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Author: Amanda Montell

Cultish: The language of fanaticism Amanda Montell 2021
Cultish: The language of fanaticism Amanda Montell 2021

Cultish: The language of fanaticism Amanda Montell 2021

About the book The language of fanaticism

An intriguing journey into the world of cults and fan thinking with a renowned linguist. Amanda Montell talks about the main features of cults and how language allows you to create powerful methods of psychological influence. And it explains why cults have not disappeared anywhere even in the high-tech 21st century.

about the author Amanda Montell

Amanda Montell is a linguist and science writer who graduated from New York University. She has written non-fiction articles for Time, Cosmopolitan and other magazines. In 2019, she released the book Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language (not translated into Russian). Since June 2021, he has been hosting the podcast “Sounds like a cult”.

On the verge of good and evil

Cults are different – from “classics” like the Church of Scientology 1  to completely secular – take at least the ever-memorable MMM 2 . It can be difficult for an outsider to understand how people voluntarily become members of such associations, given the obvious doubtfulness of their ideas. Meanwhile, very smart and educated people are also at risk of exposure – the forbidden tricks that are used by cults may well deprive them of the ability to think critically.

Amanda Montell, being a linguist, explains this phenomenon with the possibilities of language – they become an effective weapon in the hands of charismatic leaders, it is with their help that sects and other cult communities attract and retain people. 

The line between the talent to involve people in some common activity (which can be useful for participants) and the abuse of cult charisma, as it turns out, is very thin. 

Telling the stories of modern cults, Amanda Montell adds to the research and facts from her own experience: her father spent her teenage years in the Synanon 3 cult , and she herself was briefly involved with Scientologists. Read the summary and you will have a much better understanding of the degree of vulnerability of the human psyche, as well as learn to see the “red flags” that signal that someone is encroaching on your will. 

Why do people join cults at all?

People do not tolerate loneliness. We’ve always been drawn to like-minded tribes, ever since the days when tight-knit groups were the key to survival amidst the dangers of the wild. The 21st century has brought us everyday comfort, but also constant change and unlimited choice, which, as it turned out, paralyzes the will and keeps us in constant anxiety. Millennial parents told them they could be whatever they wanted to be and follow their hearts, but economic and political instability, global competition, and a staggering array of alternatives with unpredictable consequences mean that many millennials want a mentor to tell them what to do .At the same time, religions are losing ground – a 2015 Harvard Divinity School study found that young people still seek “both deep spiritual experiences and social experiences” to fill their lives with meaning, but less than ever, satisfy these desires by ordinary faith.

According to theologian Tara Burton, religions provide a person with the following needs: meaning, purpose, sense of community, and ritual. But now the functions of religions are sometimes taken over by unexpected communities – for example, sports sections such as SoulCycle and CrossFit, or Instagram influencers. 

A modern person can get into the habit of asking himself what Ekaterina Shulman  or a well-known Silicon Valley startup founder would do in his place. 

Compared to other developed countries, the US boasts a particularly close and enduring relationship with cults.  Elsewhere in the world , religiosity levels fall with rising quality of life (high levels of education, life expectancy), but in the US, a developed economy is paradoxically combined with an abundance of believers. This discrepancy can be partly explained by the fact that citizens of European countries use social protection systems, and the libertarian 5  tradition in the United States more often leaves people alone with their problems. 

Until the twentieth century, the word “cult” meant something completely neutral – just a tribute or offering to a god or gods. From him came the words “culture” and “cultivation”. The term began to acquire its dark reputation towards the beginning of the Fourth Great Awakening, when many non-conformist spiritual groups appeared in America. Cults have become a concern for conservatives and have become associated with charlatans and eccentrics. But they were still not considered a major public threat or a criminal priority until the famous murders of Charles Manson’s 6  Family in 1969. And they were followed by “revolutionary suicide” of representatives of the “Temple of the Peoples” sect – in 1978, 918 members of the community, including 276 children, were poisoned with cyanide. It was then that the topic of cults began to really excite society. 

Several scholars have attempted to refine and define specific criteria for a cult. Here are the key signs:

  • charismatic leaders;
  • behavior aimed at changing the consciousness of adherents;
  • sexual and financial exploitation;
  • an “us versus them” mentality in relation to the outside world;
  • philosophy of “the end justifies the means”. 

