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We’re All a Little ‘Cultish': How Cults Use Language to Influence People

An interview with Amanda Montell about her new book, 'Cultish.'

by Maylin Tu
August 13, 2021 | Living
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Credit: Good Studio // Adobe

Last year I attended an online event for two writers I admired. I had been to many virtual book events, but this one was different.

The Zoom chat flowed fast and heavy. The conversation was warm, supportive and uplifting.

Before the event had ended, we collectively decided to start our own online community. Within 24 hours, we had our own Slack group and an enterprising person had set up a spreadsheet to decide on our first book to read together.

That's where I met Amanda Montell.

Cultish by Amanda Montell

Montell knows a thing or two about the human thirst for belonging and the extremes it can drive us to. She grew up listening to her dad's stories about Synanon, a notorious Bay Area cult he was part of as a teenager.

But it wasn't just her dad's stories. Montell heard cultish language everywhere she went, sensing that it "imbues our everyday lives." So, she set out to figure out how cults and cultish groups use language to influence people. The result is Cultish, her latest book.

Sadly, the online community we formed fizzled out somewhere between the first book group and the second. But I'll never forget what it felt like to crave community and connection and find other people who felt the same way.

I caught up with Amanda to talk about brainwashing, momfluencers, stan culture, the connection between kink and spirituality and how we're all a little bit cultish.

How do you think your last book, Wordslut, led to writing Cultish?

I'm interested in the relationship between language and power. Language is something that is sorely taken for granted. And we don't often stop to think about the effect, conscious and unconscious, that it's having on us.

We grow up with axioms like "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you." We don't appreciate the material power of language to make things happen in the world. With the first book, I was looking at that from a technical feminist-linguistics angle. This one is a lot broader — but one could also argue that the patriarchy is a cult.

There's been so much interest in your book and I think part of it is how nonchalant it is about the central premise: Cultishness is everywhere.

I'm inspired by the work of Mary Roach (the popular science writer) who takes this darkly funny, curious, enthusiastic, sometimes slightly irreverent approach to topics like death and war and digestion. I did try to do a lot of work towards the beginning of the book to establish this edgy idea that cults aren't just the Jonestowns and the Heaven's Gates. There is no objective, hard and fast, singular definition for what a cult is — and there never has been. Cultishness is a spectrum and none of us are totally absolved of it.

I think it's very effective. And it also, like you were saying, works to create empathy for people who end up in those situations.

Well, because out of self-protection we like to tell ourselves, "I'm never going to end up in a group like that. Those people are deranged, they're disturbed." But those aren't actually the qualities that make someone attractive to a cult or that make someone attracted to something that could be called a cult. It's other things that perfectly bright, optimistic and service-oriented people have as a part of who they are.

That doesn't mean just anyone can end up in a group like Heaven's Gate. There are things that would make an individual slightly more susceptible to joining a group like that, which is a really complicated amalgam of factors.

Was there a direction that your research went that you weren't expecting?

The first major turn it took was finding out the phenomenon of brainwashing doesn't even exist. Brainwashing is just a metaphor, nothing more. It's not a scientific or testable phenomenon. I was like, "Okay, how does language work to brainwash us?" It's literally just a metaphor that's used to pass judgment: "You're brainwashed, no, you're brainwashed, they're brainwashed."

And I think the book also caused me to develop a real sense of empathy. I was concerned that by the end I would just become a cynical misanthrope and wouldn't ever want to get involved with any kind of group ever again. But really, throughout the process I learned that humans are spiritual, irrational and cultish by nature, and that that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. You just have to make sure that the groups that you're involved in aren't exploiting your power and your identity.

This idea that people are brainwashed is almost comforting. That people who believe harmful ideas want to believe them — something about that feels disturbing.

That was the spooky thing. Nobody can convince someone to believe something wacky or dangerous that they don't on some level want to believe. You can't just blame a cultish leader for your beliefs. You can only really exploit the beliefs and proclivities that someone already has and push them into a more and more extreme version of that. And you get them into a position where their already existing human reasoning flaws start to kick in, like confirmation bias and sunk cost fallacy. But it is never too late to resist if you want to push back.

When it comes to Gen Z, is there a certain type of cultishness they're attracted to?

I think Gen Z is set up to be super cultish because of the cultural, social and political turbulence that they're living in. You'll find them glomming onto celebrities and influencers and brands, in the ways that Boomers would glom onto churches, school or the corporate company that they've worked for, for 25 years.

You see Gen Zers get totally obsessed with the celebrities that they stan. Stan culture is a very cultish new thing that wouldn't really exist without the internet. And because of the internet, we end up in this horrible comparison game where we compare ourselves to everyone else and the number of potential possibilities for what a life or person could look like feels crushing. We just want a celebrity or an influencer or brand to tell us who to be and what to think and what to wear and who to vote for and what to post.

Did writing this book during a pandemic give you any special insight into the average person's need for community?

Oh, definitely. I went into this book trying really hard to withhold judgment, but I'm only human. And then over the course of the pandemic, I realized exactly how much I too need community, connection, answers and closure during crisis ridden times. And when there are certain people on the internet who are speaking with a lot of confidence, claiming to have the answers, and using these buzzwords, hashtags and euphemisms, it can get really easy to just hand over your loyalty.

