Monday, September 22, 2008

39.0 Arguing for Your Life: A New Dialectical Analysis of Jonestown

Below, find my draft of my current Minnesota Philosophical Association submission. Rough around the edges, especially in offering a contribution to theory, but there you go. The narrative of the People's Temple is terriby rough, although I only have 20 minutes, so I justify that way.

Arguing For Your Life
A New Dialectical Analysis of the Debates in the Last Hours of Jonestown
David Beard
Department of Writing Studies
University of Minnesota Duluth

The model for argumentation developed by Douglas Walton is the most thoroughgoing attempt to integrate a sense of the logical coherence of arguments with a sense that every argument has an audience. Unlike Ralph Johnson (in Manifest Rationality), who insists that every argument contains both an illative core and a dialectical tier (responding to those audience imperatives) without really enumerating what those dialectical obligations are, Walton does map our obligations to our audiences and our interlocutors.

Those obligations are understood in terms of dialogue types. The family of dialogue types serves as a mechanism for the categorization of discourse (identifying the type of dialogue which a discourse participates in). If we can identify the type of dialogue being engaged, we can generate normative rules for evaluation and strategic rules for practice.

The subject of this paper, the case study which makes manifest the usefulness of Walton's model, may appear to be sensationalistic. Jonestown is a wound in the hearts of many Americans who lost family members in Guyana. It is also the source of dismissive popular culture references (“drink the kool-aid”) and has joined the ranks of the odd or the irregular in American lore. I want to bracket those considerations, though, and simply explore the transcripts of the last dialogues at Jonestown, preserves in audio recordings and reconstructed by multiple sources, including the FBI. These transcripts show someone (specifically, Jonestown resident Christine Miller) arguing for their life and along the way demonstrating what happens when interlocutors do not hold the same expectations for dialogue types. The case of Jonestown validates the usefulness of the Walton model. It also offers a small indication of the weaknesses of this model in dealing with certain nonargumentative discourse (like apocalyptic narrative), though in this short paper, those weaknesses are only hinted at.

About Jonestown

After fleeing political and legal complications in the United States, Jim Jones and his followers in the People's Temple established an agricultural commune in Guyana. The commune was based on a political and social ideology of equality and liberty, especially revolutionary in terms of its acceptance of racial equality, although complicated by Jones's shifting religious ideology. (A brochure of the Peoples Temple portrayed leader Jim Jones as the loving father of the "Rainbow Family.") The geographical isolation from the United States, the lack of communication with the commune, and some questionable practices in funding the commune (using direct payment of social security checks, for example) led to a political visit by a US representative and concerned family members.

That visit went well, initially, until two members of the Temple passed notes to the visitors seeking help in leaving. Not quite, really, aware of his isolation in the jungles of Guyana, the representative told the residents of Jonestown that anyone wishing to return to the United States could leave with him, under the protection of the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, one of the loyal residents attempted to stab the representative. After that resident was subdued, the representative identified residents to leave with them the next morning.

One of the fleeing residents was a plant, a loyal resident who intended not to let the representative or the fleeing residents leave. He opened fire at the airstrip, killing the representative and many of those with him. Simultaneously, back at the agricultural commune, Jim Jones called a meeting.

The meeting echoed earlier meetings at Jonestown - loyalty tests, in which Jones ordered a Kool-Aid-like beverage, ostensibly laced with poison, drunk by anyone old enough to do so. (Infants and the elderly were to have the poison injected into their mouths or veins, as appropriate.) It is clear, this time, that the loyalty test was no mere test this time. In part, this is because Jones' rhetoric is as much hortatory as mournful. First, he lays out the situation: the events that have brought the commune to the crisis point where it resides.

