Revolutionary Suicide: A Rhetorical Examination of Jim Jones’ “Death Tape”

by Maggie Pehanick

(This article is adapted from a paper written for Communication 441: Critical and Cultural Foundations, taught by Chuck Goehring at San Diego State University. Another article on the “Death Tape” in this edition of the jonestown report is Jim Jones and Christine Miller: An Analysis of Jonestown’s Final Struggle.)

On November 18, 1978 in a jungle in the middle of Guyana, more than 900 American people ended their own lives and the lives of their children in a mass suicide. What would move that amount of people to murder themselves? How could this extreme action be justified? Most importantly, where does the responsibility for this massacre lie?

The answer is with James Warren “Jim” Jones, leader of Peoples Temple, a radical new-religious movement that began in the 1950s and rapidly developed through the 60s and 70s. From its conception in 1955, Peoples Temple claimed to be the saving grace of those who chose to follow its leader, Jim Jones.

Although the movement began with good intentions, Peoples Temple quickly changed from a welcoming society that advocated fresh gardening and family-building communes to a religious movement that allegedly manipulated members into abiding by every word of their “father.” Many believe Jones knew exactly what he was doing, and that he was clearly a man orchestrating a plan to prove a point. Others believe Jones was deranged: a delusional man who was able to find and captivate individuals even more lost than himself.

Regardless of his motives, it is apparent that Jones was successful in having the final word. No amount of analysis will bring back the people who were lost in the massacre, but as researchers, we can break down Jones’ rhetorical methods. If we learn to recognize the patterns and signs of cult rhetoric, we are more equipped to stop tragedies like this in the future.

Of Jones’ many sermons available online and in libraries, one of the most interesting was Jones’ final performance. Recorded in the hours leading up to the mass suicide, the “Death Tape” contains Jones’ last words to his people. As Jones rhetorically positions his followers to commit suicide, he glorifies himself to his people, presents both the problem as he sees it and his solution to it, and dispels his audience’s concerns.

This essay will first explain the context in which the speech was given, provide an overview of the method of generative criticism, and then give a thorough account of my findings. Finally, I will give a summary of my conclusion and methodological implications.

I will be especially interested to see how Jones’ use of the categories within Aristotelian artistic and inartistic proofs influenced his audience. To handle a topic with such gravitas indicates Jones is no stranger to ethos, pathos, and logos.

Context

We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world. (Jim Jones, “Death Tape,” 1978)

It is impossible to comprehend the reasons behind the tragedy at Jonestown. No one can know for sure what a person is thinking in the moments before he endures death at his own hand. However, the rationale behind the deaths in Guyana is widely misunderstood. The context under which Jones persuaded his followers to drink Flavor-Aid spiked with cyanide is of vital importance when studying his last speech.

Congressman Leo Ryan, along with a reporting crew from NBC, flew into Jonestown in mid-November 1978 to investigate supposed human rights violations within the Peoples Temple commune. The commune had been established and functioning for four years, but most of the members had migrated there in the summer of 1977. Jones had moved his people from California in an effort to isolate them from the probing questions of the media after several defectors criticized the motivations behind his leadership.

During Ryan’s visit, several members made it clear that they wished to leave Jonestown. They claimed that they were being held against their will and wanted to go back to the United States. When it was time for Ryan to depart, he took fifteen people with him. Unfortunately, before they could get on the plane, several of Jones’ loyal followers gunned down the congressman, two reporters, a cameraman, and one Peoples Temple defector.

The suicides were in response to what happened with the congressman. They were not performed in hopes of eternal life and they were not random. Jones knew that when the American government discovered what happened to Congressman Ryan, his involvement would be questioned and Peoples Temple would come to an end. The events in 1978 happened just as Jones had planned them to happen. He had bought and shipped cyanide for months before November 18. He even held mock suicide drills in events called “White Nights.” Jones was well aware what he was going to ask his people to do, and he knew that they would do it.