The term “cult” is more often applied to groups that believe in the supernatural to some extent, but in reality, not all cults are associated with mysticism. 

Cult as a Spectrum

Now the words “cult” and “cult” carry both frightening and positive connotations. In modern discourse, they can be equally well attributed to a new religion, a startup and a brand of cosmetics. We can say that cultism is a certain range of influence on people’s thinking, and this influence can be both dangerous and useful (after all, we need bright brands and heroes to be inspired by them and take an example). 

Some leaders and communities use traditional cult techniques to attract people, but they are not sects. How can you tell good cults from bad ones? 

Stephen Hassan, a mental health consultant and researcher on Donald Trump’s popularity, believes that destructive groups use three types of deception: 

  • hiding important information;
  • distorting information to make what is said seem more morally acceptable;
  • outright lie. 

One of the main differences between so-called ethical cults (a group of Madonna worshipers or a hammock yoga community) and harmful ones is that an ethical group will be open about what it believes, what it wants from members, and what the consequences of being a member are. her. 

In addition, you can leave an ethical group without consequences for your wallet, reputation and mental health . 

Language as a means of exploitation

Amanda Montell argues that language is the key tool that allows cult leaders to gain such powerful influence over their followers . It allows charismatics to create imaginary worlds with their own rules, and then force their followers to abide by them. Without language there can be no religion. Here is a list of the main linguistic and psychological tools that leaders of cults and similar communities use to control the opinions and moods of people: 

Projection field. The speeches of the cult leader should be, on the one hand, bright, on the other hand, vague enough so that many people can find what they want in them. The more specifics, the narrower the segment of the audience will be able to catch. And the most cunning cult leaders also reconfigure their language in accordance with the background of the person standing in front of them – the intellectual and the miner have to be convinced with different words in order to pretend to be their own and ingratiate themselves. 

Your language. Cults always have internal jargon: abbreviations, mantras, new names for familiar phenomena. Firstly, they sound intriguing, and potential recruits, hearing strange words, often want to know more. Secondly, it creates a spirit of belonging to a select group – people outside do not know how to use this language, but inside they know how. 

In addition, replacing words with neologisms is the first and simplest sacrifice on the part of a new adept. It doesn’t seem to be intimidating or time consuming, unlike, for example, shaving your head or moving to a commune. But by giving in here, you increase the likelihood of giving in later on something else (and more serious). And finally, new names allow you to change the meaning of concepts – sometimes to the exact opposite. 

Persuading a crowd of people to kill themselves is quite difficult, but if you regularly call physical bodies “vehicles” from which you need to “get out” to transfer to another vehicle, death begins to seem something abstract and not very scary. So, for example, did Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate sect (in 1997, 39 members of the group committed mass suicide in order to ascend to an alien ship and get on it to a new paradise). In addition, Applewhite has compiled a whole dictionary of sci-fi terms. The kitchen in the commune was the “inside laboratory”, the laundry was the “fiber laboratory”, and the sect’s teachers were called “clinicians”.

The leader of the Church of Scientology, Ron Hubbard, has published as many as two dictionaries containing more than three thousand entries in total. Hubbard borrowed and reinterpreted dozens of technical terms to give the impression that Scientology’s belief system was based on real science. Here are examples of words from the Scientology lexicon: ack (acknowledgment – from English acknowledgment), cog (cognition – from English cognition), R-factor (reality factor), thetan (personality, spiritual being).

Jim Jones, founder of the destructive Peoples Temple sect (whose followers committed mass suicide in 1978), was very interested in Newspeak from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. In the book, Newspeak is a propaganda language implemented by authoritarian leaders as “mind control” of citizens. For the same purpose, Jones introduced new words into the lexicon of adepts and demanded that they thank him daily for good food and work (regardless of the real pleasantness and usefulness of food and work). 

Love bombing. This is a situation where a person is bombarded with signs of attention, compliments, affection and interest in his opinions and emotions in order to make him more loyal to another person or community. For the first time, the concept of love bombing sounded in 1978, which is not surprising, in the speech of the cult leader (Moon Song Myung 7 , founder of the Unification Church sect). Typically, cult leaders practice love bombing themselves and encourage followers to surround newcomers with “love”. In fact, this is a way to lure a person with social approval., followed by positive reinforcement for following the group rules. As soon as the newcomer deviates from the prescriptions, they begin to be treated much colder, and many people at this point seek to return to the original location of the leader and the group, even if for this they have to sacrifice common sense or their dignity.

