From workplaces to politics to Instagram influencers, "cultish" language is everywhere

In her new book "Cultish," author Amanda Montell explains the relationship between language and fanaticism

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 16, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

A QAnon supporter holds a sign during a protest at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on May 2, 2020. (Getty Images)
A QAnon supporter holds a sign during a protest at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on May 2, 2020. (Getty Images)

The word "cult" gets thrown around a lot today, which suggests it is losing its specificity. Everyone agrees that Heaven's Gate or the Peoples Temple were cults; not everyone believes QAnon and its followers constitute a cult, even though psychologists specialize in "deprogramming" QAnon followers. Then, there are things that few may recognize as cults, but which have some cultish traits — like, say, Crossfit. 

Cults are usually defined by devotion toward a particular figure or object, which makes it difficult to decipher whether something like the popular exercise regimen is a cult. Though Crossfit fancies itself a branded fitness regimen, anyone who has been around anyone who does Crossfit will notice, simply by the way Crossfitters speak, that it is a very tight-knit community. The gym is called a "box," trainers are "coaches," and your WoD (workout of the day) can consist of both BPs (bench presses) and BSs (back squats).

Though Crossfit might not be a cult cult the way that Heaven's Gate was, writer Amanda Montell argues that people who do Crossfit do suffer what she describes as a "cultish" influence. In other words, who and what you worship may not be the defining line between what is and isn't a cult; rather, it's all about the way a group speaks.

That's the thesis of Montell's new book "Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism." The book explores how many of us fall under a cultish influence, whether we are aware or if or not, and how it connects to language. Her objects of study range from SoulCycle to Silicon Valley startups, while she simultaneously explores the power of language used in these communities.

As Montell writes, charismatic leaders do not draw followers using some "freaky mind-bending wizardry." Rather, it is a matter of language, plain and simple. 

"From the crafty redefinition of existing words (and the invention of new ones) to powerful euphemisms, secret codes, renamings, buzzwords, chants and mantras, 'speaking in tongues,' forced silence, even hashtags, language is the key means by which all degrees of cult like influence occur," Montell explains in her book.

As a linguist and the author of "Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language," Montell opens readers' eyes to the power words hold in all the cultish groups we may brush up against in our lives. I spoke with Montell over the phone about how we define cults, what "cultish" means, and how Instagram's health influencer culture can be cultish; as always, our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

First, I was wondering if you could explain what the book's title, "Cultish," means?

Well, it's sort of a double entendre; there are a few ideas I wanted to communicate with the title. First off, cults are really a spectrum. This word has become incredibly sensationalized, romanticized, judgment-loaded and subjective over the years, such that it's hard to know what it really means. So many groups that have been or could be called "cults" aren't necessarily any more dangerous or outlandish than a better-accepted religion.

That's not to say that some cults aren't dangerous. Some absolutely are, but the word "cult" is not really specific enough to let us know what we're really talking about, and it can often be used as just a judgment to morally divide us. Like, "you're in a cult." "No, you're in a cult." "You're the brainwashed one, you're in a cult."

So I tend to think of cults on this spectrum, on this continuum of groups that can range from fanatical, but ultimately pretty harmless, all the way to really exploitative and abusive and in some cases life-threatening. So I tend to call this the "cultish spectrum" — groups that are all cultish, groups I discuss in the book ranging from Scientology to SoulCycle. We might not agree that they are full-blown cults, but they're at the very least cultish.

And then the other meaning of cultish is this language that I describe in the book. It's this system of linguistic techniques that leaders and gurus from Jim Jones to Jeff Bezos to spin instructors use to influence their following. 

The language aspect of it was fascinating. And I didn't even know where the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid'' came from ( which originates from the Peoples Temple movement), even though that was so obvious when I read it in your book. I'm curious if you could explain more why you chose to focus on the role that language plays in cults and cultishness.

Yeah. Well, my background is in linguistics. Language is just the lens through which I see the world. When someone is talking to me, I am listening to their delivery and their word choice and the different features of their speech as much as I'm listening to the content of it. I don't know why. Some combination of nature and nurture has made me this very nerdy language-focused person.

I also grew up on stories of an infamous cult called Synanon, because my dad was forced to join it when he was a teenager by his father who was sort of negligent as a dad. He was a communist. He was very counter-cultural. He fancied himself an intellectual. And in the late 60s, he found himself quite bored with nuclear family life and decided to move my dad and my grandfather's new wife and his two little replacement kids to this compound in the Bay Area called Synanon, which was like a "socialist utopia." It started as a quack drug rehabilitation center and then grew to accommodate so-called lifestylers, people who just wanted in on this alternative way of living.

