Tragedy in Jonestown and its Impact on the Future

There is no doubt that Jim Jones possessed charisma. The term »charismatic« comes from the ancient Greek word »charis,« which means »gracekindness and life.« Charismatic people are usually considered as graceful and virtuous. The idea of using one’s charisma and influence in order to lead is not a new way of looking at organizational management, although the social science theories around it – which are the subject of my main professional interest – have been more recently developed. This original definition, however, does not apply to the personality of Jim Jones, at least when considered over the entire arc of his life. In some ways, of course, he was graceful and virtuous, especially at the beginning of the Peoples Temple movement. But by the end, the negative characteristics which can distort charismatic leadership had replaced the positive.

Nowadays, we meet a number of charismatic leaders, mostly in the political arena. The majority of them exhibit humane characteristics to both their domestic and foreign audiences. They are diplomatic, they avoid conflict with other leaders, and they gain respect through their calm nature and ability to lead with a safe and thougtful approach.

Others, however, exhibit a more aggressive approach. They have a dynamic personality, but their decisions are often made impulsively, and they can not accept others’ opinions easily. They see themselves as the only person who is right, and therefore they need no counsel other than themselves. Their leadership tends to result in a split among the governed: people are either completed devoted to them, or they are afraid of them. It is hard not to fall under the spell of such a leader’s ideology, especially if you are vulnerable and you need somebody to lead you. The power they possess, however, often makes it dangerous to oppose them.

If we have learned anything from history, unchecked allegiance to charismatic leadership can create someone like Hitler and other populist tyrants on the world stage. So too can it create someone like the leader of the Peoples Temple movement, Jim Jones.

We do not live in an ideal world. We have made it that way for ourselves. We need to take care to avoid situations which can potentially lead to destructive behaviour and tragic end. For that we need to develop certain social skills and strong character among ourselves to respond to such leadership.

I think that in the future, more and more people will find their own way in this world. To seek a higher purpose in life, and to determine one’s own identity are two of the most important things each of us can do.

At the same time, some people will try to take control over people’s lives and steer them in what they consider to be the »right« direction. Some will do it very loud and publicly, some will take over slowly and indirectly.

The Jonestown tragedy in a very good example of the type of charismatic leader that everyone should understand. Both for today and for the future generations, it offers a good reminder of how to be careful in your decision-making of who you trust and follow.

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary (1995) argue that a fundamental human need is to form and maintain at least a minimum number of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships. Satisfying this need requires frequent and positive interactions with the same individuals, while simultaneously engaging in these interactions within a framework of long-term stable care and concern.

Despite the adrenalin and excitement of changing romantic partners, the need for some stable caring interactions with a limited number of people is a more greater imperative to achieve. Baumeister and Leary claim that human beings are “naturally driven toward establishing and sustaining belongingness.” Hence, “people should generally be at least as reluctant to break social bonds as they are eager to form them in the first place.” They argue that in many cases, people are reluctant to dissolve even destructive relationships. The need to belong goes beyond the need for superficial social ties or sexual interactions; it is a need for meaningful, profound bonding. This sense of belongingness is crucial to our well-being.

The lack of a sense of belongingness causes various undesirable effects, including a decrease in the segment of mental and physical health and adjustment. People with a lack of belongingness suffer higher levels of mental and physical illness, and are more likely to develop a broad range of behavioral problems, with the extremes being criminality to suicide.

There is no doubt each of us needs to belong with a person or an institution to which we can pledge our respect and devotion. The only question is how to find the right one, the one that will not lead into some kind of destructive behaviour and later into a tragic end. We need to publicize all such events like the Jonestown tragedy – and the negative aspects of its charismatic leader – to warn people of the signs of a destructive community.

(Manca Konjedic lives in Kranj, Slovenia and is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles are here.)