Special approach. Members of cults always consider themselves a community of the chosen ones. And when a person is convinced that he is above everyone else, it helps both to isolate him from the world and to exploit him. Cult leaders like to refer to any misbehavior (attacking on foreign borders, humiliation, sexual abuse, exploitation of other people’s labor, etc.) as “special treatment”, which supposedly will help bring the adept to the light faster. After all, in the world of the chosen, the usual rules do not work.

False dichotomy. Leaders of destructive groups often exalt the members as individuals endowed with the highest virtues (at least as long as they obey), as opposed to people from the complete sin and wickedness of the outside world. By creating an us versus them dichotomy, cult leaders instill a constant sense of superiority mixed with menace. Accordingly, as soon as the participant deviates from the rules of the cult, he is frightened by the exaggerated horrors of the outside world, creating a false dichotomy: either our special order, or complete chaos and apocalypse. 

Increasing emotional vulnerability. Cults often involve games and rituals that increase emotional vulnerability, requiring participants to confess shameful things or criticize each other. 

All residents of the sectarian settlement of Sinanon, which existed from the early 1960s until 1991  in Santa Monica (California), had to play the “Game”. The participants gathered every evening in small circles and poured out all the accumulated aggression on each other (it was possible to shout and use the most derogatory and obscene epithets). It was considered a kind of psychotherapy, but in fact it emotionally swayed the participants and allowed them to better control and manipulate their moods. 

Communication restrictions. Cult leaders usually do not allow their followers to communicate not only with the outside world, but also with each other. 

Jim Jones introduced a “quiet rule” in his sect – whenever his voice sounded on the camp radio system, no one was allowed to talk. Heaven’s Gate also carefully monitored the speech of the followers. 

Cliches limiting thinking. This term was introduced in 1961 by the American psychiatrist Robert Lifton. He called so catchy phrases that do not invite further reflection and dialogue, but are aimed at quickly rejecting dissent or rationalizing erroneous reasoning. They sound very specific, easy to remember, and reduce complex problems to banal truths. They become the beginning and end of any ideological analysis. 

A few examples from different cults: “Truth is a construct”, “None of this matters on a cosmic level”, “Don’t let fear control you” (in case this rule applies to any anxiety in any context).

Loss aversion game. Loss aversion theory in behavioral economics states that people generally feel the loss (of time, money, reputation, etc.) much more acutely than the gain. 

A person who has already lost some amount in the casino will most likely continue to play in the hope of winning and returning the 9 spent 

Cults exploit this feature by encouraging the newcomer to invest their attention, money, and other resources in “self-development” and by promising that a state of purification or enlightenment is fairly easy to achieve. In the process, it turns out that for this you need to go through several more levels, which require an increasing contribution from the adept. Since the person has already visualized their progress and invested, more often than not, they will decide to continue participating in the cult and “push” some more. And of course, no one tells him that the upgrade process never ends. 

Gaslighting. The cultist is often told that he misjudges reality and that his failure to solve all his life’s problems according to the cult’s methods is solely the result of his own shortcomings. 

Who is at risk of becoming a cult follower?

Common sense dictates that only intellectually disabled or psychologically unstable people can get stuck in a cult for a long time. But some scientists have refuted this view. 

British sociologist Eileen Barker compared Moon’s most dedicated Unification Church converts in her research with a control group who were seemingly the most vulnerable, such as having an unhappy childhood or rather low IQ. But the control group either didn’t join the cult at all or left after a week or two. And its most obedient members turned out to be educated people, the children of activists, teachers and civil servants. They were raised to see the good in people, even to their own detriment, and to believe that with hard work they could change the world. Thus, people fall into destructive groups not from desperation, but rather from an overabundance of optimism and conscientiousness.

Most adepts do leave cults as soon as life is threatened, but the reasons why some do not may also seem familiar and humanly understandable. These are the same reasons you might put off breaking up with an abusive partner: denial of problems, inertia, social pressure, fear of revenge, self-doubt, lack of outside support, and hope that your current situation will improve with a little more effort. 

Cults of our time: MLM and sports communities

Multilevel Marketing

One of the typical examples of secular organizations operating in many ways in a cult pattern is multi-level marketing (multi-level-marketing, MLM). Among them are both legitimate organizations (such as Amway, Avon, Mary Kay, etc.) and financial pyramids like the infamous MMM in Russia. 

