What I think when I hear you make a “drink the Kool-Aid” joke.
Posted on February 18, 2013
Look. You seem like a decent, reasonable person. You haven’t given me any reason to dislike you. But you just encountered someone that you think is being willfully ignorant. You’ve observed someone stupidly obeying the whims of another person, or choosing to ignore the blatant inconsistencies in someone’s story because they like or respect that person so much.
This, of course, either frustrates or amuses you, and you end up saying what so many others say when they see what you are seeing: “Wow. You’re really drinking that Kool-Aid, aren’t you?”
“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is a ubiquitous phrase in America. I’ve heard it as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult. I hear it from a variety of age groups. My students say it, my friends say it, people my parents’ age say it. Google “Obama Kool-Aid” or “George Bush Kool-Aid,” and you’ll see all kinds of websites, articles, and jokes that trace back to the idea that people are brainwashed by our political leaders.
So here’s the thing: when you say this phrase, I get really grossed out. I’ve stopped saying it, and you should, too. Here’s why.
1) The Jonestown massacre was a massive tragedy. 918 people died at Jonestown, the dystopic community in Guyana that sociopathic cult leader Jim Jones founded and controlled. That’s nearly 1/3 of the number of people in 9/11. It’s half the number of people who perished during Hurricane Katrina. The sheer scope of this tragedy should keep us from making flippant references to the main cause of death for most of the victims, which was cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid and Kool-Aid.
2) 287 Jonestown victims were children. They were murdered, either by the forced consumption of poison or gunshot. If you have ever come across photos from Jonestown and have seen images of the bodies of those children lying face-down in the dirt, and that has not put you off using the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid,” then I can’t help but wonder about your sense of empathy.
3) Jonestown was not a mass suicide, and the victims were not brainwashed. Last year I read A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres’s incredible account of Jim Jones’s church from inception to collapse, and if there is one thing I understand now that I didn’t understand before, it is that the people who died at Jonestown were cruelly and heartlessly murdered. These weren’t stupid, ignorant, or brainwashed people. They were manipulated, lied to, separated from their families, threatened, and terrified. Many did not willingly take the poison that killed them, and many of those who did consume it for themselves did so at gunpoint. What this means is that “drinking the Kool-Aid” isn’t even an accurate descriptive phrase for folks who are brainwashed, because that doesn’t describe the Jonestown folks at all.
4) “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” is pretty much always said with a major dose of ridicule toward the person who appears to be blindly following a leader. The implication is that if you drink someone’s Kool-Aid, you’re an idiot, just like those folks at Jonestown. What a terrible way to talk about people who perished at the hands of a mass murderer.
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I know that you’re not a heartless person. You’re not trying to hurt anybody when you use “drink the Kool-Aid” as a phrase. It might be a quick cultural reference that everyone understands, but it’s inaccurate and it’s heartless. When you use it, you are complicit in the disrespect of nearly a thousand murder victims. Is that something you want to be? I don’t think so.
Let’s agree that it’s time to get that word out of our vocabulary.