Jones: There's no way to detach ourselves from what's happened today... We're in a compound situation, not only are there those who have left and committed the betrayal of the century, some have stolen children from others and then seek right now to kill them because they stole their children, and we are sitting here waiting on a powder keg. ... So, to sit here and wait for the catastrophe that's going to happen on that airplane (it's gonna be a catastrophe) ... Almost happened here, almost happened, the congressman was nearly killed here... one of the few on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot. I know that. I didn't plan it, but I know it's gonna happen. They're gonna shoot that pilot, and down comes that plane into the jungle and we had better not have any of our children left when it's over, 'cause they'll parachute in here on us. I'm telling you just as plain as I know how to tell you, I've never lied to you... I never have lied to you... it'll happen.

He then moves to justify both the execution of the representative and pilot:

But you can't steal people's children. You can't take off with people's children without expecting a violent reaction. And, that's not so unfamiliar to us, either, even if we were Judeo-Christian, even if we weren't Communists. The worldly kingdom suffers violence and the violence is triggered by force.

Though Jones says he did not authorize this violence, he nonetheless recognizes that it will have consequences for his community, and that there must be pre-emptive action.

If we can't live in peace then we must die in peace... It was said by the greatest of prophets, from time immemorial, "No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down." ... So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide. It's a revolutionary act.

At this point, Jones invites others to speak. This was not unusual for Jonestown; it has been established that Jones was hardly democratic, but he welcomed open discussion.

Anybody ... Anyone that has any dissenting opinion, please speak ... Yes ... You can have opportunity.

One resident of Jonestown, recorded clearly on the surviving tapes, Christine Miller, would take this opportunity. Jones wants it to appear that he is open to Miller's arguments (“Christine, and I appreciate- You've always been a very good agitator. I like agitation because you have to see two sides of one issue, two sides of the question.”), in the manner of good persuasion dialogue. He's been open to her before.

About Christine Miller:

A great deal has been written about Christine Miller. Michael Bellefountaine has claimed that she “valiantly tried to dissuade the Jonestown leadership's decision to enact revolutionary suicide.” And, Bellefountaine has done a good deal of work in outlining Miller's position in the community:

Although all Temple members were required to turn their personal possessions over to the church when they went communal - and even more fundamentally, were discouraged from wearing trappings of the elite - Jones allowed Christine to retain and wear some of her fur and jewelry... It could be that Christine Miller was one of the few people who simply refused to give up the things for which she had worked so hard. She knew what she wanted, and she acted on it. We know that members of the inner circle refused Jim Jones' advances, and that certain members were able to argue and refute him, within accepted boundaries. Although she was not a member of the inner circle, Christine Miller was apparently one of these people.

Independence in Jonestown meant subjecting yourself to psychological and physical threats of violence.

Jones had gotten into the habit of handling guns during these meetings, and on at least one tape recording (Q833 from late March 1978) picked up the sound of Jones firing a shot to wake up people in the crowd who were sleeping. Additionally the isolation of the community, with Jones' word as sole authority, put anyone who opposed him in a very vulnerable position. A troublesome person could be put in a sensory deprivation box, drugged in the medical unit or - as he threatened - shot on the spot and buried in the jungle. There was not much that one person could do to stop any of those things from happening. In Jonestown, Jim Jones did have the power of life and death.

Miller's unique position (and bravery in this context) is revealed in earlier tapes of arguments at Jonestown.

At one meeting Christine and Jones exchanged words. It was heated... Jones became frustrated with Christine's vocal independence. He pointed the gun at her and said he could shoot her, and no one would ever find out. Christine replied, “You can shoot me, but you are going to have to respect me first.” Jones repeated his threat with more menace, but Christine wouldn't back down. “You can do that,” she said, “but you are going to have to respect me first.” A moment later, Jones was standing before her, holding the gun to her head, shouting his rage at her defiance. She looked him in the eye and said calmly, “You can shoot me, but you will respect me.” The standoff ended when Jones - not Christine - backed down. This tells a lot about Christine's fortitude and self-respect. It especially sheds light on her relationship with Jones which makes her stand out - and stand apart - from many of the other residents of Jonestown.

Miller continued that independent spirit to the last, in a failed dialogue with Jones in the last hours of Jonestown.

The Dialectical Analysis of the Arguments in the Last Hours at Jonestown

The crux of the miscommunication between Jim Jones and Christina Miller lies not in their different goals (Jones, to destroy his commune in an act of “revolutionary suicide”; Miller, to live one more day). Rather, it begins with their basic assumptions of what counts as “fair” dialogue.

Miller begins , naively, perhaps, with the presumption that she can reason with Jones - that she can address him directly, and through such address, she can affect his decision. Jones, on the other hand, responds to Miller almost incidentally. Always, throughout their debate, he is primarily addressing the mass of residents of Jonestown. Jones is trying to convince them that his apocalyptic vision is the only vision, that his interpretation of events is the only interpretation of events possible. His response to Jones is intended not to convince her to see his way, but instead to convince the mass of residents of Jonestown of the integrity, purity and insight inherent in his vision.

In terms of argument, Miller is engaged in persuasion dialogue, while Jones is engaged in debate dialogue.

Persuasion Dialogue:

In a persuasion dialogue, both participants take a role in the dialogue: According to Douglas Walton, "the proponent's goal and obligation is to present arguments supporting one point of view, and it is up to the respondent to ask critical questions, or to bring forward important arguments, against that point of view, or for a different point of view" (Appeal to Pity 160). Persuasion dialogues can be symmetrical or asymmetrical (asymmetrical dialogues being characterized by traditional media - like a persuasive speech on television).

In a symmetrical persuasion dialogue, both participants can engage in persuasion at the same time, each advancing arguments in support of their position. According to Walton, "the purpose of persuasion dialogue is to test out the strongest arguments on both sides of a particular proposition. There are two sides in the sense that the one party is committed to the proposition, while the other side is uncommitted or may even be committed to the negation of it. Each side tries to persuade the other side to change its commitment" (Pragmatic Theory of Fallacy 19; see also One-Sided Arguments 31 and The Place of Emotion in Argument 20). The win-loss conditions of a persuasion dialogue, then, are gaining the assent of the interlocutor.

Walton is not the only theorist to explore this kind of persuasion dialogue. Pragma-dialectical philosophers of language (van Eemeren and Grootendorst, especially) discuss the “critical discussion,” a symmetrical subset of the persuasion dialogue. According to Walton, "The goal of a critical discussion is to resolve a conflict of opinions. The pragma-dialecticians Van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1984) describe four stages of critical discussion: the opening stage, the confrontation stage, the argumentation stage, and the closing stage" (One-Sided Arguments 30; see also Argumentation Schemes for Presumptive Reasoning 24). Following their lead, Walton has developed a set of normative rules for this subset of persuasion dialogue.

• Parties must not prevent each other from advancing or casting doubts on standpoints.

• Whoever advances a standpoint is obliged to defend it if asked to do so.

• An attack on a standpoint must relate to the standpoint that has really been advanced by the protagonist.

• A standpoint may be defended only by advancing argumentation relating to that standpoint.

• A person can be held to the premises he leaves implicit.

• A standpoint must be regarded as conclusively defended if the defense takes place by means of arguments belonging to the common starting points.

• A standpoint must be regarded as conclusively defended if the defense takes place by means of arguments in which a commonly accepted scheme of argumentation is correctly applied.

• The arguments used in a discursive text must be valid or capable of being validated by the [making explicit] of one or more unexpressed premises.

• A failed defense must result in the protagonist withdrawing his standpoint and a successful defense must result in the antagonist withdrawing his doubt about the standpoint.

• Formulations must be neither puzzlingly vague nor confusingly ambiguous and must be interpreted as accurately as possible. (Pragmatic Theory of Fallacy 10-11)

Like the Habermasian ideal speech situation (see Habermas' Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1990) and Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics (1983), the pragma-dialectical Critical Discussion represents the way persuasion dialogue should work, not the way it often does work. The models developed both by van Eemeren and Grootendorst and by Walton for a critical discussion are closer to a counterfactual ideal, which might be used as a measure for critical interpretation of actual argument.