Both types of organizations work like this: a charismatic company founder convinces a small group of people to start their own business. Unlike typical entrepreneurship, no education or work experience is required to participate. This “business” is opposed to regular employment (in MLM rhetoric, the words “job” and “employee” are associated with poverty and bureaucracy).

There is no base salary here – instead, you are offered to receive a small commission for any product that you personally manage to sell. Starting such a “business” requires two steps.

1. Purchase a starter kit containing samples and marketing materials (it will cost an average of $50 – and it is much cheaper than starting a normal business, so the offer looks tempting).

2. Every month you need to recruit about 10 new members to your team. For each of these participants, you offer to hire 10 of your own salespeople per month. You will receive a small share of the starter kits and equipment your recruits buy, as well as the sales of their products. And the person who recruited you, respectively, receives a percentage of your sales and recruitments. The founder of MLM, sitting at the very top, gets a cut of everything. In order to promote a product and develop a downline, you need to persuade friends and acquaintances to buy something or, even better, join the business. 

The main difference between a Ponzi scheme and a normal MLM company is that the members of the latter are mostly compensated by the sale of a certain product or service, and these products usually have some real market value.

Avon and Faberlic sell cosmetics, which for many women is a really good purchase. 

Ponzi schemes also give out compensation for quickly attracting new participants. Sometimes, as a distraction, they also sell some kind of product, but usually it has a very dubious value.

The pyramid promises to work no matter what, and if you can’t reach 10 clients/recruits per month, that means you’re the problem. In addition, you will let yourself, your mentor and your excellent team down. This cannot be allowed. Therefore, participants begin to buy goods and equipment in the hope that later they will be able to recoup the costs, or at least in order to avoid shame in front of the team.

In the case of a financial pyramid, new levels rise rapidly and the market quickly overflows with sellers. Poking your head to anyone familiar with the catalog, you find that someone has already “spudded” him. Therefore, according to research, 99% of pyramid recruits never earn a dime, and the lucky 1% at the top make a profit only at the expense of everyone else. More people manage to make money in legal MLM, but even there sales are not as easy as they promised at the trainings. Often the “business” brings in much less money than a regular hired job. 

But by the time the participant begins to think about leaving, he already has a deep emotional connection with the mentor and the team . In MLM, love bombing and a ban on negative thinking are practiced. Participants are not allowed to criticize the company or talk about their failures. Everyone gets the impression that everything around is fine, and if only he doesn’t succeed, then, probably, the problem is in himself. 

Amanda Montell notes that the cult of multi-level marketing is a direct consequence of the values ​​of capitalism and the Protestant ethic . Protestant reformers put forward the idea that God helps not only spiritual development, but also material success. And if you diligently try and be a good Christian, you can get well-deserved wealth, in which there is nothing shameful. In addition, the MLM industry has been trying since the 1950s to attract housewives who need pocket money but do not want to go to permanent work. Other similar companies like to use close-knit groups such as churches, military bases and university campuses. 

American MLMs are especially thriving in Utah, where Mormons live. 


Sports “tribes”

Until the 21st century, maintaining a physical form was not mixed in the mass consciousness with spiritual development (if we talk about modernity, and not about ancient practices), but in the 2000s, many fitness areas began to appear at the junction with spirituality (from frankly esoteric options to offers simply develop inner strength, courage and discipline through sports). Boutique fitness studios have begun to position themselves as a kind of sanctuary, playing on people’s desire to “tribe” and have a transcendent experience. If you pay attention to the healthy lifestyle vocabulary, they use words that we often associate with spiritual development: purity, discipline, perfection, breakthrough, awareness. Here are a few more tricks that help influence the minds of adherents of fashionable fitness studios:

  • Regular repetition of affirmations and mantras, making the messages embedded in them all the more convincing.
  • Internal jargon and newspeak.
  • Metaphysically loaded vocabulary (“We breathe in intention and breathe out expectations”). 
  • Using physical overload to make people more receptive to suggestion (this approach has been used in Bikram yoga studios and SoulCycle).
  • A rigorous selection of super-charismatic trainers capable of attracting millions of followers, and further training them to develop the potential of “cult leaders”.
  • The familiar love bombardment.
  • Creation of a strong community united by common values ​​and rules.

