Cultish by Amanda Montell

I think almost everyone I know has had a brush with pyramid sales multi-level marketing (MLM). Has a ‘friend’ tried to sell you a cleaning cloth, vitamins (that make you thin AND rich), or suggested an evening with girlfriends, trying bras on in the comfort of your lounge room? My standard response is that I’m happy to buy something from a catalogue to support them but there will be no parties (hosting or attending). I loathe the sales pitch that must be endured at these events.

I picked up Amanda Montell’s book, Cultish, because I was interested in her classification of MLM as a ‘cult’. Some might consider that a stretch, but Montell provides evidence and also examines other groups that we traditionally think of as cults such as Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and The Family, as well as modern, ‘socially acceptable’ cults such as SoulCycle and Peloton. The core of her thesis is that one thing unites these groups – language.

Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to the words used –

From the crafty redefinition of existing words (and the invention of new ones) to powerful euphemisms, secret codes, renamings, buzzwords, chants and mantras, ‘speaking in tongues’, forced silence, even hashtags, language is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur.

She quotes linguistics expert John E. Joseph, who says, ‘…without language, there are are no beliefs, ideology, or religion. These concepts require language as a condition of their existence. Without language, there are no ‘cults’.’

A gentler take on that is that language provides a culture of shared understanding. So, where does it cross the line? How do we get from ‘shared understanding’ to ‘cult’? Montell uses a number of case studies to explore this question.

Some of the case studies were more interesting to me than others. The descriptions of language used by hard-core religious cults (including the origin of a phrase that is regularly bandied about – ‘drink the Kool-Aid’) and high-profile leaders such as Trump (his language is ‘appealing’ because it requires no expert knowledge) was interesting but not all that new. What I did find compelling were Montell’s explanations of how linguistic components – loaded language, thought-terminating clichés (eg. ‘it is what it is’; ‘boys will be boys’) and semantic stop signs – are used.

…loaded language is a cue to intensify emotions, semantic stop signs are a cue to discontinue thought… when used in conjunction, a follower’s body screams ‘Do whatever the leader says,’ while their brain whispers ‘Don’t think about what might happen next’ – and that’s a deadly coercive combination.

Montell stresses that language doesn’t work to manipulate people into believing things they don’t want to believe but rather, it gives them license to believe ideas they’re already open to.

Creating special language to influence people’s behaviour and beliefs is so effective in part simply because speech is the first thing we’re willing to change about ourselves…and also the last thing we let go.

I had a weird little moment when I wondered about my own ‘cults’… Eurovision? Carlton Football Club? Lune croissants? And then felt reassured by the description of ‘ethical’ cults and noxious cults. Ethical groups are upfront about what they believe in, and what they want from you. Importantly, leaving the group has few, if any, consequences. In contrast, noxious groups use three types of deception –

…omission of what you need to know, distortion to make whatever they’re saying more acceptable, and outright lies.

Unfortunately this aligns with my experience at the few MLM parties I have attended in the past!

There’s much more to this book, including Montell’s personal experience; an overview of why people join cults; and the future of cults (the internet-age offers new opportunities – ‘entry’ is as low as a double-tap).

Books organised around a single idea often suffer from a format problem – multiple case-studies arranged to support the key tenet. It can make a book seem overworked or at worst, boring. I did tire of the format by the end of Cultish and a few sections got bogged down in references to academic works. I didn’t need those references to legitimise what Montell was saying, because I’ve had the first hand experience of being told that a washing powder, a sports bra, and a juice cleanse will change my life.

The conclusion –

…in every corner of life, business and otherwise, when you can tell deep down that something is ethically wrong but are having trouble pinpointing why, language is a good place to look for evidence.

3/5 Will appeal to a niche audience.

Picking a food match for this book was a little tricky. There’s interesting reading on what makes a food cult, the connection between food and cults, and food items that have cult followings but I’ve gone with an Aussie pick, and something people are fanatical about (not me though!) – the vanilla slice.

2 responses

  1. Because I’m not a joiner (of anything) and am a cynic and a contrarian, salespeople give up on me. I really can’t be sold to… on any level. But I’d be interested in the language aspects of this book seeing as that’s my “thing”…

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