Identity’s Savior

by Cameron Fachman

From a young age, people acquire an understanding of themselves by virtue of others; in other words, not just by their physical appearances, but their experiences, interests, and social groups they join. While many identities, such as ethnicity and heritage, are more or less objectively assigned, it is the multitude of other associations in our communities that provide the distinct decisions and opinions of democratic society, some being more exclusive than others. However, it takes a special kind of group to not only appear inclusive to those whose support its ideals, but simultaneously build an exclusive ideology of a way of life under siege, the type that does not necessarily require a skilled manipulator like Jim Jones, but rather a desperate base of followers who feel they have everything to lose.

Tim Carter was one of these people, both innocent and guilty of placing a false god on a pedestal to protect his beliefs and culture out of the fear that seemed to define membership in Peoples Temple. For the judgmental and detached reader, the infamous tragedy of what occurred in Jonestown is seen as an isolated incident where a group of fanatics felt threatened by the forces of the outside world and tried to rally around a leader whose message was built on the superiority of one group against the hostility of all others. Yet this kind of “blind obedience” to make exceptions for the atrocious and questionable behavior of a guide is not new. Thanks to experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram on the true nature of obedience and control, it is easier to understand and reckon with the story of Reverend Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. It is also apparent that this story is representative of broader cultural patterns; blind obedience did not begin with Rev. Jones and is certainly a trend that is nowhere close to dying in modern society (Milgram 159). Partisan divides and conspiracy theorists continue to garner unwavering support by millions in America alone, pointing towards a deeper issue in human nature that did not die in Guyana with Peoples Temple.

In “Thirty Years Later,” Tim Carter, who is a Jonestown survivor, discusses the roots of group identity and universal tendencies that both nurtured and strangled the people of Jonestown through the desperate trust in their mission, firm loyalty to their charismatic leader, and fear of sacrificing the deadly haven they had made for themselves. In a similar fashion to how most Americans looked at the Jonestown incident as a backwards and appalling experience, Peoples Temple viewed the outside world in the same light. Carter discusses how the people of Jonestown held a “commitment to the belief that – together – we could make a difference in eliminating the polymorphous and odious specters of elitism.” While this may have initially been met with good intentions, it is precisely the concept of guiding ideologies (known as group think) which often obscure widely accepted perceptions of morality, whether it be a church gathering, rural community, or entire nation. For individuals in a group to go along with the radical ideas of the collective, Milgram asserts that obedience is key. In his Behavioral Study of Obedience, Milgram seems surprised to report how many subjects would obey an authority that asked them to continuously shock an individual, increasing the voltage each time (159). He states that an “Unanticipated effect was the extraordinary tension generated by the procedures” (Milgram 169). Even though the test subjects displayed obvious apprehension and uncertainty about what they were carrying out, the “greater good” of helping further the study compelled most to continue raising the voltage far longer than expected. Carter describes this mentality when he states that “the tenet itself offers built-in justification for any outrageous or amoral behavior” (Carter).

While the people of Jonestown accepted certain atrocities within the organization as a means to an end, Milgram’s work helps to contextualize the issue of individual responsibility in the context of group think. After all, in Milgram’s work, it would appear that the subjects in his experiment’s only justification was to further the study, yet many complied all the same. Perhaps it is not so much the justification as it is the inherent desire to be a part of a larger movement that befalls human collectives. For instance, pledges for a fraternity often undergo brutal initiations, participants in political rallies have supported racially-motivated assaults against outsiders, and the people of Salem outed women as witches not necessarily because there was a strong moral compass that justified their actions, but out of a more personal need for acceptance. It was certainly no coincidence that Peoples Temple had so many black followers, as Jones preached the involvement of all races and minorities, building the foundation of the church on top of the notion of inclusion. Carter claims that the members of Peoples Temple were the “faces of America,” and any fabricated justifications thought up along the way to protect Jonestown residents from some of the real racial oppression and rejection occurring in the country could more or less be attributed to a reliance on the equality the group seemingly provided.

In a landscape as psychically and mentally isolated as Jonestown, the very existence of a collective identity did not rely on those among them, but rather all who “opposed” them. Individuals turned to Peoples Temple to find a greater meaning in themselves and expand who they were, yet the tragic reality was that all that defined them was everything they were not. A community built on fear is no longer a community if you take fear out of the equation. Take away all of the constant “threats” to the religious group’s way of life (such as those spouted by Jim Jones during his copious White Night rituals) and all that was left was a collection of people who weren’t really sure why they had left their loved ones to come to Guyana. The alienation and anxiety shared by a group of people who feared that their identities were under siege was what attracted Jim Jones to a position of power in the first place. Jones was the product of a larger collective of individuals who wanted a powerful mentor to protect and define their very existence. This is true for many manipulative and calculating leaders in history; after all, there would be no Hitler without anti-Semitism.

