I recently read the book “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” by Amanda Montell. It was a bit different than I expected, but still very much a worthwhile read.
If you are interested in language and cult-like organizations and followings, this is a great book for you. The idea behind the title is helpful to understand. The book is not solely about cults, but rather what makes something cultish. Cultish isn’t always a bad thing, as Montell will argue in the book. But it is important to have an understand of what makes something cultish. And for Montell, language is a key component. Cultish things have their own language that insiders know, understand, and use. That’s true of traditional cults, but also of health club.
So why is this topic so very important? As Montell says, “‘Cult language’ is, in fact, something we hear and are swayed by every single day. Our speech in regular life – at work, in Spin class, on Instagram – is evidence of our varying degrees of ‘cult’ membership.” (pg. 12)
Montell looks specifically at the role of leadership and the use of language. In a way, this is about the formation of a culture. “Language is a leader’s charisma. It’s what empowers them to create a mini universe – a system of values and truths – and then compel their followers to heed its rules.” (Pg. 13).
Here’s the practical application of this idea: “…because words are the medium through which belief systems are manufactured, nurtured, and reinforced, their fanaticism fundamentally could not exist without them. ‘Without language, there are no beliefs, ideology, or religion…'” (Pg. 14). Likewise, “The way a person communicates can tell us a lot about who they’ve been associating with, who they’ve been influenced by. How far their allegiance goes.” (Pg. 14). And that is significant.
Montell spends a good amount of time trying to define the word cult. It’s not easy actually, and the definition has changed over time. Cults are a moving target too often – so think of it this way: You’ll know a cult when you hear one. But even then, be careful. There aren’t hard and fast rules or definitions around cults.
Here’s a couple of observations that Montell makes about healthy and constructive groups and unhealthy and destructive ones. “…groups toward the destructive end use three kinds of deception: omission of what you need to know, distortion to make whatever they’re saying more acceptable, and outright lies…an ethical group will be up-front about what they believe in , what they want from you, and what they expect from your membership. And leaving comes with few, if any, serious consequences.” (pg. 19).
Montell spends the remainder of the book diving into various levels of cultishness. She starts with what are traditional cults – like Heaven’s Gate, and the People’s Temple (Jonestown). There are some truly frightening stories here of people who were sucked in. Montell goes into detail about what attracts people in, and at the same time dismisses the notion of brainwashing people. If brainwashing worked, then why is it that so many people don’t get sucked in?
In this section, Montell tells us that “cultish language works to do three things: First, it makes people feel special and understood…This is called conversion…Then, a different set of language tactics get people to feel dependent on the leader, such that life outside the group doesn’t feel possible anymore…it’s called conditioning…And last, language convinces people to act in ways that are completely in conflict with their former reality, ethics, and sense of self…This is called coercion.” (Pg. 78).
Next on the spectrum comes more religious groups that aren’t oriented towards death – groups like Scientology. It is here that “‘much religious language ‘performs’ rather than informs, [rousing us] to act out the best or worst of our human nature…'” (pg. 123).
Within this section, Montell also talks about narcissistic behaviors like: “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 gaslights appear self-assured, they are typically motivated by extreme insecurity – an inability to self-regulate their own thoughts and emotions.” (Pg. 137).
Montell encourages readers to scrutinize, ask questions, and seek clarification. Good advice.
From there, Montell moves into less cult-like groups, but groups that are still cultish – multi level marketing companies. The language that is used is certainly cultish in nature. I was amazed at the targeted language that draws people in and makes them feel like they are part of something special. For many companies, it’s not the product that matters so much as the the opportunity that is being sold. Montell holds no punches with her thoughts about MLM companies calling them pyramid schemes. She exposes the language of MLMs saying, “they’re in the business of selling the transcendent promise of something that doesn’t actually exist.” (pg. 167).
Montell spends several pages diving into the historical roots of how religion and MLMs have been tied together. Essentially you can trace economic prosperity (which is what MLM is really trying to sell) and religious faith back to the Puritans and the “Protestant ethic, marked by diligent work, individual effort, and accumulation of wealth.” (pg. 174). Funny how this became known as the Protestant ethics since it relies on human efforts. The Reformation, at its core is the exact opposite message – that you can’t earn salvation and that unearned grace is what saves people.
Montell moves the reader through history quickly, coming to the American Dream as a continuation of this mode of thinking and then driving us right through the advent of the Prosperity Gospel in the 1930’s.
All this leads to a “toxic productivity dogma” (pg. 177) in which you need to work hard, and if you fail, it’s your own fault. “Meritocracy is founded on the tenet that people can control their lives in big ways, that as long as they really try, they can pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps.” (Pg. 177). When you strip this all away, what come are left with is no different than what the serpent offered Eve in the garden – “you’ll be like gods” or in other words, you’ll be in control.
The last section of the book is about the lease cultish, but still cultish groups – health clubs like Pelaton. This was a fun section because it looks at cultishness in relation to something that for the most part is not destructive. Montell does talk about a few health clubs that were shut down due to fraud. But she also highlights some of the healthier ones that she tried out in her research. She talks about how she got sucked in in some cases. The most interesting part is her discussion about the tie between religion and health clubs. “These intimate studios positioned themselves as sacred spaces – as movements – offering a potent ideological, deeply personal experience.” (Pg. 213).
Many of the people she interviewed talked about how transformative these health clubs were, especially because of how disillusioned they were with traditional faith. Many of the health clubs offer “personal transformation, belonging, and answers to big life questions like: Who am I in this increasingly isolated world? How do I connect with people around me? How do I find my most authentic self and take the steps to become that person? In so many pockets of American culture, folks turn to workout studios for these answers.” (Pg. 215-6). In essence, health is a religion because it’s more than just health. Humans are religious by nature and will seek out religion where ever it can be found because at the core of religion comes purpose and meaning.
Overall, this is a pretty good book, and very timely too. Montell spends time looking at conspiracy theories that hold sway with large segments of the population – like QAnon. It’s important to have an understanding of their reality and language. These are things we can’t just push away and pretend they don’t exist. They do exist and they involve real people. Understanding what they offer people and the language they use will allow us a better opportunity to communicate with loved ones who are caught up in them. It also allows us to better understand the core meaning and purpose that they offer so that we can counter with healthier alternatives.