And my dad would tell me these riveting stories growing up. Just because I'm the way that I am, the most fascinating part of his stories of Synanon to me was always the special language that they used, terms like "lifestylers" and phrases like "act as if," which was this imperative to get people to not to question a certain policy or rule or procedure in Synanon. You were just supposed to act as if you believed until you did.

There was a Synanon school that all the children were supposed to attend, but the randomly-selected adults who ran the school weren't called teachers. They were called "demonstrators."

So I was always really sensitive to cult-y sounding rhetoric, whether it was in the start-up office where I was working or in the high school theater program I was in. was always really tuned into language that kind of reminded me of Synanon language. And so when it came time to think of a second book idea, and I'd always obviously been interested in cults, the only angle I could really feel like I was qualified to write about within this topic was language.

In the book, you talk a bit about what you call "thought-terminating cliches." I see them often in wellness circles and on Instagram — influencers encouraging people to say a specific "mantra." They always seemed harmless. Can you explain why they can be dangerous sometimes?

So a "thought-terminating cliche" is a concept, a term that was coined in the early 1950s by this psychologist named Robert Jay Lifton. And it describes these stock phrases that are catchy, easily memorized, easily repeated that are aimed at shutting down or questioning analytical thoughts. So an example of a thought-terminating cliche that you might hear in one of those New Age-y Instagram circles would be dismissing a very valid fear or anxiety or question as a limiting belief. Or saying something like "Don't let yourself be ruled by fear," which could be harmless in certain contexts, but when talking about, say, the global pandemic, it's definitely not productive. It is, in fact, quite destructive. So yeah, I was fascinated to discover this phenomenon of the thought-terminating cliche and these phrases aren't just used in cultish groups. We really hear them in our everyday lives in phrases like, "it is what it is," or "boys will be boys," or "it's all in God's plan," or "everything happens for a reason."

So the idea is that cultish language is not exclusive to these fanatical fringe groups. They really imbue our everyday lives, and so do thought-terminating cliches. And it's important to be aware of them so that you can kind of clock them and be like, that sounds like a technique that's trying to get me not to further question or think about this topic. And the motivation behind that might be someone is trying to take advantage of you. And I think thought-terminating cliches are really effective because it's work to think about something super complex. It's a relief not to have to, and thought-terminating cliches sort of assuage cognitive dissonance or that uncomfortable discord you feel when you have two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time.

And so they're really everywhere. And it's true, not all of them in every context are going to be harmful. But whenever you have a sort of ill-intentioned leader with a repertoire of these stock phrases —"Act as if from Synanon" is one of them — if someone was feeling doubtful of a certain policy in the group, you could just say, "Oh, well act as if," and that would be a cue to remember, oh yeah, I have my full confidence in this charismatic leader. And I'm just going to act as if I believe in this policy that he created until I do. And that sounds bananas, but when you're conditioned by these thought-terminating cliches over the course of years or a lifetime, they become these really effective cues to not think about something any further.

I think it's fascinating. And just how much we use, actually, these thought-terminating cliches, not even in, like you said, cultish groups, but it seems to be pretty mainstream. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on what to replace these thought-terminating cliches with or how to challenge them. I don't know if you have any ideas on that.

Yeah. I mean, it's always empowering to be able to label the technique of manipulation that somebody is trying to use at you. So if, I mean, this won't be entirely appropriate in every context. Say if your boss just throws one of these thought-terminating cliches at you, you can't just be like, "Hey, that sounds like a thought-terminating cliche, and I can tell that you're trying to manipulate me." But just having the ability to, in your own mind, clock that type of phrase is I think the most powerful thing you can do. And then you can in the safest ways that makes sense for you, you can sort of continue to gently push back instead of allowing that thought-terminating cliche to do what it was designed to do, which is to get you to be silent.

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Cultish rhetoric is used in so many industries: fitness, wellness, beauty, health, and even in our workforce, like at startups and at corporations. It's often used as a way to subvert power within an organization and manipulate people. However, I couldn't help but think while reading your book that humans seem to be really drawn to this cultish structure and language.

Well, I think we are quite cultish by nature. Study after study proves that we are communal inherently. We are attracted to groups of like-minded people. And there's neuroscience behind why cultish language resonates with us. Studies of Buddhists chanting have found that it reduces stress hormones in the body and elevates feelings of bliss. We like to engage in a group chant. We like to have an exclusive code language.

I mean, everyone can relate to being a kid on the playground and first learning Pig Latin, and feeling so special that you have this code language that other people don't know. It makes you feel really like you're doing something right. You are intellectually superior, that you're morally superior, that you're in on the secret. And we're tribalists. We are attracted to small groups of insiders versus outsiders. And I think language is such a powerful and underestimated marker of how you can tell who is in your group and who is on the outside.

