Recommendation: Don’t let the title fool you – this talks about cults but its real focus is language and how it’s used to suck us in to all sorts of things
Where to read: At a Barry’s Bootcamp, or a QAnon convention
Read with: Mountain Culture’s Cult IPA
In brief: There has been something of a boom in cult documentaries, books and podcasts. Montell is a linguist so her narrative focuses on language rather than offering juicy titbits for the titillation of the readers. This provides valuable insight into how people get involved in cults, which is often lacking in other narratives, but she goes beyond this to examine the use of “cultish” language in daily life.
I expected picking Cultish up that it would be about cults (hence the title), and while it does dedicate some pages to cults we will all recognise, it is more an examination of the language used in cults and cultish organisations to create cults and the set of practices used to isolate and “brainwash” people. She does discuss cults as we would generally recognise them, like People’s Temple (of Jonestown fame) and Heaven’s Gate, but having established the linguistic and behavioural patterns, she moves on to discuss other groups which draw on or have cultish elements. These include MLMs with their bullshit girlboss feminism and “cult fitness” crazes such as Soul Cycle.
In essence, her argument is that groups and organisations and movements of all kinds use the language to create community and shared values, creating their own mantras and catch phrases which are likely incomprehensible to the outside observer. A Cross Fit gym is called a ‘Box’, for example, and the internet has plenty of dictionaries available which explain the terminology to new enthusiasts. Many employers use similar tactics to bring employees into the fold. Using this sort of language creates a sense of community and shared purpose between people, and Montell highlights how attractive this can be for many people in a modern society which is often lacking in community.
The next steps, where cults become cults and not merely cult-adjacent, is escalation to dependency – when your self-worth is dependent on the leader’s approbation. They change names to bond members more closely to the group and encourage members to avoid “negative influences”, which is roughly anyone who so much as questions the wisdom of what is going on, including family members. Of course, isolation tactics are also common in organisations such as MLMs, which urge members to cut off non-supportive friends and family, and even to keep their activities secret from their partners.
An idea I found particularly compelling was the idea of a “thought-terminating cliché”, a term coined by a psychiatrist called Robert Lifton to explain how ‘the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.’ Classic thought-terminating clichés include ‘fake news’ or ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways’ or ‘trust the plan’ and are used in cults and cultish organisations to cut off independent inquiry or questioning thoughts.
Some reviewers have commented that discussing cults like People’s Temple or the Branch Davidians in the same breath as Soul Cycle conflates the two and minimises the horror of those organisations however I am not entirely sure that is fair. For one, there is merit in examining how the same sort of things can lead some to get involved in the most sinister crap imaginable while others just go to weird meditation classes a bit too often. Part of the point is that the crazy cult never seems crazy at the start and that very smart people are often targets. In examining the sorts of linguistic tools used to bring people into the fold, she also offers an actual explanation for why and how some people become involved in cults which is often sorely lacking. Indeed, my chief gripe with most works about cults is that they focus a lot on what happened and less on how and why, beyond trite references to “brainwashing” (an exception here is The Road to Jonestown which examines the use of techniques such as sleep deprivation and love bombing in great depth to excellent effect).
Of course, as Montell acknowledges, there is not anything necessarily sinister about groups which create a sense of belonging and community. But Cultish is a good reminder to be on your guard, particularly when the community you are being encouraged to join is run by some shadowy dude, encourages secrecy with others and starts asking you for money…
An excellent review in The Atlantic is available here.