"We Win When We Go Down":
Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides Using Rational Argumentation Theory

by Stephen C. Robinson

Jim Jones

Photo courtesy of California Historical Society


(Author’s note: The research paper is a product from Introduction to Communication Research, a graduate-level class at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. Why study Jonestown? Our teacher initiated a discussion about topics in history for study, and Jonestown came up. All in the room were familiar with the name, but everyone had limited knowledge, due mostly to age (I’m 25). My group, consisting of myself and Randy Manis, were given a communication theory to try and apply to Jonestown. Our theory given was Rational Argumentation Theory, or RAT. Our primary research was completed through the Internet and library publications, including the Congressional report, but our most helpful resource were interviews. We approached a number of people through this. Of the few that responded, three were very helpful: Fielding McGehee, Laura Kohl, and Don Beck. Our gratitude and thanks are sincerely expressed to those individuals for trying to help shed light on a frequently misunderstood situation.)

“How very much I’ve tried my best to give you a good life. But in spite of all of my trying a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our lives impossible. There’s no way to detach ourselves from what’s happened today” (Maaga, 1998). These words, uttered by the Reverend Jim Jones, were spoken to over 900 men, women, and children on November 18, 1978, minutes before the congregation was killed. To many, these actions weren’t foreseen from a man whom had humble beginnings, but would later become a powerful political and religious figure in the 1970’s.

Jones and his Peoples Temple movement cannot be simply traced back to the day he first preached in September 1954 (Ross, 2007). Events, actions, and consequences are undocumented variables that helped in shaping and defining Jones’ theology. Concerning this paper though, the time period studied involving Jones’ and his followers begins in the 1950’s and ends on that fateful day in November 1978. The trials and tribulations of Peoples Temple followers began in earnest and with very few members. Jones became involved in church organizations in the 1950’s, but Peoples Temple was not properly shaped until the 1960’s. In 1961, Jones’ church became part of the Disciples of Christ denomination, and Jones was later ordained in 1964 (Ross, 2007). These few short years in Indiana saw the Peoples Temple congregation not only increase in size, but also in racial diversity. The church prided itself not only as a Christian organization, but also a racially-diverse member of the Indiana Christian community. Racial pressure from outside forces increased steadily during the church’s time in Indiana, and Jones prepared to look for other places to relocate the church (Fielding McGehee, personal communication, 04/26/07).

Citing the more progressive culture of the Western United States, Jones decided to move the church to Ukiah, California in 1965 (Ross, 2007). The city, located outside of San Francisco, is also noted in a report from that time as being a nuclear-safe area (McGehee & Moore, 2007). Racial tensions were far less in the San Francisco area, and as a result, Jones was more able to establish the church as a social-movement as well as religious-movement in the area (F. McGehee, personal communication, 04/26/07). Peoples Temple became a community service organization at this point and began to offer social services to the surrounding communities. The church opened a congregation in San Francisco in 1972, which further solidified itself as a respectable religious organization (Ross, 2007). While the church continued to grow, Jones’ influence on the religious, as well as political community, continued to increase. Several key local politicians lent their support to the Peoples Temple movement, which in turn gave a focused audience to those politicians.

The movement of the church to San Francisco presented an opportunity for people to become involved with the church for reasons other than religious following. Whether attending services or solely using social services, the congregation of Peoples Temple continued to increase diversity within the church and expose it to increasingly different organizations and individuals. During this time, four types of people emerged and were seen as the typical followers of Peoples Temple theology (F. McGehee, personal communication, 04/26/07). The first type of follower engaged in Peoples Temple services were those who saw Jim Jones and the church becoming a social outreach in the Christian model. Also significant in clout were those who saw the political message Jones made and the possible political connections and power he could possess. Those who joined the church and saw Jones as a power-base and/or social organization were even fewer in number. The church held sway in a large section of California, and these members knew the potential connections that could be made through the church. Clearly, the church represented “something for nothing” to some members, and these individuals were those who sought to gain selfishly from their relationship with the movement. Lastly, Peoples Temple had a large minority following, in addition to the vast number of those individuals seeking to take advantage of the social services presented by the church (healthcare, legal care, etc).

