Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell

Cults, like porn and art, are something we feel we’ll know when we see. There is no agreed upon definition and the line of cult-land is nebulous. Montell, a linguist, suggests the core of a cult is driven by language. A vocabulary of inclusion (the way WE talk) and exclusion (THEY don’t get it) are what cements a cult into its own discreet group.

So while power abuse can look like poisoned punch and purple shrouds, the linchpin is what it sounds like. If a form of language cues you to have an instant emotional response while also halting you from asking further questions, or makes you feel “chosen” just for showing up, or allows you to morally divorced yourself from some one-dimensionally inferior other, it’s language worth challenging. The labels and euphemisms probably won’t kill you, but if you’re after more than just basic survival, surely the most fulfilling life is the one your narrate yourself.

Montell looks at the language of the most inarguable cults (Jonestown, Scientology, NXIVM) to what she calls the “cultish” – CrossFit, SoulCycle, InstaGram “spiritual” influencers and multi-level marketing companies. What makes them a cult, or merely cult-ish is so very hard to define. “Us” and “them” language is very powerful, just like exclusion, shunning, gaslighting and love bombing – all tools of a cult. Where is the line between a wildly popular exercise class with a charismatic teacher, and a full-fledged cult? What hooks people in and keeps them? Where is the line between a cult and religion? Could you end up in a cult?

Cultish is a mind-bending, fast-paced and incredibly original look at cults.