Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell

Nine stars

I first encountered Amanda Montell‘s work a year or so ago, when she dissected the world of language and how it has inherent gender pitfalls. In this text, Montell unwraps how language is used to develop strong followings or serve to persuade people into various collectives. After some great background, Montell labels this language as ‘cultish’, right up there with English, Spanish, and even French (yes, I see that the last breaks the fluidity of examples). Montell effectively argues that language can be used in subtle or blunt ways to coerce or convince the population to believe or disbelieve certain things. While many people are surely visual learners, the means by which language is used can have a major influence on decision making, something Montell shows repeatedly throughout the tome.

While the word ‘cult’ has morphed into something quite negative, for a long time it was not given the same eerie notion. Montell effectively argues that it was the rise of Jim Jones and his Jonestown commune in Guyana that sullied the word and permitted the world to make negative associations with the word so freely. Montell explores not only the group, but also how Jones used words and various phrases to really drill home his views to followers. It it so very intriguing how words and phrases, usually tied to salvation or persecution, can drum up such emotion in people. Montell’s exploration of the religious cult movement may not have been entirely unique to me (as in, I had heard some of the discussion before), but its presentation and analysis brought a much-needed new look to the subject matter.

Another way in which groups can be called cults is a use of insider language, keeping those who are not ‘in the circle’ completely ostracised. While the primary example of this is the Church of Scientology, it can be extended to other groups, usually those in the world of fitness or other health movements. The ‘us versus them’ mentality fuels a separation between those who are actively supporting the group and non-believers. Montell exemplifies that there is usually a push to ‘get more insiders’ in a variety of ways, but that those who refuse to believe should be left to perish. Language to create this inner know is essential to success and failure, something that Montell presents repeatedly.

Just as in many other realms, language can be key to bullying others, even within an organization. Multi-level Marketing (MLM) groups use it to keep their members motivated and trying to keep pulling more inside the circle, making it clear that those who cannot meet the standards are forced out and will likely be shunned for good. Montell explores many groups, usually popular sales from home companies, and how they use buzz language to promote continued growth, but also harsh critiques for those who are not able to succeed. While I am not working within an MLM, I know that sort of pressure, to a degree, in my current field of employment, where I work from home and try to liaise with the general public to help them protect themselves and their families. I see the strong verbiage that is used and the buzz language, which was only further highlighted at as I read this section of the book. Language can be a tool, though it is not always a building block, but rather a club to keep people in line.

Montell offers many other examples, but it is up to the reader to take the time to explore this book to see things for themselves. The book was paced well and tackled a number fo areas of interest. While there may be moments of ‘soap box’ preaching, it almost needed to be done to shake the trees and allow the reader to see what’s going on around them. Montell’s detailed chapters are full of evidence to suppose her thesis and is also written in such a way as to entertain while surely educating. Amanda Montell is a vibrant personality and this comes through in her writing, but she is academic when the need arises. This is no fluff piece or a means of debunking things that others have already espoused as troublesome. She seeks to devise her own arguments and presents them in a clear and succinct manner, permitting the reader to come to their own conclusions. This is masterful and just what I needed to keep my mental muscle flexed throughout this captivating read.

Kudos, Amanda Montell (for you taught me never to call you Madam), for this great book. I loved the hype leading up to its release and can say for a fact… it was well worth the wait.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, by Amanda Montell

Nine stars

Linguist Amanda Montell grabs the reader by the shirtfront with this book, slapping them with a title that opens the eyes before inundating the mind with so much on the topic of the way English is used and the divide it creates amongst its users. Montell opens her narrative by exploring the role that certain words have had over time in the English language, particularly those of an offensive nature. She points out that many either depict women in the negative or weaker role, thereby turning them into the group at the core of debased or lesser sentiment. How ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, and even that lovely ‘c-you-next-Tuesday’ are meant to depict women in such a negative light, while the worst that many men will receive is ‘dick’ or ‘sissy’. From there, Montell takes the reader through some of the history of words and their connotation have sought to turn women into the fairer and weaker sex by subjugating them to the power of men in the English language. Take, for example, the attempts to offer a degree of formality between the sexes. While men are given ‘sir’, a term that has remained relatively strong and the same for the centuries, women are given ‘Miss’ (sounds too young and flighty), ma’am (sounds too old and crotchety), or ‘madam’ (which has become a sexualized term). There is no inherent explanation, but Montell makes it clear that women are getting the short end of the stick on this one.

