Jim Jones

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Jim Jones

The mass suicides, that took place under the influence of Reverend Jim Jones, can be explained from a sociological perspective. By looking at how the group dynamics played into the outcome one gets a better idea of the whys? of the massacre. The sociological explanation is but one way to explain this horrific event. It is , however, the only one explored in this essay for reasons of concision.

At one level, the deaths at Jonestown can be viewed as the product of obedience, of people complying with the orders of a leader and reacting to the threat of force. In the Peoples Temple, whatever Jim Jones commanded, the members did. When he gathered the community at the pavilion and the poison was brought out, the populace was surrounded by armed guards who were trusted lieutenants of Jones. There are reports that some people did not drink voluntarily but had the poison forced down their throats or injected. While there were isolated acts of resistance and suggestions of opposition to the suicides, excerpts from a tape, recorded as the final ritual was being enacted, reveal that such dissent was quickly dismissed or shouted down.

Jim Jones utilized the threat of severe punishment to impose the strict discipline and absolute devotion that he demanded, and he also took measures to eliminate those factors that might encourage resistance or rebellion among his followers. Research showed that the presence of a "disobedient" partner greatly reduced the extent o which most subjects in the Milgram situation (1965) obeyed the instructions to shock the person designated the "learner." Similarly, by including just one confederate who expressed an opinion different from the majority's, Asch (1955) showed that the subject would also agree far less, even when the "other dissenters" judgment was also incorrect and differed from the subjects. In the Peoples Temple, Jones tolerated no dissent, made sure that members had no allegiance more powerful than to himself, and tried to make the alternative of leaving the Temple an unthinkable option.

Analyzing Jonestown in terms of obedience and the power of the situation can help to explain why the people acted as they did. Once the Peoples Temple had moved to Jonestown, there was little the members could do other than follow Jim Jones's dictates. They were comforted by an authority of absolute power. They were l...

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...ons consistent with the ideology and policy are good. The individual conscience is not reliable.

Under these conditions the individual expects humiliation, ostracism and punishment because of his inability to live up to the criteria and lives in a constant state of guilt and shame. Since the organization is the ultimate judge of good and evil, this guilt and shame is used to manipulate and control members. The organization becomes an authority without limit in the eyes of members and their power is nowhere more evident that in their capacity to "forgive".

We live in a dangerous world, a world often caught in the midst of disastrous group dynamics. Cult leaders use their knowledge to bemire the minds of unsuspecting victims. Until, recently cult's were able to run freely in public without anything more than slight amusement at the dress or the ethereal spouting. There was a time in the not so distant past that cult members were allowed to approach anyone in a place as public as an airport to share their ‘beliefs' and their tainted language. They were allowed access to our children and to our minds. It has been a long time coming, but the world is finally catching on.
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