Debate Dialogue:

A persuasion dialogue is markedly different from a debate, in Walton's schema. When two politicians engage each other, they have as a primary goal to win the heart of the audience (of voters, for example), and only secondarily to convince the other with whom they debate. To win the heart of the voter, debaters draw upon the resources of persuasion dialogue. They might also draw upon the eristic dialogue type, in which they verbally attack the opponent. As a result, the listeners may side with the debater because they are persuaded of the value of their position, or they may side with them because the other side has lost the debate, by virtue of eristic tactics used. Walton notes that “an argument that scores well in a debate may not be a justifiable or reasonable argument from a logical point of view,” precisely because it may not win on its own merits, but simply may persevere when the other's argument has fallen (Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic in Argumentation 42; Commitment in Dialogue 66).

Debates, then, are structured dialogues which are distinct from other types of persuasion dialogue because they are assessed by a third party. Debates are intended to allow two interlocutors to argue with each other, not with intent of persuading each other, but with intent of persuading a third party (or collective audience).

Christine Miller's Strategies of Persuasion

Miller always intends, throughout the dialogue, to persuade Jones that they don't need to commit revolutionary suicide. Her lines of argument are multiple.

First, she argues that flight is a viable option, asking Jones “Is it too late for Russia?... Well, I say let's make an airlift to Russia” She believes that Jones has a way to contact Russia, and that they might use that emergency contact (“Well, I -- Well, I thought you -- they said if we got in an emergency, that they gave you a code to let them know.”) Jones says that he will make a call to Russia, though there is no evidence that such contact was ever made. This appeal is unsuccessful; Jones is unmoved.

Second, she argues that the sacrifice is not proportional to the events: “I think that there were too few who left for twelve hundred people to give them their lives, for those people that left... Oooh, twenty odd ... that's, that's small ... Compared to what's here.” Here, she is echoing Jones's sense of betrayal, and trying to place it in perspective. The fleeing residents of Jonestown were, to her, too few in number to be worth the death of everyone there.

Jones rejects that argument, largely because he knows that it's not the flight of the 20 that will bring retribution down on the Jonestown community, but instead the murder of the pilot and the politicians. Miller is making an argument using a kind of evidence that Jones finds irrelevant to the decision.

Third, Miller argues on behalf of the children: “But I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live ...” Jones rebuts this argument with claims about quality of life - the children, in his mind, deserve peace, and the events of the day have guaranteed that there can be no peace. When Miller argues, in particular, about Jones's own child (“Christine: You wanna see John die?... You mean you wanna see John, the little one, who's keep...”), Jones appeals to the equal value of all his flock. Jones never directly responds to Miller's arguments on their own terms (a clear failure, in terms of the normative standards set by Walton).

Fourth, Miller makes her most sophisticated arguments when she attempts to use Jones' own preaching and the tenets of the People's Temple as grounds to convince Jones to change her mind. She claims that “I feel like as long as there's life, there's hope. That's my faith.” Michael Bellefountaine makes clear that this is not Miller's invention; this line is, nearly word for word, reproduced from one of Jones's sermons. She is attempting to begin at Jones's own starting point, in arguing against the revolutionary suicide.

Jones fails to rebut Miller's argument directly, again, and points toward the inevitability of death. Jones has made up his mind, and is closed to any of Miller's counter-arguments. He is refusing to follow what Walton believes are essential tenets of the persuasion dialogue:

An attack on a standpoint must relate to the standpoint that has really been advanced by the protagonist.

A standpoint must be regarded as conclusively defended if the defense takes place by means of arguments belonging to the common starting points.

Jones never really addresses Miller's objections directly, and he refuses to acknowledge what Miller advances as common starting points for argumentation. Jones just isn't participating in Miller's intended dialogue type.