Carter once more supports the notion that this incident extends far beyond Jonestown when he says, “Many are blind to the striking and disturbing contemporary political correlation to this exact phenomenon by many Americans.” He is spot on in more ways than one, as the partisan divide in this country has grown greater than nearly ever before. Gone are the days of the middle ground of moderates and independents. In modern American society an individual is either with one party or the “other.” The panicked fear of outsiders’ intrusion on the “utopia” Peoples Temple had created compelled its members to continually make excuses and ignore Jim Jones’ often atrocious and questionable behavior. A haunting similarity can be seen in recent years that detailed the rise of the nation’s latest president. Many Republicans would make exceptions for Donald Trump’s bigoted, sexist, and often shocking words and actions due to a very similar group mentality: a people under attack by outsiders. The candidate warned his followers about the politically correct culture, illegal immigrants, and radical Muslims who challenged white America’s way of life. A scapegoat must be formed by the individuals who desire power of the fearful masses, a tactic embraced by the far-fetched conspiracies of Alex Jones and Donald Trump about the Mexican and Muslim communities. This mentality of “us versus them,” this union of a shared hatred and blame of the outside world for the identity crisis of those on the inside is promoted by leaders and conspirators ranging from social cliques, radio hosts, and governments. It is the direct result of a susceptible people wanting to preserve their group identities. Just as Donald Trump was described as the product of disenfranchised Americans, Jim Jones can be seen as the byproduct of an oppressive and exploitative society. Jones would not have succeeded if not for the desire shared by members of Peoples Temple to create a more just world; likewise, the organizing principles of Peoples Temple also demanded that Jones acknowledge and manipulate these very real fears by casting the world outside as dangerous and threatening.

It has been established that the troublesome “utopias” like Jonestown are immediate results of individuals’ desire for acceptance which allow charismatic leaders to rise which have autonomy to get away with almost anything their people feel is justified. Yet there is still an additional component that drives the collectives to form together and their leaders to manipulate them: the perceived threats themselves. Carter states that “[t]he reason that over one thousand Americans – embracing all socioeconomic groups – chose to leave the United States and live communally in an agrarian cooperative was their discontent with the status quo.” If the status quo of society is one that either oppresses, discriminates, or goes against what a group stands for or represents, then naturally that group can react in one of two ways: detach or retaliate. For Peoples Temple, both methods were adopted, as Carter discusses how the group initially left the country to distance themselves from “unfavorable” circumstances, followed by retaliation when they murdered a congressman and forced people to commit suicide. However, this would not have come close to this level of extremity if not for the forces already at work that the members of Peoples Temple already felt were working against them long before Jim Jones came along. A sentiment of defensiveness is adopted in Lawrence G. Proulx’s “A Group You Can Safely Attack,” where an angered columnist retaliates against claims that white men need to change their ways towards other races (Proulx 837). A common trend previously discussed emerges once more, with the concept of white people being under attack prevalent during the 2016 presidential campaign. According to Proulx: “[t]here is something in the air that implicitly imparts the message that white people and men have it coming” (838). Here, he tries to inspire anger in his readers, a tactic not too different from the fiery and paranoid speeches of denouncement of mainstream society perpetuated by Jim Jones (Proulx 838). Upon first glance of people like Proulx and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones claiming that white society is being infiltrated, there seems to be no directly apparent connection to Jonestown aside from the concept of fear and “a people under siege.” However, both the contemporary equivalents and the claims made in Guyana share one crucial similarity: they are mainly fabricated and exaggerated.

In Carter’s eyes, “Peoples Temple was filled with contradictions, ironies, and paradoxes.” These paradoxes we might attribute to the naive and beaten down psyches of its followers frantically believing any fear-inducing messages their leader proclaimed. There is no difference between this and the followers of conspiracy theorists and claims of wiretapping and false birth certificates; no evidence is needed as long as the culture of a group is seemingly threatened. Once people collectivize for acceptance and place a scheming prophet as their idol, fear is the final nail in the coffin that destroys the individual, only for the hive mind to remain.

The roots of group identity and universal tendencies that both nurtured and strangled the people of Jonestown through the fear of sacrificing the deadly haven they had made for themselves, desperate trust in their mission, and firm loyalty to their charismatic leader are all aspects discussed by Tim Carter in “Thirty Years Later.” Despite all of the calls of accusation towards Jim Jones and his horrific actions, it can be believed that identity lies at the center of this tragedy. There were some individuals in Peoples Temple who did choose to commit suicide, and whether that was out of absolute devotion to their cause, the need to die with the group they associated themselves with, or by being forced to do so, they died as they lived, a collective identity. The question of if this is a problem that can be solved, or even if this is an issue that everyone wants to be solved, is both tragic and foreboding in its implications. People will always want to feel a sense of belonging, and certain groups will especially feel threatened if this belonging is challenged. In all irony, the only true savior for identity to persist may be individualism itself, but as long as society continues to grow apart, what it means to be an outsider continues to change.

Works Cited

Carter, Tim. “Thirty Years Later.” 26 Mar. 2017

LePan, Don, Laura Buzzard, Nora Ruddock, and Alexandria Stuart. The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose. 3rd ed. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2016. Print.

(Cameron Fachman is a sophomore at New York University studying politics and journalism. He enjoys writing about social and political issues and is always eager to debate. He can be reached at cdf313@duke.edu.)

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