What Does Kool-Aid Really Mean?

by Phyllis Abel Gardner, Ph.D.

An interesting application of the social sciences is to examine societal attitudes through a study of pop culture. For example, one way to discover what makes people uncomfortable is to study the use of euphemisms. People are uncomfortable with death, so they talk about “passing away” or “going to be with God.” They do not wish to discuss sexual intercourse so they talk about “making love” or, in some circles, as “doing it.” Another related, but more destructive practice is to make fun of that which we find disturbing.

Rebecca Moore made an exhaustive study of the movement of Jonestown from tragedy to pop culture through the use of language and certain specific symbols. Of the over two thousand references she found to Kool-Aid, fewer than half had anything to do with the actual branded drink as a product. What remained was a plethora of psychological references, insinuations and jokes.

Moore pointed out that some of those references would be thought of as positive, in the sense that “drinking the Kool-Aid” means total commitment to some people. Nevertheless, most appear to be at least off-hand comments, and at most, cruel jokes. My intention here is to briefly explore the rise of the term “Kool-Aid” into the American lexicon with an eye toward what it says about our society and its attitudes and indifference to tragedy, with emphasis on the use of the term by people who are of a generation beyond Jonestown.

The movement of Kool-Aid into the American lexicon, other than as a sugared children’s drink, represents cruelty, laziness and stupidity. Strong statement? Perhaps, but consider what most readers of the Jonestown Report already know: It wasn’t Kool-Aid! In addition, when someone says, “Well, you know they’re a bunch of Kool-Aid drinkers,” and they are referring to a group of sales people, there is a callousness in the statement that seems to be lost on the speaker.

In preparation for this article, aside from reading the Moore piece and a couple of others, I googled Kool-Aid. (Note another addition to the lexicon – Google is now a verb.) What I found was a whole host of web sites and other references to the more cruel use of the words. I contacted a couple of sites that had “Kool-Aid” in their title and found young adults full of expletive-filled answers to my query as to their choice of name. One writer had at least found out that it wasn’t really Kool-Aid – but Flavor Aid, the British knock-off. But the sites had some common responses – insanity or revolution (Interesting to put those two words in the same sentence).

In pop culture, what does Kool-Aid really mean? To the sales manager, it means his staff is completely sold on the products they are pushing. To the political pundit, it means that a particular candidate’s followers mindlessly believe every word the candidate utters. To the bitterest of the atheists, it encompasses all believers in a power greater than themselves.

Although Moore found a variety of meanings, the overwhelming number seem to hint at “drinking the Kool-Aid” as buying into something completely. It is to foolishly accept something as fact, especially to do so stupidly or without closer examination. “Kool-Aid” is the surrender without reserve to the will of another. It is all of these things and it is so terribly wrong.

Second, how incredibly callous is it to make light of such a tremendous human tragedy? Politics, religion and sales meetings have nothing to do with mass suicide and murder. James Welborn believed that people had no problem making fun of the Jonestown deaths because they were largely African American; the sport was just another manifestation of racism. To drive his point home, he argued that no one made fun of the followers of David Koresh who died in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. As a lifelong Texas resident, I beg to differ. Even before the deaths, people joked that Waco was an acronym for “We Ain’t Coming Out.” Afterwards – and over the years – many people have taken to referring to Waco as Whacko.

I do not believe people make fun of Jonestown because of the racial or ethnic groups represented among the dead; they do it because they are uneasy that so many people could have lost control of their own lives. It is much easier to make fun of them than to entertain the idea that intelligent, motivated people could be so susceptible to destruction. In some cases the Kool-Aid expression minimizes the belief system of the target as silly, or otherwise unworthy. Referring to a devout Catholic or Muslim as a Kool-Aid drinker is not to compliment the individual’s religious devotion; it is an insult to their beliefs as misguided.

Earlier I mentioned that as people use Jonestown pejoratively, they minimize what actually happened there. But as when it is used relative to religion, there is a flip side. In sociology, we talk a lot about labeling theory. Howard Beck (1966) argued that deviant behavior becomes deviant only when we label it as such. When someone off-handedly accuses an individual of “drinking the Kool-Aid,” then, they are attempting to diminish that person by implying deviance. The Kool-Aid reference becomes a label that carries meaning, and that meaning is dismissive.

People commonly choose to believe that the dead of Jonestown were – like other so-called cultists – a bunch of “Moonie” types who had no brains and probably wore flowers in their hair and long, flowing robes. If they bothered to learn the truth, they would have to face the reality that it was much more complicated than that. Whether they were misguided, foolish or simply deceived is no longer the only issue. Society’s failure to study the phenomenon we know as Peoples Temple on a large scale dooms us to bewildering and repeated clashes with those we consider to be zealots. We do not understand them or how they became who they are. Instead of making fun of dead people, perhaps we would be better served if we instead sought to understand what makes people follow.

One problem in keeping the torch of research alive is that thirty years have passed. When I talk about Jonestown in my psychology and sociology classes, they don’t know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, just for anecdotal argument, I also poll my classes from time to time, asking them what they think of when they hear the term “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Overwhelmingly they say, “crazy.”

My conclusion is that Jonestown should be a part of our education.

We hear expressions such as “tilting at windmills,” and it is not until college literature that we learn about Don Quixote. We hear that someone is “Machiavellian” and we do not learn what it means until we read “The Prince.” Just as we learn the roots of other expressions when we study world literature, we should be paying close attention to the human tragedy that was Jonestown.

Moore mentioned the connections people make between Jonestown and the September 11, 2001 attacks. The implication in making this connection – a false one – is that the dead of Jonestown are murderous zealots. But we should seize the opportunity that September 11th provides to resurrect our research into what causes people to follow a maniacal leader even unto death, especially when so many of them secretly wanted out. It is easy to see some commonality, but without clearly exploring it, the rest of the world is left to conclude that the people of Jonestown were fanatical, blind loyalists.

You know. Kool-Aid drinkers.

(Dr. Gardner is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles for this site appears here. She can be contacted at Phyllis.Gardner@texarkanacollege.edu.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 18th, 2014.
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