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: