On “Drinking the Kool-Aid” and the Importance of Meaning

I hate when people use language thoughtlessly.

Speech is arguably humanity’s most taken for granted gift. We squander the miraculous ability to use symbolic language, the anchor of human sociality, by putting it to basest of ends.  We use it to deceive, to harm, to other and ostracize.  And then we commit perhaps the gravest act of hubris and insist that words don’t really matter.

One thoughtless use of speech I have come to loathe is the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid,” a shorthand for acts of blind obedience that refers to the infamous Jonestown Massacre of 1978, when more than 900 women, men, and children died in an act of “revolutionary suicide,” having drunk poison at the urging of a drug addicted, megalomaniacal cult leader.

While popular usage of this phrase is at least marginally accurate –the cocktail of cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (the stuff in sizzurp), and chloral hydrate was reportedly made with grape Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid, and was consumed by many people whom audio recordings suggest were not nearly as docile and willing as this awful colloquialism presumes– it is reprehensible that many of us see no problem with evoking the memory of mothers fearfully helping their children to ingest lethal doses of poison when complaining about a new policy at work or the rising popularity of gluten-free diets.

Photo by Getty Images
The scene at Jonestown 1978: Photo by Getty Images

Imagine if we evoked the memory of 9-11 this flippantly?  George was so ticked off about that memo that he almost went all Twin Towers. Beyond sounding like a colossally ignorant ass, you run the serious risk of saying this to someone whose life was impacted by the tragic losses of life that mark both Jonestown and 9-11.

But, this post isn’t a rant about why people should stop using this phrase (well, it won’t be anymore).  Instead, this is a post about what happens when a misguided use of language like this one is suddenly and unexpectedly re-imbued with meaning.

Yesterday was the last day of classes of my last semester as an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC).  During my three-year tenure at PVCC, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in a number of meaningful initiatives, but none have compared to the life-changing experience that has been teaching in the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women this spring.  Once a week, I spend three hours in Virginia’s highest security prison for women, teaching CST100: Principles of Public Speaking to 15 of the most motivated students I have ever had.

More often than not, I find myself sitting in my car in the parking lot after leaving the facility, contemplating how tightly knotted the institutional structures of poverty and racism are with the correctional institution I have the leisure to walk out of whenever I am ready.  I contemplate the lives of my students, the mistakes they’ve made, the choices they were never given, and the futures they are working to shape by taking my class–futures in which it is an act of bravery to believe.  Often, I cry before starting the engine, knowing that it wasn’t until I started teaching in FCCW that I finally saw the diversity that I have missed so desperately as a resident of Charlottesville, VA.

My Public Speaking students, those at PVCC and FCCW, complete their semesters by giving a 7-9 minute persuasive speech about a topic of their choice.  Every semester, these speeches run the gamut between barely tolerable and profoundly interesting.

Yesterday, I watched a speech that took my breath away.


The view across the yard at FCCW.
The view across the yard at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.


Don’t drink the institutional Kool-Aid

That was the persuasive goal of a speech given by one of my students who is serving a sentence for selling cocaine that is longer than many of us will live.  Here’s the thing…the speech was not intended to be figurative.  She wasn’t thoughtlessly regurgitating this phrase that has so insidiously insinuated itself into the American lexicon.  She was urging her classmates not to drink the technicolored kool-aid beverage that is often the only alternative to water provided to the residents of the prison.

The speech was impeccably well-researched, focusing on the documented links between food dyes and artificial sweeteners with health problems ranging from ADHD to cancer. And it included an ingenious demonstration of how quickly and permanently the beverage can stain clothing and hair (in fact several women in the class sport some amazing kool-aid dip dye ombré hair styles).  She, who cooks in the prison’s chow hall, talked about how the powdered form of the drink is regularly used to clean griddles, remove rust, and remove lime build-up in dishwashers because it is cheaper and more effective than soap.

