06 March, 2008

Musings on a documentary I saw last night...

So here's the thing.

I watched a documentary last night, one that had aired Saturday night at midnight. It was a documentary about Jonestown, which obviously I had heard of, but I didn't know much about it. Basically I knew it was a cult that built up around some guy called Jim Jones, they built some kind of settlement, and that everyone ended up drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. And that was all I knew about the story - I didn't know where Jones came from, how he built this following, what caused him to do what he did. I mean, until last night I had always assumed the Jonestown settlement was in the US, not Central America.

But that is just an extraordinary story. 900 people killed themselves that day, 900. And as easy as it is to throw around numbers like that, when you actually are confronted by the images of what that means, words cannot describe it. They showed aerial photos where you couldn't see the grass for all the bodies just lying all around. And when you think these people forced their children to drink, and chose to drink it themselves, just because someone told them to, it's just chilling and disturbing.

I don't really know why I'm writing this - it's probably just a way to try and process what I learned. I've just had those images stuck in my head all day. And you see these people the day before the death, and people just seem so happy and bright and cheerful, and you realise that 24 hours later they would be voluntarily killing themselves because someone told them it was the only choice? How does that happen? One thing it does drive home is just how controllable the human mind is. I think we all hear about these types of events and we all think how terrible it is and there's something in the back of our heads that says "I'm smarter than that, I wouldn't fall for it" but you never actually know. Because, 900 people, that's a lot of people, and I guarantee you most of them would have assumed they were too smart to kill themselves just because someone tells them to. But they weren't. And it happens al the time, in every sphere of human interaction - religion, politics, relationship - we are just too damned willing to turn off our minds and follow our emotion. And often things may be fine, they may work out well in particular circumstances, you may not be following a Jim Jones, you may be inspired by a genuinely great person, but that kind of uncritical unthinking behavior has got to at least present the risk. In Jonestown, there was this one woman who actually challenged Jim Jones on the day of the deaths, Christine Miller, questioning whether mass murder and suicide was actually necessary. And people were actually shouting her down, criticising her for being afraid to die, and in the end even she chose to take the poison. How do you do that? How do you silence the one person that is making sense? How can you ignore your mind when it has got to be telling you this is a bad thing. Yet 900 people did just that. And I'm not immune, and there have been times in my life when I've ignored what my mind is saying because I've been caught up in an emotional reaction to situations, and I thank God that the worst consequence to come out of these is the embarrassment I feel right now as I think about them.

I'm not sure I'm really making any coherent point here, I'm not entirely certain what my point is. I guess the main thing that has come out of thinking about this is just that it hit home that as humans we're all stupid, we're all easy to manipulate, and even if we like to pretend we're too smart to fall for such manipulations, in the end, we're not.

Anyway, that just a fairly incoherent summary of what I've been thinking about today, and I know it's not that original, but there it is.

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