Cultish

The Language of Fanaticism

By Amanda Montell
Cultish by Amanda Montell book cover
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Summary

If you are fascinated by cults (who isn’t?), you will really enjoy this book. Amanda Montell constructs an extraordinarily well-researched examination of cult success: how a charismatic leader can use cultish language to capitalize on a person’s need to belong and have meaning in their lives. Montell’s knowledge and passion come through in her relatable examples and attention to detail. She dissects definitions and explores nuance. Montell gives us the tools to analyze the words we hear every day and determine which of our groups are healthy, which are toxic, and which are a little of both. The development of these ideas reveals the power of language in our everyday lives.

This is a book about the language of fanaticism in its many forms: a language I’m calling Cultish (like English, Spanish, or Swedish).

Modern “Cults”

Montell covers the types of language found in many different categories of cult: suicide cults, controversial religions, multilevel marketing companies, fitness groups, and social media gurus.

Whether wicked or well-intentioned, language is a way to get members of a community on the same ideological page. To help them feel like they belong to something big.

Suicide cults

These are the truly dangerous cults. They include the groups responsible for the well known mass-suicides of Jonestown (900 followers drank the Kool-Aid in 1978, mainly by force) and Heaven’s Gate (38 doomsdayers took their lives in 1997 to transform into extraterrestrial beings).

It may seem crazy that someone would voluntarily commit suicide for their leader. The truth is that these leaders recruited people using techniques to create intrigue and a desire to know more. Once a person was in, gradual behavioral conditioning and coercion created camaraderie and an us-versus-them dichotomy. These tactics eroded a person’s sense of self and made it difficult to leave.

Across the board, gaslighting is a way of psychologically manipulating someone (or many people) such that they doubt their own reality, as a way to gain and maintain control. Psychologists agree that while gaslighters appear self-assured, they are typically motivated by extreme insecurity—an inability to self-regulate their own thoughts and emotions. Sometimes gaslighters aren’t even 100% aware that what they’re doing is manipulative. In cultish scenarios, however, it’s often a deliberate method of undermining the fundamentals of truth so followers will come to depend wholly on the leader for what to believe.

Controversial religions

Cults and religions share many traits. Montell quotes the religion scholar Reza Aslan: “The biggest joke in religious studies is that cult + time = religion.” If you or someone you love is religious, you know how strongly it can be a part of a person’s identity. Religious cults take this a step further until the religion becomes a person’s entire identity. This type of cult can be difficult to escape, but they are less deadly than suicide cults. Some examples you may have heard of include Scientology and Children of God. Scientology in particular is well-aware of the power it wields through its language to keep its followers engaged. But because of this, the group is also aware of how that language incriminates it as a cult, in a dangerous way.

In any given professional field, specialized jargon is often necessary in order to exchange information more succinctly and specifically; it makes communication clearer. But in a cultish atmosphere, jargon does just the opposite: Instead, it causes speakers to feel confused and intellectually deficient. That way, they’ll comply.

Multilevel Marketing

Multilevel marketing (MLM) groups have a strange and interesting history. They arose in the 1950s when the inventer of Tupperware and a sales-inclined single mother teamed up to turn unemployed and bored suburban housewives into simultaneous consumers and salespeople. MLMs exploit legal loopholes to create what is essentially a pyramid scheme. They are usually beauty and wellness brands whose “affiliates” sell overpriced products to friends and family and try to enlist those same people to in turn sell their own products. Countless scientific studies have shown that 99% of recruits never make any money, and the rest only profit at the expense of everyone else below them in the hierarchy.

In practice, a pyramid scheme is essentially just an MLM that was run poorly and got caught.

Fitness groups

Here is where the “cult” definition starts to blur. Members are loyal to the group, committing huge amounts money and time, but don’t experience complete isolation from the outside world, chronic lies, or abuse. While escape is allowed, it can be socially difficult. Being a part of the group is not dangerous, per se, other than increased likelihood of injury from pushing your body too hard.

Although these groups are not cults by strict definition, they do use cultish tactics to keep their members engaged. Religious ideals of commitment and transformation combined with secular ideals of productivity and beauty create a self-improvement tidal wave that is hard to resist.

But competition alone, research suggests, is not enough to keep folks committed. Exercisers driven only by numbers tend to quit within twelve months. It’s when elements of belonging, self-worth, and empowerment enter the picture that members are moved to renew their fitness memberships year after year. Language is the glue that binds that “addictive” combo of community and motivation.

Social media

The pervasiveness of social media has created an interesting modern twist on cult tendencies. With groups located entirely online, most people involve themselves solely via their Instagram feeds. Montell points out that the app chose the word “followers” instead of friends or connections, which seems to encourage everyone to build their own little cult. There are some leaders who sell products and retreats offline, but their purpose is mainly moneymaking, rather than obedience or power. They exploit marketing strategies, many of which involve cultish language. In this section, Montell takes an interesting tangent into how algorithms feed back to us what already interests us. This is how people become deeply invested in conspiracy theories and groups that promote them, like QAnon. Social media becomes a self-reinforcing environment where people’s only exposure is to the echo chamber, conveniently customized just for them.

Want to join my echo chamber? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram 🙂

No “cult leader” takes advantage of our psychological drives quite like The Algorithm, which thrives on sending us down rabbit holes, so we never even come across rhetoric we don’t agree with unless we actively search for it. The way we make choices—from our clothes all the way to our spiritual and political beliefs—is a direct consequence of these uncanny digital versions of ourselves.

Takeaways

While many groups these days have cultish tendencies, there are a lot of stops on the train to full-blown cult. There is a whole spectrum of cultishness. It is not a black-and-white definition, and using the word that way can be harmful. Calling a group a cult when it is not incarcerating or dangerous is unnecessarily divisive and can alienate people who derive real meaning and community from membership. These comparisons create confusion around the real dangers of a true cult.

Language is power. Cult leaders, spiritual gurus, pyramid schemers, and CEOs alike manipulate language to pull followers under their influence. These everyday “cults” are part of our culture and our humanity. We are hardwired to want to believe in something alongside other likeminded people. To belong to multiple groups while being anchored in reality can be beneficial, even healthy. Educate yourself by reading this book, and hashtag on.

Too much wariness spoils the most enchanting parts of being human.


Want to read more? Find Cultish here: Bookshop

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