reading room: cultish by amanda montell
I recently discovered something new about myself. A thought that I've danced around consciously, unaware of its significance and ignorant of its consequences. And it started with a book.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading Cultish by Amanda Montell. I picked it up at a Powerhouse Bookstore in the local creative maze that was Industry City, Brooklyn. It was an eclectic gem, tucked in the corner of an industrial space sprinkled with life-sized sculptures of cows in painted patterns and words.
I might have been spurred on by one particular cow at the store entrance, deep forest green blotched all over with blush pink flowers. Upon the umpteenth time looking up from a shelf to see its lifeless face staring in, I decided I was going to walk out with a book that would set itself apart from my usual collection. Like a flower-coated cow standing between an indie bookstore and a pizza parlor.
Cultish ended up being that book. An intersection of language, psychology, and the cultural headscratcher we call 'cults' — a combination I vaguely understood but never expected to find so much familiarity in.
My knowledge of cults at the time was conceptual and sporadic. I recognized occasional incidents and crazed descriptions of deranged cult leaders, but not enough to call them out by name. But I wasn't interested in going down a rabbit hole of cult horror stories. I was interested in the argument Montell wanted to pick apart, explicitly stated right in the synopsis.
The key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and an "us/them" attitude all comes down to language. In both positive and shadowy ways, cultish language is something we hear - and are influenced by - every single day.
Here's what I discovered: I've been a little cultish myself
The book kicks off with a former member at a Los Angeles Kundalini yoga studio, the Happy, Healthy, Holy Association (3HO) who shares how they were once sucked into the studio's over-the-top rules, regulations, and expectations.
Montell then pans over to a former member at a CrossFit gym who found themself trapped in a loop of obsessive control from fellow workout classmates and gym instructors.
Across the book's 200 pages, we journey through the rise and spread of five different kinds of social groups.
The first is the cults we're most familiar with, often associated with a community of people who devote themselves to a cause in ways most may find unusual. The second was new religious movements, followed by multilevel marketing organizations, health and fitness trends, and finally, the followers of social media influencers.
What do all of these groups have in common with each other?
They've each influenced people to believe in a cause, enough to make some extremely devoted believers change their lives drastically.
The trick lies in the language.
Cultish is an invitation to look at cults, not as a binge-worthy concept on a Netflix docuseries, but as a realistic outcome of human behavior when the right buttons are pushed by the right words. Like a winning combo in a competitive fighting video game, language can be deployed as a series of successive hits to a person's emotional vulnerability, intellectual curiosity, and psychological biases.
By tipping the scales or adding more weight across any of these three cylinders, a group customizes the formula and finds the message they need to recruit a new member, invoke their loyalty, and rally support for decisions.
Montell introduces me to the "curious (and curiously familiar) language of Cultish," calling me to pay attention to the depth of words used to attract and retain my membership to any group. Unsurprisingly, a light bulb flickered immediately, pointing toward multiple instances where I've acted unlike myself upon the persuasion and influence of cultish language.
Defining a cult
If I had to point out the most jarring realization to strike while reading Cultish, it's would be how little I understood about cults and how people end up being in one. I've perceived the reality of them as something ominous and distant, with an unfounded sense of confidence that I would never end up being a part of one.
But the more Montell probed into the linguistic patterns that form most cults, the more I noticed how easy it can be for anyone to say yes to it, knowingly or unknowingly.
The common denominator between cults and other social group are people who want a sense of belonging. In that sense, most of us have had an inkling at one point to find our version of a 'cult' — being around people who have similar interests, problems, processes, or belief systems.
As the book calls out, it's not surprising that cultish groups have historically "sprung up during cultural limbos when those needs [for identity, purpose, and belonging] have gone sorely unmet."
And there's no better way for belonging to plant its seed than with language. In the world we live in, that includes how we chat online, tweet, caption our pictures or even reshare stories on Instagram.
I've found a sense of belonging in being a K-pop stan, emulating health and wellness influencers, and modeling a career after Silicon Valley tech startup culture. And true enough, the simplest way for me to fall into these three identities is the language I use to relate myself to others in the group.
Obviously, sharing the same interests and exclusive language doesn't make a group — for the lack of a better word — 'crazy.' However, scary things do happen when language is weaponized to condition how a person thinks and acts.
This brings us back to the primary takeaway Montell wants to leave her readers with.
Being aware of cultish language is a great way to weed out good group memberships from potentially harmful ones. And these red flags pop up everywhere if you really take the time to stop and listen.
Here are a few I know I've heard and experienced myself:
🚩 Exclusive terminology and jargon. Something that's used to perpetuate an 'us vs them' mentality with the latter being less than the former
🚩 Thought-terminating cliches. A repetition of the same templatized answer used to shut down anything that questions why things are the way they are.
🚩 Excessive self-deprecation. When language is used to pry on your vulnerabilities and belittle the person you are before you were a part of the group.
A reminder to be kind
It's never been easier for people today to come together and find solidarity regardless of where in the world they are. I'd go as far as to argue that the 2020s are already shaping up to be a giant cultural, economical and political limbo with many feeling more lost and lonely than ever before — the perfect breeding ground for cultish groups to prey on those looking for something bigger than themselves.
There's a lot out there for us to find a sense of belonging in. We may find them in person or online. At workplaces, gyms, video games, or social media. We could establish great companionships, and if we're not careful, build dangerous bridges that are even harder to burn in a more connected world.
While we're all sitting in the noise of a million voices fighting for our attention, Cultish is a reminder to sit down, listen, and feel the weight of each and every word being thrown at us. It's a snarky response to combat a world that's becoming increasingly careless on how words are used to evoke human sentiment.
Most importantly, it debunks the argument that only the 'brainwashed' find themselves giving more than they're allowed to take. Look around you and you'll notice that we're all looking for something to believe in, something or someone to get us out of bed in the morning and steer us through long days and nights. It's easy for something or someone to get the better of us, to rearrange the building blocks of who we are completely in the process. Many of us know what that feels like, don't we?
So let's look out for each other. Let's care about things that happen to people we don't know and communities we may not fully understand. Let's agree intentionally and disagree respectfully. Let's make it safe to want to belong in our world — because it's a world that looks scarier with each passing day.