Even though rumors and stories concerning shady policies within Peoples Temple are numerous, nothing of sheer magnitude existed yet to create the need to seek property elsewhere. Nevertheless, Jones’ church leased 3,800 acres of land in the South American country of Guyana in 1974. Noted as a socialist republic, Guyana seemed a perfect fit for Jones’ increasingly socialist comments and policies. Guyanese officials stated that an agreement of the land lease contained a condition that agriculture cultivation must occur on the leased property. Because of this land-usage requirement, fifty of Jones’ followers were sent to Guyana to initiate the agricultural cultivation, as well as the beginning of a community infrastructure (Ross, 2007). Clearing of land, planting of crops, and building of property were some of the usual tasks involving the fifty Jones’ followers who migrated to the newly-named Jonestown community.

In a clear example of Peoples Temple political sway, George Moscone won the San Francisco mayoral race in 1975 due to significant backing by the church’s followers (Ross, 2007). Positive comments impacted the public’s perception of the Temple. Peoples Temple provided full-time healthcare and legal services not only to its followers, but also the minority population it served in the surrounding San Francisco area. Peoples Temple became a clear representation of the community it served, as the demographics of the church show a high percentage of African-American women in the congregation. These followers maintained a mutually inclusive relationship with the church, as Jones noted that neither would survive without the other (F. McGehee, personal communication, 04/26/07).

Mayor Moscone continued to cast a positive light on Peoples Temple and any of its involvements, and he even went so far as to appoint Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority (Ross, 2007). While Jones’ message for the church was backed by Christian doctrine in Indiana, his message continued to evolve into a further blending of socialist communism, religious fervor, and community service (F. McGehee, personal communication, 04/26/07). Jones was seen by some as peaking in his political and religious influence within San Francisco before the major migration of congregation followers to Jonestown occurred in August 1977.

While not considered an extinction of Jones’ followers in the San Francisco area, the migration of nearly 1000 individuals to Jonestown in 1977 was seen as a significant event in the “beginning of the end” for the church. Jonestown, as of 1977, had been planned and developed for four years since the granting of the aforementioned land lease. A major reason for the migration to Guyana was presented by the publication of an article in the New West magazine in the summer of 1977 (Ross, 2007). The article lambasted Jones as a drug-abusing, power-seeking leader of a confused congregation.New West’s publication was the first article to bring massive public exposure to the Peoples Temple movement, starting a public backlash against the once-respected organization. The media, with newly-focused negative attention on Jonestown, gave Jones further reason to worry and isolate the community from the outside world. AfterNew West’s article, it appeared as though a torrent of negative publicity was placed upon Peoples Temple, the community of Jonestown, and the movement’s leader Jim Jones.

In late 1977, the “Concerned Relatives” of Jonestown members sought congressional pressure to bring home family members and shed light on what some saw as unethical, immoral, and degrading practices within the church. Deborah Blakey, a former Jones follower, signed an affidavit that detailed the conditions within Jonestown. The signed affidavit, which was then made public, was picked up nationwide by media outlets on June 14, 1978. Citing the details of the affidavit and mounting public opinion for action, Congressman Leo Ryan of California announced a trip to Jonestown, Guyana on November 7, 1978. Eight days later, Representative Ryan and his entourage arrived in Guyana. Two staff members, eight journalists, and fourteen “Concerned Relatives” were among the members of Ryan’s entourage in Guyana. Ryan’s group first visited a Peoples Temple house in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown; two days later, a few members of the entourage were given the opportunity to tour Jonestown (Ross, 2007). Things were remarkably positive on the first day in Jonestown, as the group was fed dinner and were entertained by the community’s musical performers.

On November 18, 1978, after having received a note from a Jonestown resident the previous day about wanting to leave, Ryan received confirmation from another person about their desire to leave the Jonestown community as well (Ross, 2007). Jim Jones, distraught upon hearing the news, took the defections as a personal blow (F. McGehee, personal communication, 04/26/07). Originally, Ryan was supposed to have unrestricted access and consultation with community members on this day; however, Ryan received very limited access to the Jonestown camp, with Jones even refusing to meet with him.