A speech topic like this isn’t rare.  This semester alone, I received speeches from students attempting to persuade classmates to avoid consuming GMOs, to transition to an organic plant-based diet, to boycott factory farmed meats, and even to stop vaccinating their children.  All were given in the name of documented health risks.

What made this speech different was the remarkable collision of the profoundly literal and the blithely figurative.

In between her summary of clinical data and FDA policy there emerged a narrative that speaks to the heart of the need for food justice in the United States.  It was the story of women trapped in the cycle of poverty where the purchase of a $0.10 packet of Kool-Aid is an automatic and, for all intents and purposes, financially reasonable act.  The story of poor, urban women, men, and children with epidemic levels of preventable health conditions like obesity and diabetes and little to no access to health care or the healthy foods that would mitigate the need for that care.  The story of people suffering the consequences of making poor choices, when poor choices are often the only choices available.  And it was the story of the same conditions being reproduced within this correctional facility.

The residents of FCCW have access to a shockingly wide array of candy, snack food, sodas, and highly processed “food products” in the prison’s privatized commissary; but haven’t seen a fresh vegetable or a whole grain carbohydrate in years.  Take a look at this price list for KEEFE, the commissary network that supplies many of the nation’s prisons.  The ubiquitous urban corner store, with its inflated prices and lack of fresh and/or nutrient dense food, that has become central to conversations about food deserts, urban food access, and public health in communities of color, does not exist solely on corners in areas suffering urban decay.  It has been institutionalized into the prison system, ensuring that this link in the cycle of impoverishment and imprisonment will not be broken.

Who cares.  Let them eat dirt. They broke the law and got themselves in there. 

I know that’s what some of you are thinking.  While I DO NOT share this sentiment, I  understand it.  But consider this: your tax dollars are used to pay Armor, the private Correctional Health Services vendor that provides care for the alarmingly high number of residents at FCCW that suffer from diabetes and other diet related conditions.  A healthier prison population is a less expensive prison population.

Moreover, we seem to forget that one of the primary functions of a prison is to rehabilitate, to prepare people to be productive members of society when they are released. Along with education and job skills, health is one of the most important assets we can provide our citizens who are trying to re-integrate.

I got goosebumps yesterday when my student stood up at the front of our classroom and dared to ask her classmates to stop drinking the only free alternative to water they are regularly provided with.  I, like the other 14 women in our spartan classroom, felt the penetrating duality of those words –don’t drink the kool-aid– in her plea, “they can surround us with all the tools we need to slowly kill ourselves in here.  They can make it taste good.  They can even make it free.  But we don’t have to drink it just because they give it to us.  We can think about more than getting out.  We can be healthy and whole when we get out of here.”

This is the power of language.  It moves us through history.  It illuminates the connections between a pursuit of collective idealism gone horribly awry and the horrible reality of narrow life paths that make no room idealism.  When “don’t drink the kool-aid” is not a thoughtless idiom, but a call, in the worst of situations, to refuse to accept a bleak reality manufactured at the intersection of the ever privatizing prison-industrial complex and industrial agribusiness and to recognize the seriousness of nutritional enslavement, I see the best of our uses of language…

…language that insists that we think.


This is not the end

Though I only have one more week of class to teach in FCCW before this class and my tenure at PVCC (through which I am able to teach in the prison’s education program) is over, this experience has inspired me beyond telling and I am willing to say with certainty that my intellectual work in food studies, activism pursuing food justice, and love of gardening has found a new focus.  I’m hoping I have more to share in the coming months about really big idea I’ve been incubating for a while now.  Onward!

4 Replies to “On “Drinking the Kool-Aid” and the Importance of Meaning”

  1. Powerful stuff. I’m proud to know you, J. You are doing such good work and speaking for those who have a hard time being heard.

  2. We shall have what we speak. Choose life! Collie, once said to me, while in a treatment center. “They gave me another pill, I put it under my tongue, and when she left the room, I spit that mess out. NOT LETTING NOBODY TAKE MY MIND”.

    Great piece! Keep up the good work!

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