21 July 2022

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell



Sometimes my specific interests lead me into believing actual textbooks will make for entertaining reading and this is exactly what happened here with Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. I saw someone talking about it on Twitter, added it to my list, and realized 1 chapter in that I was reading something you'd find on a syllabus. Not that I minded too much, Meg and I met doing our MA in linguistics, but it doesn't exactly scream "poolside pleasure" either.

Cultish is a deep dive into the language devices used in cults. It covers a wide range of cults and cult-like phenomenon such as exercise gyms and pyramid schemes. It is very interesting stuff and I feel like I learned a lot, but it was hard to escape the notion that I was reading someone's PhD project and not a piece of nonfiction.

It's really no coincidence that 'cults' are having such a proverbial moment. The twenty-first century has produced a climate of sociopolitical unrest and mistrust of long-established institutions, like church, government, Big Pharma, and big business. It's the perfect societal recipe for making new and unconventional groups- everything from Reddit incels to woo-woo wellness influencers- who promise to provide answers that the conventional ones couldn't supply seem freshly appealing. Add the development of social media and declining marriage rates, and culture-wide feelings of isolation are at an all-time high. Civic engagement is at a record-breaking low. In 2019, Forbes labeled loneliness an 'epidemic'."

Montell is a very interesting writer. She's a year younger than me (30) and has a degree in linguistics from NYU. In that sense, I feel bad about myself that she's doing about the coolest thing I could imagine with less education and years under her belt. This isn't even her first book! In 2019 she released Wordslut; A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language which received all kind of acclaim and praise, and hey, good for her. 

Her age is obvious in her writing, she's very in touch with modern language and how people actually talk to each other. It's not stuffy at all, albeit sort of boring at times. I appreciated reading this written by someone my own age because she's able to intelligently discuss the problems of our generation and why we fall for these 'cultish' phenoms the way we do without being condescending or na├»ve. I'm not sure the message would have landed from a non-millenial.  

As our generational lore goes, millennials' parents told them they could grow up to be whatever they wanted, but then that cereal aisle of endless 'what ifs' and 'could bes' turned out to be so crushing, all they wanted was a guru to tell them which to pick."

look at this fresh faced tween with two published books under her belt


There were sections I really enjoyed. I'm embarrassed to say it took me this long to learn about Jonestown, which was wild, and obviously very interesting. I also love a good expose on pyramid schemes. As a former crossfitter, it was also weird to read about all of the language devices used at 'boxes' to promote a sense of belonging in those who attend. I know I'm a perfect victim for a cult leader because I am a sucker for authority and have no strong belief system of my own, but if I was ever in doubt, reflecting on my years of crossfit really solidified that. 

Creating special language to influence people's behavior 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. Unlike shaving your head, relocating to a commune, or even changing your clothes, adopting new terminology is instant and (seemingly) commitment-free."

Interesting as some parts were, others dragged on the way textbooks do. Montell was very thorough and detailed, but I wanted stories more than I wanted details, and it's my own fault for holding this book to those expectations when it delivered exactly as advertised.

I don't know that I'd recommend this to anyone to read recreationally but it would make a fantastic addition to a sociolinguistic syllabus. I didn't take a lot of sociolinguistics courses but the one I did take was focused on historical/ethnolinguistics and I would have 1000% rather studied this.

Allow me to end with this terrifying quote from Jeff Bezos (there is an interesting section where Montell compares him to a cult leader):

'When you hit the all, climb the wall,' and 'Work comes first, life comes second, and trying to find the balance come last.' As Bezos himself wrote in a 1999 shareholder letter, 'I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified.'"

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