Stray Kernels – Drinking the Kool-Aid

Posted: April 27, 2018

“You’re drinking the Kool-Aid.” You’ve heard this phrase. It came into use after the massacre almost 40 years ago in Guyana, when followers of cult leader Jim Jones drank poison mixed with Kool-Aid or Flavor Aid drink mix. Over 900 people died.

Said lightly, “drinking the Kool-Aid” implies someone has embraced an idea or cause wholeheartedly. Uttered more harshly, it’s an insult—a way of saying someone is gullible, brainwashed.

In a 20-minute conversation, the accusation “you’re drinking the Kool-Aid” was tossed at me at least three times.

The individual with whom I spoke had expressed interest in what makes me tick. What are my interests? What drives me? So I talked about how interesting and meaningful I find my job.

I described the satisfaction of helping people understand their connection to what happens on farms. I mentioned the appeal of constantly learning new things.

I revealed the frustration of addressing “common knowledge myths” about agriculture— fiction-based “facts” about food production that consumers take for granted.

“Man, you’re really drinking the Kool-Aid.” My confidant’s tone dripped with scornful pity. I instantly regretted my revelations. I tried to explain myself.

It didn’t go well. What I’d thought was genuine curiosity became a mechanism for ridicule. When I explained I am not oblivious to weaknesses and challenges in the ag industry and gave examples, I was met with withering disgust. “You think that’s all that’s wrong with agriculture?”

When I asked for other examples of problems with modern farming or of how the industry should be different, I couldn’t get an answer. The implication was that the problems and solutions are so obvious as to not necessitate naming. I was told—again—that I was “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Evidently, my seeing anything positive about modern agriculture and (worse yet) working to increase understanding of its benefits means I’ve been brainwashed.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in agriculture who has ever confronted this attitude. You’ve probably had—or heard—similar conversations. In the minds of some, you simply cannot support modern conventional agriculture, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility simultaneously.

I don’t mind discussing what I do, what I think, and what I believe. Challenge me. Ask how I know what I know. But before you begin, ask yourself why you’re starting the conversation at all. Are you genuinely interested in what I think? Or are you simply looking for an opportunity to tell me I’m wrong?

This should be true for any honest conversation in which we engage. Are we there to listen and understand? Or are we there to talk—and if the person with whom we’re conversing doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with us—to ridicule?

If we’re going to engage in meaningful dialogue, we need to play fair. Ad hominem attacks (attacking the individual rather than the idea), gaslighting (manipulating the conversation to suggest the individual is foolish or insane), and deflection (avoiding direct questions by changing the focus or asking a different question) are common tactics employed to stifle rather than promote understanding. Telling someone they’re “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a combination of all three.

Accounts of that day in Guyana reveal that 900+ people didn’t drink poisoned Kool-Aid out of blind faith in their leader. They were desperate for a way out. But by the time the vat of liquid was prepared, all possible routes of escape were gone; the only way out of the jungle was death. Children and those who resisted were poisoned by force. For the rest, there was nothing left to live for.

The agriculture industry isn’t perfect. But focusing exclusively on its problems and deriding anyone who recognizes its successes achieves nothing. I believe we do have something to live for, to strive for.

And I’m really not that fond of Kool-Aid.

Rhodora Collins – Ag Literacy Coordinator