More often than not, newspaper articles about Jonestown end with an appeal to learn from what happened there. More often than not, the appeal to learn is posed from the safe position of the privileged outsider – the one who could never be as “crazy” as the members of Peoples Temple.
More often than not, it is not clear what the lesson is, other than the banality of avoiding another mass death like 18 November 1978 and who wouldn’t agree with that?
Often Jonestown is described as a prison camp. While I don’t believe this to be the whole truth, I do believe that Jonestown holds a lesson for each one of us, regardless of how you view it. If you see good things in Jonestown – be it community spirit, an effort to eliminate inequality and racism and to alleviate the effects of poverty – you should try to replicate a little bit of that in your life. If you see bad things in Jonestown – be it suppression of dissidents, lack of free speech or use of cruel forms of punishment – you should take a look at your own society and see if some of the same things are at play and try to eradicate them. You should speak your mind even when it is not convenient, you should defend the right of free speech for people you don’t agree with and you should question the way prisoners are treated.
In my view, “learning from Jonestown” requires more than just uttering the words. You have to invest a little bit of yourself. You have to make an effort. You have to act. Any less than that is just paying lip service to the concept of learning and not paying proper respect to the people of Jonestown.
(Rikke Wettendorff, who lives in Denmark with her husband and two children, is a co-editor of the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)