The congressman’s entourage returned to the airport at Port Kaituma airstrip with several defectors, including Larry Layton, one of Jones’ most loyal followers. As the defectors and the congressional party boarded the two planes, Jones’ armed guards appeared at the end of the airstrip on a tractor and opened fire. At the same time, Layton, who had already boarded one of the planes, pulled out a gun and wounded three people before being subdued. Several people died, including the congressman, while some survivors of the shootings ran into the nearby jungle for protection.

A short time later, Jim Jones proceeded with what would be his final sermon. Everyone at Jonestown was told to congregate at the pavilion, where meetings were usually orchestrated; it is here that Jones dictated from his wicker throne. Suicide drills, called “white nights”, had been practiced by Peoples Temple followers for years but not everyone was sure if that day was just another drill. Jones’ purported last speech to his followers is caught on a 45-minute audio tape, Q 042, also known as the “Death Tape.” Jones embarked on a verbal journey, noting both his and the church’s accomplishments, while also stating his argument for “revolutionary suicide” as he calls his followers’ final act. Christine Miller, a fervent Peoples Temple member, is recorded as arguing with Jones over two topics: the possibility of fleeing to Russia, and also whether or not the group suicide was necessary (McGehee & Moore, 2007).

Jones’ and Miller’s confrontation is based upon two conflicting viewpoints and rationales, which are both subjective. Presenting the argument in an informal argumentation model, such as Toulmin’s model, creates a clearer picture of the argument and the supporting viewpoints behind it. Toulmin’s model of formal argumentation is broken into three main parts, with those parts being grounds, warrant and claim. Within this model, the grounds can be explained as “What is your proof?” The warrant is a link between the grounds and claim, and the claim posits the question, “What is your point?” Jones and Miller discuss the option of relocating to Russia from Guyana. While Jones’ argument is sometimes inconsistent, he presents these points:

A. Grounds: “We had value before, but now we don’t with all this conflict/stigma over our head.”

B. Warrant: “We have nothing to give them [the Russians]. They won’t want us.”

C. Claim: “It’s too late for Russia”.

Toulmin’s model of informal argumentation can also be applied to the main argument presented by Miller, which questioned the necessity of the group suicide. Again, citing Jones’ reasons, the Toulmin model would be illustrated as:

A. Grounds: It’s not worth letting someone else dictate our policies [US govt, etc], and we can’t live like this [exile, social stigma, paranoia].

B. Warrant: We are before our time. No one is ready for our way of thinking [Peoples Temple theology, both religious and political].

C. Claim: We have to kill ourselves. We have to commit revolutionary suicide.


Theoretical Grounding

In the text, Understanding Communication Theory: The Communicative Forces for Human Action, authors John F. Cragan and Donald C. Shields (1998) identify Rational Argumentation Theory (RAT) as a general communication theory that “views rational argument as a force that justifies conviction and spurs people to action as we make decisions” (p. 66). RAT views those who argue as risking their convictions when making reasoned arguments to another individual or group; this risk can be attributed to the notion that one arguer may have to modify his or her convictions as a superior argument is presented. RAT presupposes that when rational arguments compete, the fit argument will prevail.

RAT, which developed approximately 2,500 years ago, is rooted in the “fertile soils of rhetoric, dialectic, and logic in ancient Greece” (Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 67). When used in rhetoric, RAT enables individuals to discover the available means of persuasion. Aristotle (1960) outlined these means or resources in his book, The Rhetoric. In essence, the resources of the arguer consist of both inartistic and artistic proofs. Inartistic proofs are the proofs at hand, such as statements made by witnesses, contracts, oaths, etc. (Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 68). Artistic proofs, however, are proofs that need to be invented. According to Steven A. Beebe, Susan J. Beebe, and Diana K. Ivy (2005), Aristotle suggested three artistic proofs that would assist in supporting one’s message (p. 376). First, he suggested emphasizing the credibility or ethical characteristics of a speaker which he called ethos. Second, he suggested the use of logical arguments which he called logos. The third artistic proof Aristotle suggested involved the use of emotional appeals to move an audience; he deemed this pathos.

In the dialectical realm, communicators were portrayed as arguing on equal ground to arrive at reasoned decisions. Cragan and Shields (1998) note that in the dialectical arena, parties made an honest attempt to examine all aspects of an issue before collaboratively teasing out the best arguments. As a result, those developing the dialectical approach began offering rational procedures; RAT posited that following these procedures would lead to the discovery of truth. In the 1960s, theorists concluded that the use of both RAT’s rhetorical and dialectical procedures offered a new way to obtain knowledge.

With regard to logic, arguments were first viewed as products. Aristotle and other ancient logicians sought to establish criteria for evaluating the merits of said arguments. These logicians developed syllogisms to test the validity of conclusions. According to Cragan and Shields, logic, when viewed communicatively, “posits an arguer examining a product (argument) for validity by engaging in a conversation with him- or herself” (p. 68).


Cragan and Shields identify six major assumptions of RAT. These assumptions are as follows:

(1) humans naturally make argument; (2) arguments occur over questions of fact, value, and policy; (3) the competition of rational arguments in open discourse enables the discovery of truth and the generation of new knowledge; (4) arguers and arguments function rhetorically (as process), dialectically (as procedure), and logically (as product); (5) humans prefer rational proof over other types of proof; and (6) arguments grow and prosper in distinct medium 2 soils- an invariant field and a dependent field. (p. 69)

Each of these assumptions can be further explained to indicate what one must assume in order to explore the theory’s explanatory power. However, only two of these assumptions will be discussed as they will later be applied to the Jonestown incident.

The first assumption of RAT is that humans naturally make argument. The theory assumes that it is within our nature to justify past, present, and future actions with reasoned, rational arguments. As a result, RAT views us as “reason-giving animals” (Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 69).

RAT’s second assumption is that arguments can occur over questions of fact, value, and policy. A question of fact is a statement that asserts something exists, such as “There are 9,000 students at Morehead State University.” In order to resolve a question of fact, arguers must agree on some certain standards of measurement and apply them. Aquestion of value asserts that something is good or bad, just or unjust, valuable or invaluable, etc. Here, arguers must agree on criteria for making a judgment and then act upon those criteria to resolve the question. A question of policy calls for a course of action to take place. Contained within policy questions are what Cragan and Shields call “hidden questions” of fact and value; arguers must answer these questions before they can resolve the larger policy question (p. 70).

Basic Concepts

RAT has one initial basic concept – rational argument – and six associated basic concepts: sign, cause, example, analogy, authority assertion, and dissociation. Several of these concepts are discussed below; in section three, these concepts will be applied to the Jonestown incident.

Rational Argument. A rational argument is the initial thing one must look for when utilizing this theory. Stephen Toulmin defined a rational argument as “movement from acceptable data (evidence) through a warrant (reasoning process) to a claim (conclusion)” (as cited in Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 72). Without data, warrants (reasoning), and claims, a complete rational argument cannot be made.

Data consists of facts, lay or expert opinion, and objects or materials. Facts, according to Cragan and Shields, include anything verifiable through direct observation, personal experience, statistical procedures, or the scientific method (p. 72). Opinion, while normally not accepted as evidence by a lay or ordinary person, can be accepted as evidence from an individual who possesses the knowledge, training, or practice to make him or her an expert. Objects or materials that might constitute evidence include grants, contracts, laws, results of DNA tests, etc.

Warrants, or reasoning, can be classified into two types: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning moves from a specific example or event to a general conclusion. Conversely, deductive reasoning moves from a general example or event to a specific conclusion. Observers have noted that argumentation texts contain classifications and discussions of the forms of argumentative reasoning central to RAT (Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 74). Such classifications include (1) reasoning through types of arguments (sign, cause, example, analogy, authority, dissociation); (2) reasoning through formal argument structures, such as the logical syllogism and the rhetorical syllogism; and (3) reasoning through informal argument structures, such as the Toulmin model.

Claims are conclusions drawn from data through reasoning. Cragan and Shields note that there are four general classes of claims. Designative and definitive claims focus on questions of fact. Evaluative claims focus on questions of value while advocative claimscenter on questions of policy (p. 74). As it turns out, questions of fact, value, and policy are the three general classes of questions over which rational arguments can occur.

