Re: Significance of memetics

Tue, 24 Nov 1998 09:12:38 -0500 (EST)

Subject: Re: Significance of memetics
Date: Tue, 24 Nov 1998 09:12:38 -0500 (EST)

On Mon, 23 Nov 1998 17:34:33 -0600 Lloyd Robertson
<> wrote:

> When the Rev. Jimmy Jones suggested to his followers that they
> compassionately administer cynanide to their young children and then mass
> suicide, was he giving an order to a group of automatons or was he voicing
> the consensous of the group mind?

The tape of the last few hours of the Jonestown incident (macabrely
recorded by Jones himself) has now been released by the FBI and lengthy
excerpts were broadcast in a Channel 4 documentary here in the UK last

It appears that Jones had serious difficulties persuading his
followers to take the poison. Many didn't and were murdered or
escaped. Even those who took the poison did so under conditions of
extreme duress and distress (the weeping and wailing was frightful).
Jones himself was shot, apparently not suicide but his executioner was
never identified. It seems likely that an armed member of the cult
took him out rather than take the poison.

So on the question of automata vs. group mind, the answer is probably
neither. This was a straightforward case of bullying, and in the end a
few people decided not to be bullied any more.

Many surviving members of Jones' cult were interviewed, both from
Jonestown and San Francisco, and it was apparent that they valued their
quasi-communist life in Jonestown and were rather resentful when Jones
himself arrived to spoil it. There were rumblings of revolt throughout
Jones' stay in the community, which were brutally quashed.

Footage of Jones' religious ceremonies indicates that he went to great
pains to fake miracles with a skill that could have earned him a career
as a stage magician. Old bits of chicken entrails were mixed with
human blood and then produced from tablecloths held under the mouths of
his victims during induced coughing fits. The dupes would then swear
they had coughed up a cancer. Some still believe today that they did

One thing which struck me was the degree to which Jones' followers had
become convinced by the 'evidence' he had presented to them. Many were
skeptical when they arrived but were slowly won over by his skillful
Copperfieldian antics. All in all, it seemed like they were undergoing
an 'individual learning' process, being convinced slowly by their own
(tricked) experiences. It didn't look like a contagion event. Belief
in Jones was not transmitted but accrued individually in each mind
though a process of slow attrition, which was neither social contagion
nor imitation. The fact that there were always some who couldn't quite
swallow the mumbo-jumbo proved to be Jones' ultimate undoing.
Otherwise he would probably still be alive today and living in hiding.

And should we call it a group mind
at all
> (I have trouble anthropomorphizing collections of memes)? Could we not say
> that the collection of memes forming the group's religious subculture
> restricted their perceived options, increasingly so as the crisis continued
> until suicide appeared to be the only viable solution.

But there were many 'solutions' within the group. Some tried
unsuccessfully to leave with the Senator, whom Jones had murdered along
with the accompanying NBC camera crew, some acquiesed reluctantly to
his bullying and took the poison, some fought back and were shot, some
managed to run away - Jones gave one survivor a briefcase stuffed with
dollars and told him to take it to a bank in Aruba (if I remember
rightly), but the courier ditched the money in the jungle.

> It seems to me that if it was all a matter of a psychopathic Jones who was
> endowed with plenty of personal charisma then those members left in the
> U.S. would not have suicided during the month following Jonestown.

This wasn't mentioned in the programme. Why did they suicide on their
own whereas the ones in Guyana had to be bullied, cajoled and
threatened into it?

A more
> likely process is that the suicide meme easily attached to the belief
> system shared by the whole group.

But there was no shared belief system. They were a very heterogeneous
group of people united solely by their unfortunate devotion to a
charismatic trickster.


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