It may not seem like CrossFit (a popular high-intensity interval training workout) and Heaven’s Gate (a cult that believed UFOs were headed to Earth on the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet) have any similarities. But as linguist Amanda Montell argues in Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, these are just two of many groups that bind their members together by employing cultish language.
“Though ‘cult language’ comes in different varieties, all charismatic leaders—from Jim Jones and Jeff Bezos to SoulCycle instructors—use the same basic tools,” Montell writes. These tools include using insider lingo, relying on thought-terminating cliches that discourage asking questions and love-bombing with excessive flattery.
Cults may seem like a creepy relic of the past, but lots of groups successfully employ cultish language today. Simply put, a cultish group is one that promises to improve your life if you follow its regimen, buy its products or obey its leader. Such groups are common because, as Montell argues, cultish language really does bind a group together. Think of the specialized vocabulary used by Alcoholics Anonymous, for example. You can drop into any AA meeting across the world and immediately understand AA-speak.
The author’s experience as a linguist melds well with her research into the psychological underpinnings of cultish language, including interviews with several cult survivors. Montell also addresses why words like brainwashing don’t accurately describe how people come under a cultish thrall. “Language . . . reshapes a person’s reality only if they are in an ideological place where that reshaping is welcome,” she writes. According to Montell, our loved ones adopt QAnon conspiracy theories or hawk leggings/herbal supplements/skincare on Facebook for multilevel marketing (MLM) schemes not because they’re gullible or weak but because they’re idealistic, tenacious and open to these groups’ messaging.
Few of us may interact with Scientology or NXIVM directly, but that doesn’t mean we’re beyond the purview of cultish influence. Many of us participate in “cult fitness” groups, turn to Instagram influencers for self-improvement tips or sell products for MLMs. Cultish demonstrates that we are all more susceptible to joining the in-group than we may realize.