Argument from Cause. Cragan and Shields (1972) describe a causal argument as being made when one claims that an event or condition is always the result of a preceding event or condition (as cited in Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 74). For example, one might say the following: “Without oxygen, I cannot survive.” The subsequent event of survival cannot occur without the preceding event of needing oxygen.

Argument from Sign. When someone claims that one event or condition points to the presence of a subsequent eventor condition, then a sign argument is made. For example, one might say the following: “It’s cloudy; it’s going to rain” (Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 75). The cloudiness of the sky indicates the possibility of rain.

Argument from Example. An argument from example is made when something is put forth as representative of the entire group (p. 75). For instance, if five students are unhappy with writing a paper, one could argue that the rest of the students in the class are unhappy writing the paper also.

Argument from Authority Assertion. When an individual allows an authority to make an argument for them, argument from authority assertion occurs (p. 75). For example, when the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet tells the public to “Buckle up, it’s the law,” they are in essence presenting and making an argument from authority assertion. The authority, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, based this claim on the sign argument that seatbelts save lives.

Dynamic Concepts

Cragan and Shields describe RAT’s communication dynamic structure concepts as concerned with whether or not the argumentative form of a message follows a rhetorical, dialectical, or logical dynamic. For the purposes of evaluating the Jonestown incident, only the rhetorical dynamic will be discussed.

Rhetorical Dynamic.J. W. Wenzel (1987) stated that the concept of rhetorical dynamiccan be viewed as the argument-as-process deep structure (as cited in Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 78). It is here that argument is seen as a naturally occurring human activity. Individuals engage in argument in an attempt to “gain conviction and influence others by the use of rational reasons.” This dynamic serves several different purposes. For instance, the argument-as-process dynamic can be used to convince others to solve problems. It can also be used to enhance relationships and coordinate group activity.

Communicator Concepts

Communicator structure concepts identify and/or name the communicators from the perspective of a particular theory (p. 79). There are three terms that comprise RAT’s communicator concepts; these are arguer, audience, and critic.

Arguer. A person who engages in argument, is willing to put forth reasoned claims, and is willing to risk confrontation of those claims by others is an arguer. There is a risk involved because the rational confrontation may lead to disproving or modifying the arguer’s claim. Cragan and Shields note that RAT provides arguers agreed-on ground rules for arguing. “With those ground rules, arguers agree as to what constitutes data and reasoning and what makes a good case,” they report (p. 79). Arguers must agree upon the aforementioned ground rules because “it becomes difficult for people to argue satisfactorily if they possess distinctly different worldviews, paradigms, or frames of reference.”

Audience. An audience consists of a person or persons the arguer is trying to convince. An arguer should keep his or her audience in mind when building an argument. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) maintained that doing so would be the best way for the arguer to build a compelling argument (as cited in Cragan & Shields, 1998, p. 80).

Critic. A detached observer with no immediate interest in an argument’s outcome is a critic. The critic, thought to be in a superior position, assesses and draws conclusions about the validity of the arguments presented (p. 80). In rhetorical argumentation, it is the critic’s responsibility to analyze public arguments and offer judgments as to their validity.

Evaluative Concepts

With RAT, the quality and outcomes of arguments (in terms of their effects on decision-making and conviction) are evaluated. There are three primary evaluative concepts:prima facie, validity, and ethical.

Prima Facie. Prima facie states the standard of proof required for conviction or adherence to a particular argument (p. 82). Here, stock issues are supported with arguments and evidence that a reasonable person would accept until such time that the arguments and evidence are refuted.

Validity. The validity of an argument refers to the argument’s soundness. Cragan and Shields remind us to do several things when evaluating an argument (p. 83). First, an individual should engage in evidence testing by incorporating direct observation to see if facts are present. Second, one should evaluate the flow of reasoning from the data to the claim. Third, one should check for fallacies in the reasoning.

Fallacious reasoning, or logically unsound reasoning, can happen either by accident or by purpose. There are three types of fallacious reasoning: non sequitur, tautology, andad hominemNon sequitur occurs when conclusions do not follow the premises originally presented. A tautology is a circular argument that starts and ends at the same place. An ad hominem fallacy occurs when the maker of an argument is attacked as opposed to the argument itself (p. 84).

