Saturday, July 6, 2013

False equivalency - drinking Kool-Aid

Location: Salt Lake City, UT, USA
I have heard this one in lots of situations, but the one that really gets under my skin is how it is used in politics and business, and perpetuated by the news media.  The term I refer to is 'drinking the kool-aid'.  For this one a little bit of history is in order (apologies if you lived through this and know the story).

In the 50's an evangelical minister named Jim Jones founded a church called the Peoples Temple.  In the mid 70's Jones moved with most of his followers from Indiana to California.  The story of their time in California is too long to fully describe here, but to make the story short, though their membership continued to grow and Jim Jones had become politically well connected, the Peoples Temple had come under increasing scrutiny fueled by reports from former members, and current members families, through a group named the Concerned Relatives.  Under mounting pressure in the US, and increasingly socialist/communist aspirations for their group, Jim Jones negotiated with the Guyanese government for land in Guyana to establish a settlement, which would later be called Jonestown.

The story of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown is another long and involved story which I will skip here, but you need to understand that Jonestown was built on land deep within the Guyanese jungle on land that natives did not want because it was so difficult to work.  Life in Jonestown was hard, but the people there were (mostly) committed.  At its height there were around 1000 people living there, commune style.  However, back in the US, allegations were flying about people being held against their will, and crimes as serious as murder which left a lot of questions about the Peoples Temple and its leadership.  The allegations became so widespread that Congressman Leo Ryan, from California, arranged a delegation to visit Jonestown himself, accompanied by several members of the press, and family members from the Concerned Relatives group.  The meeting in Jonestown started out well, despite scheduling issues and trouble getting permission to visit the site when they arrived in Guyana.  Ultimately of over 900 present, around 8-12 requested to leave with the congressman, and were granted permission by both the congressman and Jim Jones.  This stirred up a very emotional scene as a parent who asked to leave attempted to take the children from a parent who was choosing to stay.  There was a small scuffle involving one such split family and a knife, after which it was suggested that the congressman and his delegation, which now included the defectors, should leave for the evening while tempers died down.  However, waiting at the airstrip where the congressman and his delegation were preparing to depart after having left Jonestown, several Peoples Temple members arrived and opened fire, killing around 5 including Congressman Ryan.

It is unknown if these killings were directed by Jim Jones (many accounts falsely report that Jones ordered the killing, any evidence of this is circumstantial), but there is no question that when the perpetrators returned, Jim Jones knew what had happened.  Fearing US retaliation for the killing, Jim Jones commanded his people to commit mass suicide by drinking fruit punch (flavor-aid or kool-aid) mixed with cyanide.  Over 900 temple members committed suicide that day, most by cyanide poisoning.  Jim Jones and his inner circle all died to gunshot wounds.  Something like 2 or 4 members who were present that day survived, one of them was hard of hearing and slept through the assembly bell.  Another saw what was happening and lied about needing to get something, then fled and hid in the jungle.  The Jonestown youth basketball team survived because they were elsewhere at the time.

This is the origin of the phrase 'drinking the kool-aid'.  It refers to a large group of people following an ideology or personality to the point of taking their own lives and the lives of their families.

Now, lets compare this to how the term is commonly used.

In 1984 President Regan used this term 'drink the kool-aid' to describe three civil rights activists,  Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan Jr., and Benjamin Hooks.  He went further to accuse them of dragging the country into a political Jonestown during the previous election.  Now, lets look at this.  Over the 20th century many black people were unjustly killed in America.  Civil rights leaders looked at the rule of our land, and held faith that in that framework was freedom for their people, and an end (or at least sharp decline) of the threat against their lives.  Perhaps you could see this faith in our system as blind faith, and though eventually the civil rights activists won, they certainly suffered greatly to win, and many were killed for their beliefs.  So in that regard perhaps Regan was right, for a while the civil rights leaders did drink the kool-aid.  They had blind faith that this country would protect them, and many died for that faith.  Unfortunately, this is not what Regan meant.

As the dot-com bubble burst, the New York Times indicated that the phrase was being commonly used to refer to the investors who thought the market would never stop going up.  So in this context we are comparing losing money to taking your life and murdering your family.  I'm not even going to elaborate on how ridiculous this comparison is.

The way this phrase is used in political commentary provides some of the worst examples.  Often it is bandied about by pundits, such as Bill O'Reilly, to simply denote that they find no logic in an alternative viewpoint.  He has some great quotes on the subject:
"Most talk radio is conservative-dominated, ideologue, Kool-Aid–drinking idiots."
You are a blind ideologue who even if somebody’s nice to you, won’t admit it because you’re… Talk about a Kool-aid drinker!
The first situation he is just talking about his competition, in the second he simply doesn't like this lady and finds her logic inconsistent.  Neither situation baring any resemblance to the events at Jonestown.  I pick on O'Reilly because he has got to be the absolute worst, but this issue pervades many other pundits.  O'Reilly has a whole reoccurring bit about kool-aid drinkers where he lambastes anyone who disagrees with him, complete with kool-aid-man graphics and all.

I see this used to describe people who voted for Obama, acceptance of a project at work, employee dress codes.  I even found a reference where it was used to describe a marriage...

One funny thing I found while doing a little research on the uses of this phrase were site after site of people asking what the kool-aid reference was in regards to Obama.  Many report thinking it was a racial slur, like a reference to fried chicken or watermelon might be.  I was saddened that so many would be ignorant of the origin of the phrase, but I couldn't help but chuckle at how revealing it is about our culture.

The sad part is that they do it knowingly.  Regan and O'Reilly lived through Jonestown, and both have a great understanding of the tragedy that unfolded there.  Yet they both made a choice to exploit those events for their own benefits.  They tarnish the memories of those who died at Jonestown by comparing their plight to that of a media star battling for ratings, or corporate executives losing money.  They are disingenuous with their audiences when they assume that their arguments are so weak that they have to be supported by raw emotions such as that brought up by references to tragic events.

This is not unique to Jonestown, just look at the comparisons in modern culture to the holocaust, Hitler, or communist Russia.  Few if any are appropriate, almost all are perfect examples of gross false equivalency.

As always, tell me I'm wrong!

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