I notice scientific language is co-opted by health and wellness influencers, particularly on Instagram. Many of them promote dangerous beliefs, especially in the alt-health world — like Joe Dispenza, who you mention in your book.

Well, co-opting technical terms from scientific fields and giving them new, metaphysical meanings is something that all of history's most notorious New Age leaders from Marshall Applewhite to L. Ron Hubbard has done. This is what New Age groups have always done. They combine scientific language or language from the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], like psychological language with spiritual, mystical, metaphysical language in order to create this impression that they are tapped into a power higher than science.

And what someone like Joe Dispenza does, which is particularly grating and harmful, is he will co-opt terms from astrophysics. He'll talk about quantum fields. And again, his credential is he has a degree in chiropractic from the university called Life University. He is a joke. But he will basically use really complex terms that are above the average follower's head. And because he uses them with such confidence and he's the picture of the type of person that we would expect to know about astrophysics, aka a middle-aged, balding white man. Either the average follower is not going to fact check that, you're just scrolling through Instagram or you're just surfing the internet.

With this overload of information that you're getting on Instagram or on the internet, you're not going to fact check every little thing. It would take you all day. It would be like a full-time job. And, study after study shows that misinformation spreads more quickly on the internet than true stories, especially on Twitter. And it's really difficult to differentiate between false information that feels more novel ...  and we're more likely to spread or retweet or re-share information that feels new because it makes us feel, again, like we are accessing something special that we are in the know. And sometimes true information feels boring.

So yeah, the combination of metaphysical language and science language is really dangerous because it devalues actual science. And in an era like we are now, when there is a civil war over disinformation — when people think that science is a conspiracy, when people have such mistrust in the healthcare system, in academia — that becomes incredibly dangerous. Especially because people like Joe Dispenza — and he's a dime a dozen, by the way — aren't spreading this ideology because they really think it's going to help people. They're spreading it to make a buck. The roster of products and services that Joe Dispenza has for sale would blow your mind. It's really like the metaphysical Disney store. And so he's reaching for attention. That's what he wants. He doesn't want to help people. He wants attention and followers and money. How do you get attention? You spread the news that's going to feel most novel to people. That news that is going to feel most novel to people is probably going to be false. And that's just destructive for so many reasons.

I'm fascinated by why people are so drawn to these people. I have always wondered if it is because traditional religion is on the decline, and maybe people gravitate towards those who seem to have this "connection" to something that they don't.

It's partially that. And I have found time and time again that the people who are most attracted to these New Age gurus in particular are ex-Christians, particularly ex-evangelicals. New Age ideology really just put a boho spin on a lot of old evangelical rhetoric. These good and evil binaries. The idea of a "great awakening'' is very similar to the idea of a second coming or a rapture. And there's a lot of black and white ideology going on that really hearkens back to evangelical rhetoric.

If you are rejecting the church that you grew up in, you're going to connect to something that's different, but also feels familiar. We're just utterly lacking moral and spiritual leadership right now as Americans. We feel like when we get sick or when we get hurt or when we are poor or anything, nobody is going to be there for us.

So we end up putting our stake in these alternative gurus rather than the mainstream institution. But also, as I was saying before, on Instagram, or on social media in general, you don't actually have to be a super-charismatic mass manipulator like dangerous, new religious leaders of years past. You just have to be able to tap into an algorithm. And being able to do that is the key to gaining a following now. You just have to tap into whatever's trending, whatever is garnering a big emotional response from people and just feed them that. Yeah. So there's a lot going on there, but that's some of it.

So we know how dangerous cultish rhetoric can be, but what's the solution?

I think there are a couple of solutions. I think something in our culture that is really damaging is that there are all these little ideological cults that really separate us, and really cause us not to empathize with one another or see one another as human. We see one another as this nefarious "other" if we don't align perfectly with the ideology of a certain group. It's really important to notice the cultish language that is causing you to feel so confident that you're right and everyone else is not only wrong, but morally inferior and a bad person. It's important to recognize, "what do I really think about this?" Or, "am I just being conditioned by these slogans and buzzwords to think that this is the right way?"

And if we can recognize the cultish language that's having an effect on us, not only will we feel more empowered to go and cross-check and fact check and make sure that we really believe what we think we do, but it will also help us be more compassionate and empathetic toward people who disagree because they're under a similar type of influence. They're under these very specific techniques of cultish manipulation. And if we can understand what that looks like, then we can hopefully open up communication pathways and be able to empathize with these people and talk to them — because that's the only way that we're going to be able to bridge these massive schisms in our culture.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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