I am endlessly fascinated by language. I am almost equally interested in cults. So when I saw a brief review of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell, I knew I had to get a copy. Readers, I was hooked from page one. Over the course of this book, Montell covers suicide cults, fitness fanatics, and multi-level marketing*, always keeping the focus on how cult leaders and members reinvent vocabulary and how those words can shape our feelings and worldview.
After a section in which Montell discusses the word “cult” itself, she dives into the heaviest part of her exploration by looking at Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, and Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate. The leaders of these cults were able to draw in followers and, ultimately, convince at least some of those followers to commit suicide. Montell talks with survivors, reads or listens to primary source material, and discusses theories with experts in theology and psychology to understand how language played a role in the behavior of the cult members. She shows how language can become so loaded that it not only instantly helps us identify members but also reinforces the us versus them mentality of insiders and outsiders. For example, if someone says they’re pro-life or pro-choice, those terms (at least in America) speak volumes about the people who claim those identities. Montell also talks about thought terminating cliches—a term I didn’t know existed although I recognized them in the instant they were mentioned—which immediately shut down debate. These cliches include things like “god moves in mysterious ways” or “everything happens for a reason.” I’ve always been kind of annoyed by these cliches and now I know why: I wanted to keep talking!
I think Montell is more successful in the later chapters of Cultish, in which she moves on to MLMs and fitness. These aren’t cults in the way we usually mean the term; they’re not religious, although they might borrow some of their language from established religions (especially Christianity, here). New members are told that they are doing the right thing, the best thing, by joining. They often get a lot of instructions for how to live and do things (depending on how all-encompassing the organization might be). Montell writes about the hype new members receive (love-bombing) and the shame they might have thrown at them if they announce intentions to leave. Using ex-member interviews, Montell reveals just how hard it is to shake the conditioning that comes from the loaded language of cultish groups.
Cultish isn’t just about language, as you might be able to tell from my brief review. Rather, Montell describes the work she’s doing as sociolinguistics, which looks at language through psychological and sociological lens. The more I learn about linguistics from podcasts like Lingthusiasm and other sources has shown me that linguistics and language are about a lot more than grammar and vocabulary. Our words are inextricably bound up with how we think and how we feel about, well, everything. It’s all words and their power when you start to think about it. Along the same lines, Cultish is also about becoming aware of that power by asking questions, resisting thought terminating cliches, and watching out for people manipulating words to manipulate others.
* If you’d like to know more about cults and cult-y groups, I recommend Sounds Like a Cult, which Montell hosts with comedian Isabela Medina-Maté.