The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.
What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .
Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.
Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism was an interesting read about how certain uses of language are an underpinning of cults and “cultish” groups. While I found it to be a decent audiobook which to listen, I thought the book’s overall execution was flimsy.
As Amanda Montell mentions at the beginning of Cultish, cults are fascinating especially to those of us who have not been part of one. The fact that cults are the basis of this book alone makes it intriguing. I had not previously heard the argument that language is the key to cults’ influence. I found this to be a unique hypothesis, albeit one that was not proven within this text.
I thought Cultish only provided surface-level analysis and was not terribly insightful. Other than a couple anecdotes, the information Montell discusses can be found on Wikipedia or in new articles. The book did not include any deep dives and skimmed over how language convinced the members of Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown to commit suicide. Montell states that the people who join cults are not those who we assume do. Instead, she says that smart, successful people are those who cults target and enlist, but she fails to actual prove this or demonstrate the language she believes entices them to join.
Cultish provides no comparison to show that the language Montell states is exclusive to cults is not used by other organizations. She essentially concludes that cults are a good thing that provide community and meaning. Another issue I had was that the book includes many instances of “more on that later,” which I think is a good indicator that a book is not organized well.
Overall, I found Cultish to be an okay book but one that left me unsatisfied. If you are looking for a book that skims the surface of cults and “cultish” phenomena like MLMs and fitness brands, Cultish will provide those. But if you want a book that actually provides evidence for its hypothesis and conclusion, Cultish is not it.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
Nonfiction: Humanities & Social Science
June 15, 2021