Fifth, and exasperatedly, I think, Miller decides that, if she can't convince Jones not to enact revolutionary suicide for the community, she might be able to assert her own right to choose. I say “assert” because she no longer presents arguments, at this point; she is no longer trying to persuade Jones to change his mind, but instead to respect her ability to make up her own: “I know that. But I still think, as an individual, I have a right to ... I think, what I feel, and I think we all have the right to our own destiny as individuals... And I think I have the right to choose mine and everybody else has the right to choose theirs... I think that I still have the right to my own opinion.” Note the language of assertion, rather than argument.

Jones here makes careful steps to allow Miller to assert her right to her own mind. In this sense, he appears to be following the first tenet of a persuasion dialogue; he claims that “Mm-hmmm. I'm not criticizing, I'm not governing...” At the same time Jones is reinforcing the idea in the other residents of Jonestown that the decision she wants to make is tantamount to betrayal. “I cannot separate myself from the pain of my people. And you can't either, Christine, if you stop to think of it. You can't separate yourself. We've walked too long together,” according to Jones.

Others in the audience pick up this theme. An unidentified woman (in the background) describes Miller in this way: “She talks like she wants to leave us, well, she can go ahead ... they're our individual lives, that's what you're saying.” Jones immediately compares that decision with the decision of Jonestown residents to try to flee with the representative. “That's today, that's what twenty people said today with their lives.” Jones was never really arguing with Miller, at all; Miller wanted to persuade Jones to change him mind, but his mind could not be moved. The end of the story was already written, to Jones. His rhetorical purpose, in arguing with Miller, was not a critical discussion designed to engage Miller's counterarguments. Instead, he was buttressing support for his plan of action among the other residents.

By the time that Miller has begun to pull the other residents into the discussion, it is too late. Other, unidentified residents bark at Miller, very nearly silencing her: “Christine, you're only standing here because he was here in the first place. So I don't know what you're talking about having an individual life. Your life has been extended to the day that you're standing there because of him.” This is clearly not a vision of her own life that Miller would have accepted, but it is clear that Christine Miller never had a chance of persuading Jones and has missed any opportunity to persuade her fellow residents.

Jones and the Debate Dialogue:

So what, exactly, was Jones up to? It is clear that, in the perspective of the New Dialectic, he was engaged in the debate dialogue. Never really intending to argue his own mind with Miller, he intended to field her objections as a way of cementing his hold on everyone else.

Most of his replies are not in the form of arguments, but instead in terms of narratives... he claims that “Check with Russia to see if they'll take us in immediately. Otherwise we die. ... There's no use, Christine, it's just not worth living like this ... not worth living like this.” Most of Jones's replies, when they extend for more than a line, take the form of an apocalyptic narrative:

For months I've tried to keep this thing from happening but I now see it's the will ... it's the will of Sovereign Being that this happened to us. That we lay down our lives in protest against what's been done. That we lay down our lives to protest in what's being done. The criminality of people, the cruelty of people. Who walked out of here today? Did you notice who walked out? Mostly white people, mostly white people walked. I'm so grateful for the ones that didn't, those who knew who they are. There's, there's no point, there's no point to this. We are born before our time. They won't accept us.

In the end, Jones claims that “This is the revolutionary ... this is revolutionary suicide council, I'm not talking about self, self-destruction. I'm talking about what, we have no other road.” The New Dialectical model is not a very good tool, to be honest, on its own, to evaluate this kind of distorted causal argument. The leaps of logic are better served by old-fashioned critical thinking and logical analysis. But that limitation is a paper for another day.

The bitterest irony, of course, is that Jones has maintained the appearance of rational argumentation. He appears genuinely open to debate and dialogue. In fact, he even claims that “what I do, I do with weight and justice and judgment. I've weighed it against all evidence.” He did no such thing, of course.

The tragedy is that Christine Miller, a quick thinker and strong orator, took him at his word.