The speech itself takes place at the Jonestown compound in Guyana and begins with Jones assuring his people that he has tried everything he can in order to assure their safety. He says he has given his whole life to give them “the good life.” He then employs a common rhetorical device by creating a “us vs. them” scenario between those who remained at the compound and those disloyal “defectors” who left with the Congressmen. He clarifies that there is no other option for his people, that they must die in dignity and take the potion. Throughout the speech, he invites and responds the criticism. After 45 minutes, the tape ends with silence from the crowd and Jones citing their actions as “an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Jones led his people to believe that in death, they were claiming respect for their lives. He told them in the final tapes that they had to kill their own children in order to save them. He told them an army that would torture and kill the children after finding Ryan dead. Only a few women questioned his reasons, and their protests were quickly met with rationalizations.

It is vital to understand the background of verbal and mental abuse that Jones subjected his followers to as well as the history of the religious sect. Taken out of context, there is no way a critic could possibly understand the impact that Jones’ words had on his followers. There are events, people, concepts, and jargon used within the speech that only make sense if we take this artifact as a part of something much larger: a multi-decade period of social conditioning that these people participated in under the watchful eye of Jim Jones.

Method

The most notable of all the artifacts in the Peoples Temple archive is known as the “Death Tape,” so called because it is the last audio recording of Jim Jones, recovered after he and his followers committed mass suicide. Its contents, which are available to the general public via several online resources, are both fascinating and disturbing.

The infamous success of Jim Jones’ last speech has been studied from multiple angles outside of the sphere of communication. Fielding McGehee has conducted an investigation of the authenticity of the tape. Joseph Dieckman and Kyle Ray have discussed the music on the tape. Researchers have also studied the motivations behind an audience member who protested during the taping (Michael Bellefountaine, 2005). Although these are all included in an online collection of “Death Tape” analyses compiled by researchers at San Diego State University, it appears there is a serious lack of in-depth discussion of Jim Jones’ rhetorical patterns.

Some may argue that this is due to the fact that Jones was indisputably effective. Obviously through whatever rhetorical skills he possessed, he did convince a large amount of people to poison themselves and their children. A 1991 study by Marcia Stratton used narrative method to determine that while Jones’ rhetoric was indisputably powerful, a variety of factors such as history, biography, culture, and demographics played a role in the outcome of this case. Stratton claims Jones’ rhetoric was appealing, in part, because the values in the rhetoric were positive, Jones never lost credibility as a speaker, and the audience was strongly committed.

This speech is but a small sampling of the hundreds of orations compiled in online databases. The reason I have chosen it is that it was effective and ultimately intriguing. However, it is only one speech in a long career of Jones and Peoples Temple. I am not claiming that it is the best example of his rhetoric, nor am I determining that this be the sole representation of his rhetorical skills. I am simply aiming to analyze this one speech through the generative method.

One of the most valuable assets to this study is the fact that not only am I able to read the transcripts of this particular speech, but I am able to listen to the audiotape. This advantage will be invaluable in analyzing the delivery of the speech.

Essentially, generative criticism begins with an artifact that intrigues the critic in some way. Rather than focusing on a particular technique and applying it to the artifact, generative method calls on the critic to identify aspects of the artifact that are particularly interesting, puzzling, or incite some otherwise uncommon emotion before selecting a coding technique.

According to Sonja K. Foss’s book, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, generative criticism uses frequency and intensity identification to analyze artifacts. Intensity refers to aspects that seem important or significant, while frequency refers to the number of times a particular word or phrase is mentioned. Frequency also encompasses the number of times a particular emotion is evoked in the audience or simple patterns within the speech.

In my initial analysis of the Death Tape, I noticed several patterns within Jones’ speech. Because the speech is so rich, it was difficult to select just a few meaningful portions that defined it. For this reason, I chose to specifically focus on items that were high in frequency – that is, those words or items that occurred more than once or ideas that he referred to recurrently.

