Title: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
Author: Amanda Montell
Narrator: Ann Marie Gideon
Length: 8 hours (310 pages)
Publisher: Harper Wave; HarperAudio
Release Date: June 15, 2021
Recommended for fans of: cult documentaries
Content Warnings: suicide, gaslighting, emotional abuse, death, murder
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.
This was a fascinating exploration of the linguistics surrounding cults and “cultish” groups. While the term cult has negative connotations due to infamous groups like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, belonging is such a central ideal in American society that cultish groups thrive here, from fad fitness studios to multi-level marketing schemes.
This books examines the language cultish groups use to attract and maintain members, create a perception of insiders versus outsiders, and fill the need for community. It does not vilify all cultish groups; instead, it provides readers with the tools to critically evaluate groups they encounter and determine whether those groups are using cultish language to truly empower or manipulate members.
I certainly have belonged to groups Montell would describe as cultish, but not every such group is harmful. Bookstagram would surely meet Montell’s definition of a cultish group! It did get to the point where it seemed like ANY group could be described as a cult, but it certainly gives me a lot of new things to think about when assessing the world around me.