Ethical. The final primary evaluative concept of RAT is ethical. This concept tells individuals to examine the nature of an arguer and his or her argument (p. 84). Arguers should behave and argue ethically, rather than use their arguments to deceive, slander, misdirect, and/or misinform their audience.

Argument Layout Analysis

The Argument Layout Analysis (ALA) is RAT’s qualitative method. As Cragan and Shields describe, not all communication is an argument, but one will know and recognize when an argument is occurring (p. 85). RAT’s developers, in an effort to provide a layout for arguments, have provided both formal and informal models for us to use.

Formal Argument Models. “Several formal models allow you to construct valid arguments and reconstruct human talk to check the logical validity of reasoning,” say Cragan and Shields (p. 85). For example, one system makes use of syllogisms and enthymemes. The syllogism, when properly constructed, provides certain truth. The enthymeme appears in a truncated form, asking the audience to draw forth the major premise.

Informal Argument Models. An example of an informal argument model is the Toulmin model. It is routinely used to explain the reasoning process of rational argument in communication courses (p. 86). The model contains six elements: data, warrant, claim, backing for the warrant, reservation to the claim, and qualifier to the claim. The warrant and its backing become the reasoning process that takes an individual from data to claim.


According to the text, Communication as… Perspectives on Theory, RAT is essential for fulfilling three great humanistic goals:

First, a process based on rational argument is essential for empowering stakeholders in any organization to make democratic decisions. Second, rational argument is needed to test claims in order to make decisions that are both popular and in some sense sensible or pragmatically useful. Finally, a rational argument recognizes and protects the authenticity of every person. (Shepherd, St. John, & Striphas, 2006)

As we will see, RAT and its many concepts will be of great assistance in evaluating the Jonestown incident.


Explanation, Analysis, and Evaluation

For those of us whose lives were directly touched by the massacre, the images of Jonestown have never entered the realm of dispassionate historical memory. They remain a part of the hidden present, providing a point of reference in defining the conditions under which people can be led across the boundary between rational and extremely irrational behavior. (Harray, 1992)

Almost 29 years later, it is still hard for one to fathom the events that led up to those last fleeting moments at the Jonestown commune. Using Rational Argumentation Theory (RAT), it may be possible to shed some light on those events in an effort to answer several key questions, such as: What happened? Why did this event happen? What could have or might have happened to assist in avoiding the crisis that occurred before, during, and after the incident?

While it is quite possible to explain, analyze, and evaluate the entire Peoples Temple/ Jonestown incident, perhaps, given the chosen theory, it would be better to choose a particular incident or small series of incidents to investigate. For this reason, an explanation, analysis, and evaluation from the arrival of Congressman Ryan to the Jonestown establishment to the demise of 913 individuals on November 18, 1987 will be addressed.

Explanation: What Happened in Communication Terms?

When Congressman Ryan arrived in Guyana, he arrived as a critic. Initially, he had no immediate interest in the case, but the “Concerned Relatives” began to share their fears and worries with the congressman. He began to investigate the allegations and data; for instance, reports of abuse, members being held captive, etc. were being reported. As a result, Ryan began his fact-finding mission, which led him to the village in Guyana.

Several days later, Ryan and several members of his entourage were killed. While Jones denied involvement in the murders, he somehow predicted that they would occur. It was here that the communicative forces began to kick into overdrive.

As Jones addressed his followers on that November evening, he began to lay out his arguments for the mass suicide that was about to occur. Jones used an argument from sign when he said, “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world” ( Maaga, 1998). His basic premise for this argument is that the conditions of the inhumane world that he and his people lived in created the need for them to lay down their lives. Jones tells them that he has tried to give everyone within the community a good life, but those individuals who left (or attempted to leave) the commune made this an impossible reality. He refers to the defectors as behaving treasonously, going so far as to warn the community that those who fled would return to the U.S. and spread more lies about their activities.