I settled on the three areas of study because they were all mentioned several times within the speech. I identified a recurrent use of ethos and a tendency to identify with his audience, a strong desire to convince his audience that suicide was the only way to absolve themselves of sin, and Jones’ skillful handling of objections and interruptions from the audience.

After identifying the features in the speech, the next step is to interpret their meanings. Because Jones consistently entertains comments from the audience, clearly he must have a reason to do so. Apart from the necessity of addressing their concerns, he must have needed to again exercise his rhetorical strategies. His repeated clarification of his role as a friend, confidant, and eventual god-like figure to his people enforces his confusion as to the various ways in which he wanted to be perceived.

Through this method, I will make a thorough case for Jim Jones’ rhetorical choices on the day of his last and most powerful speech performed.

Analysis

The most common thread among interviews and books produced by survivors of Peoples Temple is their declaration of Jim Jones’ notorious charisma. Up until the days before the planned execution of hundreds in Guyana, Jones displayed a tremendous magnetism and allure through his interactions and sermons that is rarely observed. While his appeal is worth noting, Jones could hardly have orchestrated such a tragedy on charisma alone.

It is important to note that this speech was not an isolated event. Jones was preaching to a group of people who, for lack of a better term, were already committed to him. They followed him to a different country in hopes of a better life. The audience is not hearing these propositions for the first time, nor are they drones, void of any agency.

The scene was this: Congressman Ryan and a news crew from NBC had just left the site of Jonestown, where more than 900 U.S. citizens had gathered and lived under the rule of their leader, Jim Jones. Along with Ryan, several Peoples Temple “defectors” had exited the campsite with hopes of returning home to their families. Jones had sent orders for a few of his most devout followers to execute the congressman and the defectors before they were able to board the small plane back to civilization. Knowing that this scandal would inevitably disrupt his kingdom, Jones delivered his final speech to the members of Peoples Temple.

Ethos/Identification

Typically, the rhetor announces the subject and purpose and then establishes his credibility with the audience (Gideon O. Burton, “Silvae Rhetoricae”). The very first thing Jones does is establish his connection with the audience: “I have loved you, how very much I have tried my best to give you the good life.” He goes on to explain his version of the circumstances. He does not disclose exactly what he knows has happened nor his part in the murder of the congressman, but he outlines the situation.

One of the most interesting portions of this last speech is Jones’ unwavering and self-glorifying use of ethos. His years of rule over these people have created a scenario in which he truly is their supreme dictator disguised as a “best friend.” It is chilling to hear the ways in which Jones designated himself as the people’s salvation: “Without me, life has no meaning… I’m the best friend you’ll ever have… I’d never detach myself from any of your troubles. I’ve always taken your troubles right on my shoulders and I’m not gonna change that now.”

The most startling quote from this section comes when Jones proclaims, “I am a prophet.” At this point, he has elevated himself from loyal friend to true divinity. Interestingly, nowhere in his speech does Jones refer to himself as their leader. In fact, he goes on to say, “I’m speaking here not as an administrator, I’m speaking as a prophet today… I wouldn’t sit up in this seat and talk so serious if I did not know what I was talking about… I cannot separate myself from the pain of my people… We’ve walked together too long.” The evolution of speech here is amazing. Not only is he best friends with the audience, but apparently he is also a disciple. He is man who cannot separate himself from his people, who chooses to share his divine light with them. His self-proclaimed deity status is further perpetuated by the staged “faith healings” that he infamously integrated into his sermons. He re-instills the idea of standing together later in the speech: “I can’t separate myself from your actions or his actions. If you’d done something wrong, I’d stand with you. If they wanted to come and get you, they’d have to take me.” Never does he claim responsibility for the situation they are in. He consistently highlights how hard he has worked for his people and how he would do anything for them. He never acknowledges that he may be the one to make a mistake.