Could Miller have made a difference? We know, from the forensic evidence, that there was resistance to the mass suicide; some died by injection, likely because they resisted voluntarily drinking the Flavor-Aid. If Miller had recognized the real dialectical constraints under which she operated, and if Miller had recognized that she needed to persuade not Jones, but the other residents, might she have better marshaled her arguments? We'll never know. But the New Dialectic of Douglas Walton gives us some sense of how the arguments happened, why they functioned as they did. The case of the last arguments in Jonestown reminds us of the importance of the New Dialectical perspective in the teaching of argumentation and critical thinking.


About Jonestown:

All text about Jonestown in the paper is derived from the SDSU website on “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” available online at

About the New Dialectic and Related Approaches to Argument

Selected from Douglas Walton's homepage:

1. Argumentation Schemes, Douglas Walton, Chris Reed and Fabrizio Macagno, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

2. Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

3. Witness Testimony Evidence: Argumentation, Artificial Intelligence and Law, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

4. Dialog Theory for Critical Argumentation, Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishers, 2007.

5. Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion and Rhetoric, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

6. Character Evidence: An Abductive Theory, Berlin, Springer, 2007.

7. Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

8. Argumentation Methods for Artificial Intelligence in Law, Berlin, Springer (Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence Series), 2005.

9. Abductive Reasoning, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2004.

10. Relevance in Argumentation, Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004 (paperback also available).

11. Ethical Argumentation, Lanham, Md., Lexington Books, 2002.

12. Legal Argumentation and Evidence, University Park, Pa., Penn State Press, 2002.

13. Scare Tactics: Arguments that Appeal to Fear and Threats (Argumentation Library Series), Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

14. Appeal to Popular Opinion, University Park, Pa., Penn State Press, 1999.

15. One-Sided Arguments : A Dialectical Analysis of Bias, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999.

16. Ad Hominem Arguments, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1998.

17. The New Dialectic, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1998.

18. Appeal to Expert Opinion : Arguments from Authority, University Park, Pa., Penn State Press, 1997.

19. Appeal to Pity : Argumentum ad Misericordiam (SUNY Series in Logic and Language), Albany, SUNY Press, 1997.

20. Historical Foundations of Informal Logic, (co-edited with Alan Brinton), Aldershot, England, Ashgate Publishing (Avebury Series in Philosophy), 1997.

21. Argument Structure : A Pragmatic Theory (Toronto Studies in Philosophy), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1996.

22. Argumentation Schemes for Presumptive Reasoning (Studies in Argumentation Series), Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996.

23. Arguments from Ignorance, University Park, Pa., Penn State Press, 1996.

24. Fallacies Arising from Ambiguity (Applied Logic Series), Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996.

25. Commitment in Dialogue: Basic Concepts of Interpersonal Reasoning (SUNY Series in Logic and Language), with Erik C.W. Krabbe, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995.

26. A Pragmatic Theory of Fallacy (Studies in Rhetoric and Communication Series), Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1995.

27. The Place of Emotion in Argument, University Park, Pa., Penn State Press, 1992.

28. Plausible Argument in Everyday Conversation (SUNY Speech Communication Series). Albany, State University of New York Press, 1992.

29. Slippery Slope Arguments. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992 Reprinted 1999 Newport News, Virginia, Vale Press.

30. Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation, New York, Greenwood Press, 1991.

31. Practical Reasoning: Goal-Driven, Knowledge-Based, Action-Guiding Argumentation, Savage, Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield, 1990.

32. Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

33. Question-Reply Argumentation, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1989.

34. Informal Fallacies (Pragmatics and Beyond Companion Series, IV), Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1987.

36. Arguer's Position: A Pragmatic Study of Ad Hominem Attack, Criticism, Refutation, and Fallacy, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1985.

38. Logical Dialogue-Games and Fallacies, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1984.

Selected from Other Authors

Eemeren, F. H. van and R. Grootendorst. Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies: A Pragma-Dialectical Perspective, Hillsdale, N.J. : L. Erlbaum, 1992.

... A Systematic Theory of Argumentation: The Pragma-Dialectical Approach, New York : Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Johnson, Ralph. Manifest Rationality, Mahwah, N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

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