Amanda Montell explores the unique ways cults use language to control their followers in her 2021 book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. As you’d expect, she includes the phenomenon of some well-known quasi-religious organizations like Scientology and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate.
But Montell takes her exploration even further. She discusses the cult-like nature of everything from corporate culture, political movements, brand marketing, and the latest diet and fitness trends. All of these “entities” use language to gain followers, keep them hooked, and make it hard for them to leave. After reading this, maybe you’ll join me in feeling like cultish language is everywhere and we hardly even notice it.
Montell uses first-person interviews gained from social media conversations since cultish language is all over the internet. She talks to cult survivors and experts in cult deprogramming. And she researches her topic thoroughly.
On the other hand, she shares many personal observations. For example, in one story, she and her parents take an online fitness class during their 2020 COVID lockdown. Montell compares the teacher’s perspective with some fairly nefarious YouTube gurus peddling bogus behavioral health advice. We might not think to compare these two videos, but in Montell’s hands, the similarities are intriguing.
Montell is especially sensitive to cults because, as a teenager, her father was forced to join one called Synanon. So her interest in the topic has a personal edge. With the pervasive nature of these cult-like groups, I suspect many of her readers also have a personal connection to the topic. I know I have a few.
Examples of Cultish Language
One of the terms that Montell uses repeatedly (because cults use it so often) is “thought-terminating clichés.” This refers to “catchphrases aimed at halting an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought.” (p. 83, ebook) Once you know what to listen for, you’ll find these clichés everywhere in our daily lives. For example, almost every response to a tragedy is a cliché like “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’s all God’s plan.” But in the hands of a cult, we get phrases like, “Truth is a construct,” or “ None of this matters on a cosmic level.” (all drawn from p. 84 of the ebook)
Another example of cultish language is the use of code words. These are words that mean something different in the cult than they do to the rest of us. For example, inquiry might mean something more akin to interrogation. Or error might mean the physical damage done by thinking outside a certain spiritual philosophy.
Cults also use acronyms and abbreviations often. Crossfit is a popular gym with a distinct workout philosophy. Their workout of the day is called a WOD, pronounced like you’d say “wad of paper.” I remember the first time a friend with a Crossfit membership used that term. She was “in the know” about what it meant and I was the outsider. with no idea what a WOD was Cults do this to propagate a sense of us versus them among their followers.
As I read, I realized how many times I’ve bought into cultish language and mindsets. Whether it was the Protestant fringe church my parents took me to or the business coaching program I joined, the language of cults was in high gear. My previous career in advertising and Internet marketing again connected me directly to Montell’s exploration of why brands want to be called the next big cult. Add to that the political reading I’ve done since 2016 and you understand why Cultish hit me over the head with “aha” moments.
Montell breaks down a wide variety of ideas, cult-like organizations, and disordered thinking into understandable chunks. Her role is investigative journalist, ferreting out examples and explanations. Along the way, she tells many stories of real people’s cult experiences. This enhances the linguistic analysis. Cultish is a fascinating book that I strongly recommend.
Pair with Hollywood Park, an excellent memoir by Mikel Jollett, whose parents also belonged to Synanon. Or try The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn for deep dive into one famous cult.