Tuesday, March 8, 2022

"Cultish" and Me

Cultish: the Language of Fanaticism (2021) is a very interesting book by linguist Amanda Montell, bringing out the ways every sort of "cult" from Heaven's Gate to Amway uses language to create a separate world for its followers. Listen to a conversation between two high-ranking Scientologists, she says, and you will not have a clue what they are talking about. The special cult language bonds members together, creates a sense of being special insiders, and divides them from the rest of humanity.

It's a good book, a bit too chatty for me, but that's probably why I will never write a best seller. If you're interested in the topic, read it. I enjoyed it, and the topic is fascinating.

I wanted to write about my own very personal reaction. Montell's father was raised in a cult, and she describes herself as someone with a special sensitivity to anything that smacks of cultish language. I feel the same way.

Whenever I hear words used to divide us from them, signal membership in a group, or create any kind of unthinking emotional response, an alarm goes off in my head. I despise political slogans of every sort. I can't hear anyone say "family values" or "taxation is theft" or "diversity is strength" or "black lives matter" without cringing. Not that I disagree with all of these slogans; some strike me as mostly true. I just can't take seriously any idea that can be expressed in three words.

I used to go to demonstrations once every year or two, but I never liked them. I hate to hear slogans chanted, because to me they all sound like cultish mantras rather than actual thoughts. The speakers mostly mouthed strings of buzz worlds they knew would fit into certain emotional receptors in their audiences. People around me cheered, but I always thought, "That was a weak argument and you mischaracterized what your opponents actually believe." To me the world is too complex to express in all the words ever spoken, let alone by your slogan.  If you think allegiance to your slogan says something about people, I think you know nothing about either slogans or people.

Consider "diversity." I believe very strongly in diversity; my political ideal is what John Dewey called "pluralism." Let 10,000 flowers bloom. But I cringe almost every time I hear the word used in our discourse, because they people who use it don't seem to believe in it at all; in fact they all seem to be using it to attack those who disagree with them, thereby denying any kind of meaningful diversity. What they mean is, "I am a not-racist, non-homophobe etc. and therefore good, and you are not and therefore bad." Which makes my stomach turn over. And I feel this way about every slogan, every politically charged word.

Freedom? What sort of freedom? For whom, to do what?

Revolution? Against what? For what?

What, exactly, is a "community"?

And for me this goes far beyond just politics. There are exercise groups where people work out while shouting affirmations. I am about as likely to do that as I am to walk on the moon. 

I have friends who enjoy church services despite their agnosticism, but I can't take it. My mind is too taken up with quibbling about the details of what is being said or implied to ever relax.

I used to be arrogant about this and felt superior to the world. I don't any more. Instead I worry that as I age I will grow increasingly lonely. I do not feel like I belong to anything, have ever belonged to anything, and I worry that the consequences of this will get ever more dire after I retire and my children move on. I suspect this is largely because I am so allergic to the things that create belonging.

As Amanda Montell shows, cultish words and ritual actions are not tangential to belonging, they are its heart. These things are what creates group feeling, and that sort of group feeling has always been central to human life. Yet I have hardly experienced it at all.

Amanda Montel believes that cults are dangerous and bad, and that people should resist being drawn into them. Ok, fine, Jonestown was a disaster. But my reading of history is that if you go far enough back, everybody lived in a cult, a small community with its own language, its own rituals, a deep suspicion of outsiders, and shunning of people who questioned the agreed rules. We evolved in that sort of world. 

Our world is too big and diverse for us to be able to feel anything in common with the people of our town, let alone our nation. So those who crave belonging throw themselves into various groups. We have a million options: churches, exercise clubs, yoga studios, fandoms, political movements. I often hear people ask, "How could anyone believe that?" I always think, they are looking for a home, and this belief provides one, and you almost certainly hold to unquestioned beliefs of your own because you also want a home.

Without that sort of belonging, does anyone really have a home? Do I?


Shadow said...

"Listen to a conversation between two high-ranking Scientologists, she says, and you will not have a clue what they are talking about. The special cult language bonds members together, creates a sense of being special insiders, and divides them from the rest of humanity."

Sounds like a number of academic fields.

David said...


One could say the same about plumbers, auto mechanics, doctors, musicians, sports fans, gardeners, bird watchers, and just about any other human group.

A special language can be used for the exclusionary purposes described. But jargons are also created because they are useful. It seems to me language quality is a pretty weak definer for cult.

Shadow said...


Exactly -- Agree completely.

szopen said...

I'd propose if using normal language may lead to misunderstandings and you need more precise language to make your thoughts easier to understand, then it's professional jargon. If however you could've just use normal words and instead you are using terms which have no clearly defined meaning and seems to be really fluid, so the result seem to be that your thoughts are harder to understand, then it's clearly cultish.

As for sense of belonging, well. It's normal that people want to belong somewhere. That's why subcultures are forming (or maybe: _were_ forming? Because nowadays it's more "internet communities" when people are anonymous and feel to be part of anonymous community)

Shadow said...

I don't think there is any one characteristic that is necessary and sufficient for defining a cult. There seem to be tell-tale characteristics -- charismatic leader (usually alive but sometimes dead); a vocabulary unique to the group; small size; isolation, yada yada yada -- but how many of them (and others) have to be present to reach critical mass? In the end it seems like, you know one when you see one.

G. Verloren said...


I'd liken it to Fascism - experts on the topic routinely differ on the criteria they use to define Fascism itself, and different kinds of Fascists exhibit different qualities from one another, to the point that it's hard to really quantitatively work out exactly where the "critical mass" point is... but on a qualitative level, if you're paying attention you will know a Fascist when you see one.

I think ultimately, cults are defined by their zealotry and their obsession with control - in all the various forms those things can take. Language is, indeed, frequently a major tool of cults - but it's still just a tool.