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Book Review: Cultish by Amanda Montell

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

How do you manufacture a cult following? Let’s start with language. CULTISH by Amanda Montell discusses how pervasive the cultish language is in our culture and how all of us are exposed to it more often than we might think. Cult influences aren’t limited to organizations with dramatic ends like Heaven’s Gate. We find echoes of their techniques in MLMs and even popular gyms.

As someone who’s always been involved in group dynamics (dance, sorority, social clubs, nonprofit volunteer organizations), I’ve seen how susceptible people are to charismatic leaders and group-think. In the past two years, I’ve seen several spiritual cult leaders gain and lose their TikTok platforms, but not before harming hundreds of people.

So how’s it done? Montell discusses many techniques using language, but three of the main ones are:

  • Thought-Terminating Cliches

  • Combining Medical Jargon with Metaphysical Terms

  • Creating its own vocabulary

In isolation, these are not necessarily nefarious. A thought-terminating cliche is a phrase that stops the conversation from moving to a place out of the leader’s control. For example, saying “it’s all God’s plan” is meant to prevent someone from questioning a tough situation to the point where they are questioning their religion. At the same time, someone might say “it is what it is” or “everything happens for a reason” in order to end an uncomfortable or triggering conversation. We just need to be aware of these phrases and consider the context. Who is using them and who does it benefit?

Montell is sympathetic to people who get wrapped up in these organizations while also pointing out that newer studies are showing that brainwashing might not be a thing. There are people who are born into cults who grow up to question everything until they leave while there are people who join a cult after three interactions. The threshold to joining a cult is initial curiosity and already being open to the ideas presented by the organization.

Long story short: this book should be required reading.

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