The most noteworthy aspect of Jones’ tone is that he seems so desperate to appear as one with his people. This is demonstrated in a passage from the beginning of the speech: “They’ve gone with the guns and it’s too late. And once we kill anybody, at least… that’s the way I’ve always… I’ve always put my lot with you. And when one of my people do something, it’s me. Understand, I don’t have to take the blame for this, but I don’t live that way.” On the one hand, he asserts his power and authority by telling them a shrouded truth of what he knows to be happening with the congressman. He then informs the audience that people from the settlement have gone after the congressman and that, although he isn’t personally responsible for this, he will voluntarily be held accountable for their actions: “I don’t know who killed the congressman. But as far as I am concerned, I killed him. You understand what I’m saying? I killed him.” Again, he will not separate his personal actions from those of his people. Yet because he is a prophet, and he is one with his people, the actions taken by his people, however heinous, are not wrong. The killing of the congressman was a means to an end, and although Jones was not the one who pulled the trigger, he claims that he may as well have.

Jones is conflicted, and it shows in his stylistic evolution. He is constantly straddling the line between enforcing unity and identification within his church and establishing himself as above his people. He wishes to maintain physical and spiritual authority, but he strives to give his people the illusion that he is their social equal. When speaking of peace, he says, “I tried to give it to you. I’ve laid down my life, practically. I’ve practically died every day to give you peace.” He also asserts that if they chose to live, their life will be meaningless: “I certainly don’t want your life in my hands. I’m going to tell you, Christine [Miller], without me, life has no meaning.”

Jones isn’t the only one who asserts his power. Comments from those in the audience prove they truly accept the glorified position Jones has carved for himself. Jim McElvane is recorded speaking to Christine Miller, one of the few dissenters that day, saying, “Christine, you’re only standing here because [Jones] was here in the first place. So I don’t know what you’re talking about, having an individual life. Your life has been extended to the day that you’re standing there, because of him.” McElvane’s testimony serves to prove that those involved in the Temple see themselves not as individuals, but as a collective: a whole body of people acting as one. They live together, and they die together. This is made possible by the sole efforts of Jim Jones.

Later in this essay, I will further comment on how comments from the audience enforced Jones’ authority and showcased his rhetorical abilities.

Absolving of Sin

The concrete result of Jones’ speech was death. The goal of his speech, in essence, was to convince his followers to participate willingly in a mass suicide. However, this is not how he frames his objective. There is gap between the reality of his goal (mass murder and suicide) and his presented idea of solution, absolving his followers of responsibility and sin through peaceful death.

His use of logos, or logical appeals, forces his audience into only one conclusion. Jones uses the phrase “revolutionary act” a total of six times within this recording alone to pitch the idea of suicide to his audience. His argument lies not in convincing his people to kill themselves and their children, but rather to persuade them that, not only are they out of choices, but their only option left is a courageous one. Towards the beginning of the speech, Jones quotes the Bible: ““No man may take my life from me; I lay my life down.” In doing this, Jones’ challenges their individual pride. Either they can make the decision to end their own lives, or someone can and will do it for them.

In earlier speeches, Jones claimed that if necessary, he would airlift his whole colony to Russia, where they would be safe with his Communist allies. In this last speech, he states several times that although he has never lied to them, this alternative is not possible. Their only choice left to pursue their lifelong search for peace is suicide. Jones claims they “have no other road” and that there is “no way, no way we can survive.”

Jones uses pathos, to generate polarizing emotions of fear and love within his audience. On one hand, if they disobey his logic and credibility and choose to live, they will do so only in fear for the rest of their days. Not only would they be fearful, they would have lost the sole family which they now identify with. Jones, their “father,” would have eliminated his ties with them after they refused his instructions, and they would be isolated from the man they have invested their lives to follow. On the other hand, they can choose to follow in his instructions and die in love and peace.

Jones utilizes hypothetical threats directed towards parents, recognizing that the strongest bond an individual can have is with their child. He claims that if they do not commit this revolutionary act, armed forces will “start parachuting out of the air, they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies.” Several times Jones uses children as rationale to kill: “I don’t think we should sit here any more time for our children to be endangered, for if they come after our children and we give them our children, then our children will suffer forever.” In the beginning of the speech, Jones even claims that if their children are left alive, they will be “butchered.”

Jones perpetuates an “us vs. them” mentality, painting himself and his followers as the good side while the congressman and the defectors are wrong: “I have never, never, never, never seen anything like this before in my life. I’ve never seem people take the law… in their own hands and provoke us and try to purposely agitate murder of children. It’s just not worth living like this.” Jones implies that by leaving the compound, the defectors and the congressman are directly responsible for the murders that were about to occur. This is almost to say that despite the “White Night” rehearsals that had taken place and the fact the he ordered the cyanide months prior, he never intended to follow through with the suicides. The only reason to carry out the suicide plan was because those outside the “ingroup” of the Temple are forcing this fate. He reiterates this toward the end of the speech, “This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide. So they’ll pay for this. They brought this upon us. And they’ll pay for that. I leave that destiny to them.”

The reality is that Jones’ followers are not at fault; they have not done anything wrong. Therefore the nature of the situation is not dire for them. Jones knows that if he tells his audience the truth, there would be no reason for them to commit suicide. So he frames the situation in such a way that despite their ignorance to the murders, they and their children will eventually suffer unimaginably just by living.

Jones offers logical arguments as proof. He slides into this gracefully directly after his declaration of revolutionary suicide. He says, “We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies which means more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive.” He goes on to dismiss every other plan of action that the group had discussed as possible options should an emergency situation occur. Jones twists the facts and outwardly lies to his people in order to uphold logic.

He explains that death is not something to fear, but something to embrace after a life of torment. He says, “Don’t be afraid to die. You’ll see, there’ll be a few people land out there. They’ll torture some of our children here. They’ll torture our people. They’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this. Are you going to separate yourself from whoever shot the congressman?” Again, he enforces the ideas that those “outgroup” members will destroy the church that they so readily identify with, hurt their children, and that if they chose not to die, they will be separating themselves from the organization that they have, up to this point, pledged their life to be a part of.

Once again, there is a remarkable gap between reality and the rhetoric that Jones is feeding his masses. If the people were to continue living, they would inevitably be returned to the United States after the shooting of the congressman was discovered. Jones plays on every parent’s fear that his or her child will suffer in any way. He eloquently twists reality to show that the only way for their children not to suffer eternally, is through immediate death. According to Jones, the greatest act of love is murder.

To further elaborate on a point I made in the section on ethos, Jones has claimed his status as a prophet and is using that to excuse the actions of his people. Assuming status as a deity, he is telling his people, who are “a part” of him, that this is their only option. Jones even tells his audience, “I now see it’s the will, it’s the will of Sovereign Being that this happen to us. That we lay down our lives in protest against what’s being down. The criminality of people. The cruelty of people.” Therefore, the audience is getting approval to kill themselves and their children from someone who they assume to be in direct connection with God. If they are receiving instruction from someone who is assumed to be in connection with God, they are automatically absolved of all of the moral sin associated with taking a human life.

By the conclusion he is using the desire for pride to manipulate his audience. He wants them to believe that taking the lives of their children is the only way to live and die with their pride. He comments several times that he would “like to choose [his] own death for a change.” Those in life have tormented him, and now it is up to him and his people to take a stand and actively choose their own fate. Jones says, “We win when we go down,” enforcing the idea that by committing suicide, they will be victorious. One of the last comments Jones makes is one that prompts his people to believe that, not only are they doing the right thing, but also they are setting a valuable example for the world. Their suicide is an important means to an end.

Interruptions

While the transcript primarily consists of Jones talking to his followers, there are several interruptions from audience members who protest or question Jones’ proposed plan of action, prompting him to customize his speech to meet their objections. The transcript and the audio of the event could be interpreted more as a dialogue between Jones and his audience, given the amount they interject during his speaking.

As Burton explains in “Silva Rhetoricae,” arrangement consists of six parts: exordium, narratio, partitio, confirmatio, refutatio, and peroratio. Upon analysis, we see that Jones’ speech actually does loosely follow this framework, he just executes it in an unusual way. The most relevant of these parts is “refutatio,” the portion that deals with refutations.

As mentioned earlier, frequency observation is a good way to evaluate an artifact. Although initially he invites criticism, Jones is interrupted a number of times during the tape. Traditionally, a rhetor may incorporate questions into his speech that counter the point he is trying to make, then he will immediately follow up with an answer for his audience proving the logic of his personal stance. This speech is unique in that Jones actually allows members of the audience to come up and ask questions that denounce his theories, inviting, “anyone who has any dissenting opinion, please speak.” He then deconstructs their questions, systematically contradicting their claims for survival until he thoroughly convinces them that suicide is the only viable option.

Immediately after inviting the audience to speak, he follows up with this comment, “You can have an opportunity, but if our children are left we’re going to have them butchered.” Already he has clarified his intentions. While he is inviting commentary, it seems to be more of a formality.

One of the first to speak is a woman named Christine Miller, who asks if it’s “too late for Russia.” Previously, Jones had told his people that in case of an emergency, their communist allies in Russia would arrange for their safe escape. While Jones did have contacts in Russia, it is highly unlikely that he ever intended for his people to move there. Jones responds to Miller by saying, “Here’s why it’s too late for Russia. They killed. They started to kill. That’s why it makes it too late for Russia. Otherwise I’d say, Russia, you bet your life. But it’s too late. I can’t control these people. They’re out there.” He is saying that because members of the Temple have killed the congressman, an escape to Russia is not an option. He is cleverly leaving out the fact that he ordered the execution of the congressman and the defectors. He is also separating himself from those who did the killing. Rather than acknowledging his part in the situation or confessing that his plan to go to Russia was never a realistic option, he deflects attention onto the members who gunned down the congressman.

Still, Jones encourages the dissent. He tells Miller, “You’ve always been a good agitator. I like agitation, because you have to see two sides of one issue, two sides of a question.” So confident in his speaking skills is Jones that he confirms to his audience that he is willing to acknowledge that there may be two sides to this issue. Later in the speech, he even remarks to Miller, “I have no quarrel with you coming up, I like you. I personally like you very much.” Not only is he effectively answering their questions, Jones is flattering his people, confirming that he has no reason to personally attack them, it is their logic that he is disenfranchising.

Miller pushes the idea of making an airlift to Russia. At this point, Jones turns around and takes himself out of the equation. “How are we going to do that? How are you going to airlift to Russia?” While he had been passing it off as a viable option up until now, Jones knows there is no way he can get 900 people to Russia, so he places the responsibility of an escape on his people. Either they can take his route and commit suicide, or they are forced to act without him and come up with a plan that is virtually impossible.

When faced with reasonable questions, Jones continues a pattern of turning questions around on his audience that he knows they have no answer to. When they admit they are unsure, he then reasserts his authority. This is shown in an exchange with Miller:

Miller: I think that there were too few who left for twelve hundred people to give them their lives for those people that left.

Jones: Do you know how many left?

Miller: (Casual) Oh, twenty-odd. That’s – That’s a small (Jones speaks over)

Jones: Twenty-odd, twenty-odd.

Miller: Compared to what’s here.

Jones: Twenty-odd. But what’s gonna happen when they don’t leave? (Pause) I hope that they could leave. But what’s gonna happen when they – when they don’t leave?

Miller: You mean the people here?

Jones: Yeah. What’s going to happen to us when they don’t leave, when they get on the plane and the plane goes down?