Montell shows the real struggle of gender identity, where the traditional masculine role is dominant and everything else seems hard to accept or grasp. She gives the reader some real examples of how to tackle these 21st century gender depictions in language and pulls in some wonderful ways in which other languages and dialects have handled things. Sandwiched into the narrative was a discussion of grammar and how it is used to highlight intelligence or standing in society. While Montell explores hypercorrection of some sentiments, things that people use when they want to correct what appears to be bad grammar but is actually just as incorrect on the other side, she shows how certain groups (namely middle- to lower-class women) find themselves scorned and ridiculed. Language and grammar is a means of trying to classify people, though it is society’s way of classing people in a world where the rules are always changing. What is not ‘right’ now will one day be the norm that all will follow, though no one seems to accept that. Of particular interest to me was a chapter on trying to comprehend gendered nouns in languages other than English and how that works to assign some role to a ‘table’ or ‘eye’ in order to make it correlate to any adjective (French and Italian come to mind), while English has none of this, save inherent words of implied gender (king, queen) or those things by which men may feel threatened (countries, storms, large vehicles) that automatically receive a ‘she’ pronoun. As Montell furthers her argument, there is a push to understand the role of catcalling and debasing women through objectified speech, as though men need to do so in order to hold onto their sexuality, by puffing out there proverbial feathers and beat their chests. Montell pulls on both academic studies and personal insights into how women have handled this over the years.

Montell is prepared to shock some readers as she explores the societal roles women have taken in English, particularly when it comes to the seedy underbelly of curse words. She makes some wonderful points about how ‘unladylike’ it seems to be for some reason, then debunks it all with some great studies, sure to open the eyes of many. There needs to be an end to promoting this view of women as the gentler and more delicate sex, where ‘gosh darn’ would be the strongest word to cross their lips. I thoroughly enjoyed this analysis, as I could hear the society and linguistic walls falling faster than a ‘sky is falling’ Trump edict on immigration barriers. The latter few chapters pull the reader in for some wholehearted discussions on, of all things, the linguistic depiction of genitalia and how this varies across both the sexes but also by the various genders. This is an interesting look into how one self-defines and the clash with societal norms. Montell does not shy away and has left the reader with a plethora of terms to use, perhaps also seeking to buck the trend of how to communicate about themselves and others, especially in moments of intimacy. While the entire book pushes the limits of what might be known or accepted by many readers, Montell does so with ease and as much class as possible. Recommended to those who enjoy academically-inclined tomes, as well as the reader who wants to spark a conversation at the next dinner party or family gathering.

In a book that pushes the social norms and seeks to educate as much as it will shock, Amanda Montell makes some powerful points from the perspective of language as an oppressive tool. Her explorations are well suited to the discussions and offer full-circle analysis, keeping the reader on their toes from the outset. Not a tome to inculcate as much as educate, Montell holds nothing back and helps to show things that may be so ingrained and inherent that many had no idea they were taking place, or at least took them for granted. I, for one, took so much from this book and will seek to better understand and use words of a more appropriate type moving forward. Montell’s extensive reference to studies and the work of others on the subject lends it to being a somewhat academic work, though the dedicated reader can push their way through and learn a great deal, as it is penned in a layperson’s terms to ensure the point is made. With paced chapters, full of poignant arguments and humorous asides, Montell makes her point and keeps the momentum going. Nowhere in this book did I get a sense of a gender or language revolution, but it is better to know what literary weapons are out there, to arm one’s self, if not to blunt them and level the playing field. That being said, my head hurts from all the computing I have done and will be doing to be better aware, particularly since my buddy reader will hold me accountable every single day!

Kudos, Amanda Montell (for I learned not to call you, Madam), for this insightful book that forced me to open my eyes and brain to new ways of comprehending language.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: