I acknowledge at the outset: the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is still out there – used thousands of times a years in both print and electronic media; in the context of business, sports, and especially politics; in reporting news events, in opinion pieces, in blogposts, and especially letters to the editor – and it is still offensive. Any attempts to eradicate it from the English language would be a quixotic venture, however. It is engrained as deeply now as any of a number of other clichés or shorthand references, such as “rule of thumb,” “tit for tat,” “the gloves are off,” or even “baker’s dozen.” Just as those sayings, the Kool-Aid expression was born in violence. Moreover – again, just as those sayings – most people who use it have no idea where it came from.
Quite often, the use is benign. “Drinking the corporate Kool-Aid” – insert your own corporate name there – is often considered an expression of loyalty. “Drinking the sports team Kool-Aid” – same insert – suggests blind, unwavering, enthusiastic fandom, and even when used against an opponent’s team, there’s a sense of good-natured bonhomie associated with it. Only when the phrase enters the political arena does it become more of a cudgel than a pom-pom. You don’t have to Google too many “MAGA Kool-Aid” or “socialist Democrat Kool-Aid” references to realize that.
This is not intended to suggest that the repetition of the phrase has lost its ability to wound those associated with the Jonestown tragedy, or that we should necessarily give it a pass, especially when a friend who you’d think would know better, drops it out of the blue into a conversation.
And yet, there has been a shift. Perhaps it is due to the very fact that so few people know of its origin, perhaps because of a writer’s own personal discovery of where the phrase came from, or perhaps even because of the times we live in. Whatever the reason, in recent years, there have a number of instances in which an article attempts to contextualize the phrase, or informs the readers of the facts behind it. And even if the details are garbled, or the adjectives are lurid or in themselves loaded – “madman cult leader Jim Jones” – there is still an effort.
Consider a few examples from this past year.
- When Alec Baldwin described Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as “the new Jim Jones” (see related story), one website suggested that the actor didn’t know what the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” meant, and then offered a 43-word thumbnail description of the Jonestown tragedy.
- A Wall Street Journal article headlined “Kool Aid Is Still a Thing? Oh Yeah” – published on National Kool-Aid Day of August 13 – reported on ways the drink has been brought into American culture, including the Tom Wolfe novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the phrase “drink the Kool Aid,” which, as the story noted, was “far, far worse” than the book, since it was born in the events in Jonestown.
- In an opinion piece arguing for the need for fact-checkers in journalism, written for the August 22 edition of The Lawton (Oklahoma) Constitution, publisher David Stringer suggested that challenging news sources and reporters for documentation of their claims is healthy. “We talk today about people who ‘drink the Kool-Aid,’ harkening back to the People’s Temple,” he wrote. “The 900 deaths that resulted has been used metaphorically since to remind us that at least some measure of skepticism is healthy and blind obedience can lead to tragedy.”
- Another opinion piece – this one by Charles Wallace in the September 10 edition of the Winters (Calif.) Express – was headlined “Drinking the political Kool Aid,” and before showing how “Both political parties have fringe members that drink the Kool-Aid,” gave a two paragraph summation of the Jonestown tragedy and described how the phrase is used today.
- The phrase was used as the principal example of “the role of language in binding people to organizations of all kinds” in The Economist’s review of a new book, Cultish by Amanda Montell. “’Drinking the Kool-Aid’, meaning to unquestioningly adhere to a belief or system, is often used jokingly by people unaware of its awful origin in Peoples Temple.”
In these ways, then, the use of the phrase has opened a door to education. The words may be few, and the lesson truncated, but if they’re there – and they are – the reader may be intrigued enough to learn something about Peoples Temple, about Jonestown, and most importantly, about the people who were there and what they believed.
We will never eliminate the phrase, but perhaps we can modify it and qualify it and use it to inform. It’s an opportunity none of us should denigrate.
(Fielding M. McGehee III is the principal researcher for the Jonestown Institute and this website, where he manages tape transcripts, Freedom of Information Act requests, primary source documents, and general inquiries on questions concerning Peoples Temple. His other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are A Plea From History and Vernon Gosney: A mercurial temperament, a deep generosity. A selection of articles and editorials for the jonestown report is here. He may be reached at email@example.com.)