Miller: I don’t think they’ll do that.

Jones: You don’t think they’ll go down?

Crowd: Murmurs

Jones: I – I wish I could tell you were right, but I’m right.

He further diminishes the idea of going to Russia by asking, “You think Russia’s gonna want us with all this stigma? We had some value, but now we don’t have any value.” Again, he fails to point out he is at fault for delivering instructions that reduced their “value.”

Jones also has a tendency to allow others in the crowd speak for him. When Miller continues to fight the idea, saying that she think they all have a right to their own destiny as individuals, Jones says nothing except that she has a right to he own opinion. He comments that he is not criticizing, and instead, lets another member do it for him. This is when Jim McElvane remarks that Jones is the only reason she is living now. An unidentified woman also comments that Jones has “saved so many people.” While he is no stranger to asserting his own authority, Jones is also comfortable allowing other people do it for him. Several times through the tape, audience members emphasize Jones’ ethos, calling him “Dad” and “Father.”

Up to this point, I have primarily been analyzing this speech from a written transcript provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because the fourth canon, delivery, is primarily concerned with “manner of presentation” (Foss), it is essential to listen to the audio recording. There are no video recordings of the event, so it will not be possible to observe body movements. However, audio will allow us to better assess Jones’ vocal characteristics.

To listen to the tape is a spectacularly horrific experience. Jones, who is widely known to be a powerful speaker, is visibly fatigued. His tone is tired, but reeks of ersatz sincerity. His voice does not reach high volumes and he does not employ rowdy techniques; he does not want to ignite the crowd into a frenzy. Rather, he is attempting to calm them. In fact, the audience responds to his comments with applause and cheers, but his voice remains stable and controlled. The audience interjects with loud comments, but his mode of operation is unnervingly tranquil.

Gone are the excited qualities of his previous sermons, the likes of which can be compared to Southern Baptist preaching techniques. He has replaced agitating tactics with an approach that suggests peace and all-knowing authority. Toward the end of the tape, his voice is reminiscent of a father reading a story to his children before bed. As the children in the background of the tape cease crying and his final words, “We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world,” are said, we are left with only eerie meditation music playing.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, it is a well-documented truth that Jones’ speech was effective, so effective that by the end of the tape, the entire audience performed the action that Jones wanted them to. This is a unique rhetorical study because the result of this speech was not a campaign vote or a product purchased. His manipulations caused hundreds of deaths that day. It is unthinkable to imagine that one man could be responsible for the deaths of these people, but through rhetorical analysis, we can uncover the violently compelling rhetorical techniques that Jones had perfected throughout his career.

Ironically, the man who prided himself so highly on being at one with his people, spared himself the cyanide-induced death of his people. Instead, Jones was found with a gunshot wound to his head. It is unclear whether he shot himself or had an accomplice do it for him, but one thing is clear: in death, the self-proclaimed deity separated himself from the people who he claimed to love so much.

Implications

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once remarked “The robber of your free will does not exist.” As human beings we are born with, and should reserve the rights to our own power of choice. Some people say that ability is what separates us from the animals. The members of Peoples Temple did not surrender their free will to Jim Jones, but that doesn’t mean that Jones did not use his rhetorical abilities to guide their thought processes in a manner that suited his desires. The influence of rhetoric is immense. Those who foster capabilities to sway an audience as drastically as Jones did wield a powerful sword.

The techniques can be used with good intentions, or in this case, yield calamitous results. It is in the shadow of the 31st anniversary of the Jonestown Tragedy that I have conducted this analysis and submit that even those who are not classically trained in the practice of oration can display an uncanny and meticulous understanding of Aristotle’s canons. The results of this implementation are not only in the hands of the rhetor, but also they are also responsibility of the audience. We must question friends, leaders, deities, if we are to maintain our free will and personal judgment, and thus ensure our nobility as humans for another day.

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Last modified on December 31st, 2015.
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