Review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

I work a fair amount with cult survivors, or those exiting cults and one of my clients recommended this book to me, after hearing Montell interviewed on a podcast. You may be thinking this isn’t really a self-help book, or a book a therapist might need. But nowadays, fanatacism is a real problem, and therapists might need some help to identify it.

Montell starts out talking about the dangerous cults that we are all familiar with, like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate. She then shifts to talking about today’s mainstream religions that are considered cults, like Scientology. But then she shifts into things that some of us may not realize are “cultish”, like multilevel marketing companies, fitness groups, or Internet “influencers”. She does note that not all “cultish” groups are harmful or dangerous; but it is still a good idea to be aware of the linguistics that “cultish” groups use to manipulate followers, so that you can assess if a particular group is a good idea for you.

Cultish language begins by making people feel that they are special and understood. Then it works to create reliance on the group or leader so that people can’t imagine life outside the group anymore. Finally it can convince you to act in new ways, that previously you may have never acted. Several linguistic tools are used to do this, but it generally starts with us-versus-them talk.

Some other tools are loaded language and thought terminating cliches. Loaded language is when commonly used words or phrases are used in ways that give them a new or special meaning – an innocent example might be how CrossFit uses the word “box” to describe the workout space instead of gym. Thought terminating cliches are phrases that discourage critical thinking, that stop conversations in their tracks. Another innocent example might be how “no pain, no gain” is used in CrossFit to discourage people from critiquing the workouts as too harsh.

I’m going to quote directly from the book here, because Montell has some really great questions you can ask if you think a group might be “cultish”:

  • Is this group genuinely welcoming to all different people?
  • Do you feel excessive pressure to dress and talk like everyone else?
  • Are you allowed to participate casually, to dabble in this?
  • Do you find yourself putting all your time and faith in this group alone, basing all your decisions on theirs?
  • What is the exit cost? Is it a price you’d be willing to pay?

I feel like this book is a valuable resource for clinicians because in today’s America, fanatical groups are thriving – not just politically but on social media. In order to educate our clients about groups where they feel a sense of belonging, it would be good if we know what kind of linguistics to watch for, so we can ask good questions.

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