And this is happening not just during the pandemic, but during the Black Lives Matter movement. You want someone to tell you what to believe and what to say. And I completely found myself succumbing to the influence of the loudest, most confident, most charismatic person on my feed, when really what is needed is a lot of nuance and private, careful consideration. Well — during Black Lives Matter what was also needed was immediate action and voices. But it does also leave room for people who have ill intentions to slide in and exploit that.

During tumultuous times there's almost a regression into childhood or needing comfort.

Yeah, we're like, "Mommy!" You're right, we were just looking for a nurturing voice to make us feel held. And that's why we saw the rise of so many pernicious momfluencers — the conspiritualist, MLM, divine Earth mama type of influencer, who has a bunch of kids that she won't vaccinate and is perfectly comfortable preaching on every topic from mental health medication (and why you shouldn't take it), to why your kid shouldn't eat dairy, to who to vote for, to what causes to donate to.

The momfluencer community really exploded during the pandemic. It paved the way for a lot of pretty, white, female cultish leaders to arise on social media, not in a Jim Jones way or a Marshall Applewhite way because women aren't who we default to when we want to hear someone speak with confidence about God and government, but they are we default to when we want to hear someone speak with confidence about health and wellness. And obviously, during the pandemic when people's physical health and mental health was at stake, we wanted a mother figure to comfort us.

You make this analogy between sexual nerdiness (kink) and spiritual nerdiness (cultishness). I'm just curious, how did you come up with that analogy? And what was your thinking?

I think it was Karley Sciortino of Slutever who I first heard make the comparison between kink and sexual nerdiness. And as I was writing this book, I realized that what you really need to be able to do in a socio-spiritual group or a cultish group is to be able to express scrutiny or skepticism and push back if you don't agree with something, much in the way that if you're dealing with kink, you need to be able to push back if you don't like something at any point along the journey — or else that's not healthy.

There was one quote about SoulCycle that struck me again, that idea of regression — about going back into the womb where you don't have to think. You can let go of control. And I don't know if letting go of control and letting go of power are necessarily the same.

I think that's an important distinction, especially because, like I talk about in the book, there's the idea of ritual time. There should be a sacred time and space where it's safe and everybody agrees, "Okay, we're going to do this surrendering thing right now for 45 minutes or two hours" — whether you're in a SoulCycle studio or at church.

And then when you leave, you need to be able to get your power back. And if you're involved with a group that doesn't allow you to take back the rest of your identity when you leave the space — that's a red flag.

What would you like to see groups do along the lines of consent that they're not doing?

I think groups need to leave space for questioning and to have a dialogue where you're not immediately shut down or made to feel like if you speak up, you're going to be ostracized. Groups need to make their members feel like you can participate casually. You can have one foot in and one foot out the door. And they need to be upfront about what membership requires.

And if you're starting a group — and by starting a group, I don't mean, are you building a socialist commune in the woods somewhere? I'm saying everything from a company to a social media space. You need to be thinking about those things too. Because it's the ethical thing to do. It's the empathetic thing to do. But also, none of us are absolved of cultish influence. And if you have a certain lust for power, then you're not absolved of responsibility either.

There's something about living in LA that can feel very cultish.

There are certain people whose dreams are bigger than, "I just want a house with a picket fence." They're like, "I want to be a star." And wanting to be a star and believing in a metaphysical afterlife, those are both BIG dreams. Becoming the next Tom Cruise is almost as big a dream as wanting to ascend to heaven — especially in a culture that reveres celebrities so much.

That's another one of these myths that exists surrounding cults: that people who join are desperate and need someone to take care of them. But with people who wind up neck deep in a group like Scientology, they weren't desperate. If they were really that desperate for money, they wouldn't have been able to stick it out for that long. They are optimists who believe that this group can make them a star, this group can make them well, this group can fix their life.

You can't throw a rock in LA without hitting a scientologist or a Kundalini Yogi or someone who is in a pyramid scheme of some kind because everybody here is such a dreamer.

Where do you go to get your fix of spirituality and community?

I'm still looking — if anyone has a cult for me, hit a girl up. All the things that I really love and stan there's no communities surrounding them. Under the right circumstances, I would totally give my life over to the cult of my favorite TV show or celebrity. Before the pandemic, I used to get it at this place where I volunteer. That felt like a very positive form of community and existential purpose. We were making other people's lives better and making our lives better by doing it together. I don't volunteer with them anymore. So yeah, the jury's still out on that one.

You said you were thinking about starting your own cult.

I really want to buy a plot of land in Idlewild, California and build a tiny house and host writers' retreats for women and non-binary writers. For a weekend everybody can wear puffy-sleeved, floral dresses and worship the moon and get their poetry written, and then they can leave.

It sounds lovely. I would totally go.

Doesn't that sound fun? I was literally just looking up tiny house builders today. I'll probably never have enough money to buy a house in LA, but I can buy a tiny house in Idlewild.

I can relate — I roll my eyes at most things that are woo-woo but I'm also looking for permission to believe, at least in a small way.

I keep watching these videos on YouTube of these two Taylor Swift stans reacting to Taylor Swift's new music drops. And I get so much out of watching them worship Taylor Swift. I mean, it's partially voyeurism and horror, but it is partially jealousy. I want to love something even half as much as they love Taylor Swift.

I have defected from a great many cults in my lifetime — the cult of the beauty industry, the cult of the theater program that I attended in college — but maybe I actually need to be cultier. Because I keep leaving cults, but I really want to stay. I really want to stick it out. I'm trying to see how to do that.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Maylin Tu
Maylin Tu lives in Los Angeles and writes about identity, religion and pop culture.
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