Of course, it is still difficult to call such studios real cults, but even they run the risk of abusing the participants’ increased suggestibility. 

At SoulCycle, instructors created hierarchies among pets, interfered with the privacy of clients, slept with them, etc. Bikram Choudhury, the creator of Bikram Yoga, molested his students with sexual suggestions and insults. And CrossFit adherents have been injured by blindly following the recommendations of their guru, Greg Glassman. 

Therefore, Amanda Montell believes that although such communities should not (and cannot) be banned, it makes sense to control their activities to some extent in order to protect participants. 


Instagram influencers

It is no longer necessary for a charismatic leader to gather followers offline – just create an account on Instagram or YouTube and use all the same tricks there – love bombing, newspeak, affirmations and clichés that limit thinking. Amanda Montell gives examples of bright “gurus” of our time – healer 10 Heather Hoffman, who offers pseudoscientific courses in cellular activation, and Bentinho Massaro, whose statements about death drove one of his followers to suicide. Although these accounts look wild to the sane observer, Hoffman and Massaro have a lot of enthusiastic followers. In addition, research by Michael Shermer, science journalist and founder of the Society of Skeptics, shows that while pure belief in the paranormal like ghosts is more likely to be believed by people with a low level of education, New Age Instagram concepts tend to be believed by well-educated people. So the potential influence of these “gurus” should not be underestimated. 

Top 10 Thoughts

1. People join cults to find meaning, a sense of community, and a set of clear rules and rituals that make life more stable and relieve inner tension.

2. Signs of cults can be found not only in religious and esoteric organizations, but also in completely secular communities, for example, in sports clubs or companies engaged in multi-level marketing. But as long as the leaders of the groups are honest with the members, do not exploit them and allow them to leave the group without much cost, these communities are not considered destructive.

3. Key features of a destructive community: charismatic leaders; behavior aimed at changing the consciousness of adherents; sexual and financial exploitation; an “us versus them” mentality in relation to the outside world; philosophy of “the end justifies the means”. 

4. High intelligence and a good education do not insure against falling into a cult – it is much more important to be able to be critical of your emotions and beliefs and recognize the selfish motives of others. 

5. Cult leaders use many language techniques to influence the minds of their followers. In almost every cult, a special language appears to help adepts feel chosen and oppose themselves to the rest of the world. 

6. Cults encourage newcomers to invest their attention, money, and other resources in “self-development” and promise that a state of purification or enlightenment is fairly easy to achieve. In fact, these investments further deter adherents from leaving the community. 

7. Exiting the cult is hindered by fear of social rejection and cost aversion , a psychological trait that makes us want to avoid loss, even if we understand that the loss will eventually turn into a gain. 

8. Protestant values ​​became the driving force behind capitalism, but thanks to them, financial pyramids also arose.

9. Fitness and wellness studios use cult tricks to build their loyal “tribes” of customers. This helps people get involved in a healthy lifestyle, but creates risks of abuse. 

10. Techniques that allow you to unite people and evoke a certain emotional charge in them can also be used for good. You need to understand how it works in order to weed out intruders. 

1. The Church of Scientology is a religious movement founded in 1954 by Ron Hubbard. Today it is one of the most influential cults, with 13,000 employees in 107 countries. 

2.  MMM is the largest financial pyramid in the history of Russia, created by Sergei Mavrodi. 

3. A destructive sect that existed in California in the 1960s-1980s. Known for its totalitarian rules and involvement in several crimes.

4.  Well-known Russian political scientist and publicist, maintains a popular blog on YouTube.

5.  Libertarianism is a political system that prioritizes freedom and a minimum of government regulation. In particular, this leads to less social support for vulnerable segments of the population.

6.  The Manson Family is a destructive cult in California in the 1960s, led by American criminal Charles Manson. On August 8, 1969, four members of the “family” on the orders of Manson committed the brutal murder of five people, including director Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate.

7.  Religious movement founded in 1954 by Korean Sun Myung Moon. Now has several million followers around the world. In the Russian Federation it is recognized as a destructive sect. Several adherents of the movement died under mysterious circumstances. 

8.  The cult broke up in 1991 due to the fact that its members were convicted of criminal activities.

9.  Read the summary of Richard Thaler  ‘s The New Behavioral Economics .

10.  Healers are folk healers who supposedly have, among other things, the ability to perform operations without surgical instruments. Healing is not recognized by evidence-based medicine.

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