve the deeper values we are committed to?
The problem with the Kool-Aid is that it tastes good, and it is generally offered by servers we have already decided to trust. In its highly concentrated form, its danger is often not realized until it is too late to avoid its damage.
We know that this has happened before. Do we need to wonder if it can happen again? Do we need to be careful about the real interests of those who are serving our beverages of ideas and policies?
When the Kool-Aid is being served, do we need to think before we drink? Why are we really being asked to do this? Whose interest is being served by our acceptance of this way of thinking?
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.