Okay, language lovers–You have to add Cultish to your to-read list! Amanda Montell’s explorative work weaves together several interviews and primary accounts of people who have been entrapped by the linguistic power of, yes, cults, but also of organizations like Crossfit or multi-level marketing schemes. With each former cult member and cult-like group that Montell examines, she picks apart the diction that is used to isolate and persuade potential followers–and how saturated our society is with this linguistic phenomenon.
She begins by discussing the heavily debated difference between religious groups and cults. It turns out that even incredibly well-researched academics cannot narrow down criteria that technically distinguishes one from the other. One difference that has been pointed to, though, is the age of the organization or faith-based group. Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm are ancient and that passage of time grants a respect to organized religions that newer organizations do not have. They do, however, still use language that makes individuals feel special and eventually creates a divide between them and those outside the group. Cults, Montell argues, do this as well and then some.
What sends cults and cult-like groups into territory that alarms most people in ways religion doesn’t is the way they warp language. A commonality amongst all the groups that Montell examines is how they expand the standard definition of words in the English language to fit their needs. The end result is believing in a shared language that is fundamentally different from the vernacular our society uses to function together, which is ultimately divisive.
Montell also debunks and demystifies the idea of “brainwashing,” explaining that it is incredibly unlikely for so many minds to be overtaken by buzz-words, mantras, and glossolalia against their will. For one’s mind to become complacent in what we colloquially refer to as “brainwashing” they must already be in a state of mind where they want to be controlled and validated. There is a “charisma” that cults have, Montell argues. They make people feel safe and not alone, which is attractive to most and is the reason why so many people get caught up in cultish groups.
As someone who loves words and how powerful language is, I hung onto every word of Cultish. There is an incredible variety to Montell’s research, which provides an approachable reading experience that allows you to put it down and pick it back up without disrupting the narrative flow. I could write many more paragraphs about her findings and arguments, but I will leave you all with this sliver of insight into this riveting book. I cannot recommend this enough!
This title is also available as a Book-on-CD.