Jones made an argument from example when he poses the question, “What happens when they [the defectors] don’t leave?” Jones, knowing good and well that the plane carrying the defectors will probably not make it off the ground, asked this question to Christine Miller during their exchange. Here, Jones argued that when it was revealed that the defectors did not make it out of the country alive, then no one there at the establishment would be safe. Jones convinced, or at least attempted to convince, the people that they would be slaughtered as well for their actions. Rather than wait for death, Jones insisted that the people kill themselves and die with dignity before someone from the outside came in and killed them all.

Jones also made use of the argument from authority assertion, again during his verbal exchange with Miller. When Jones told the 60-year-old woman that he was a prophet, he was “asserting his authority as a charismatic leader in opposition to the logic of Christine Miller” ( Maaga, 1998). One can also look at the fact that many of his followers allowed him to make the argument to die, and they carried out his orders. He had asserted his authority over the people, and only Miller was able to stand up and attempt to reason with Jones.

It is appropriate to say that Jones and Miller both served in the capacity of arguer, as both put forth reasoned claims and risked confrontation of those claims by others. In Jones’ case, he risked confrontation by Miller herself. However, Miller faced confrontation by not only Jones, but many of the other people there in the commune. They ridiculed her and told her that she would not be there had it not been for Jones. Nonetheless, Miller actively pursued her case to live, even receiving praise from Jones for always being a “very good agitator. I like agitation because you have to see two sides of one issue, two sides of a question,” he said (Maaga, 1998).

Both arguers also engaged in the rhetorical dynamic where each attempted to gain conviction and influence others by the use of rational reasons. Jones argued several things during his remarks, but he specifically argued that Russia (with whom he allegedly had a deal) would not dare take the community in because they were of no value. Instead, Jones felt as though the only way out was to kill themselves. However, Miller felt and argued differently. She believed that she, along with everyone else, had the right to choose whether or not they could live or die. She believed that the defectors who did leave were so insignificant (in terms of numbers) that it was irrational to die because they left.

In terms of an audience, Jones, members of the Jonestown community, and eventually a nation, became just that. Jones became an audience to Miller’s arguments, while members of the community were an audience to both Jones and Miller. The nation (United States) became aware of the Jonestown tragedy ex post facto, but they too became an audience.

Explanation: Why Did This Happen?

It is quite difficult to understand, much less explain, why something such as this happened. What is known is that Jones was an extremely paranoid individual who wanted to have control over his people… and he did. He drew people in by the droves with his charismatic personality, and he told them what they wanted to hear. He argued that they could live in a utopian society, where everyone would be treated as equals.

At the time, prejudice and racism still played a huge role in the United States, and it seemed   as though the world was out of control. “The war in Viet Nam was unpopular and horrific –   politically and financially motivated. The US was becoming the international bully,” said Laura   Kohl, a former member of Peoples Temple who happened to be in Georgetown on the day of   the mass suicides. “Instead of one ‘Ugly American’ from a popular book back then, the whole   international image was a disgrace” (L. Kohl, personal communication, 05/01/07). Perhaps by   aligning themselves with Jones, individuals felt as though they could trust him and that he would   lead them to a brighter time.

Evaluation: What Could Have Happened?

It has often been said that hindsight is 20/20. K. Harray (1992) makes the following observation:

The question of how one person – nonetheless an entire group – could be motivated to give away such power was, however, the most critical one [question] to ask. Not only was it essential to answer that question in order to explain what became of Peoples Temple; it was equally crucial to answer it in order to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again in the future. (p. 8)

In retrospect, this seems like the most logical place to begin looking for answers that could have assisted in avoiding the crisis altogether. One needed to truly look at Jones and his motives to determine if he had these men, women, and children’s best interests in mind.

It is certainly hard to believe that of those 913 individuals that gave their lives for the “revolutionary suicide,” only one had the nerve to stand up to Jim Jones, use his own words against him, and make perfect sense. Perhaps Miller could have garnered a larger group of people to stand up to Jones and fight for their right to live, and perhaps, Jones would have had them killed right there on the spot. If Miller would have had a stronger argument, it is quite possible that she could have swayed a few minds to join her in protesting the revolutionary suicide.



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Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on May 30th, 2020.
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