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Review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Updated: Nov 17

2/5 stars

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell (2021)

There were parts that I found so fascinating, but overall it fell a bit short for me. I was really excited for an in-depth look at language, and Cultish didn't really deliver. It's more about the cults themselves than about the language they use (as I saw one reader describe, "linguistics is put on the counter, next to the back burner"). However, I still enjoyed it for what it was - a chance to learn more about high-profile cult-like groups, like Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, and Scientology, as well as compelling comparisons between those and more "socially acceptable" groups like multilevel marketing companies (MLMs like Amway, Avon, or Mary Kay), and fitness empires (e.g., CrossFit, Peloton, SoulCycle, Bikram yoga).

Montell asserts that "our behavior is driven by a desire for belonging and purpose. We are 'cultish' by nature." Cultish language permeates our society, creating an us-vs-them mentality for anyone involved in a group that has a "cult-like following." The premise is sound, but the analysis isn't very thorough. There are so many interesting places this could have gone that only got a page or two of text. For example, the following passage:

"While other advanced nations, like Japan and Sweden, enjoy a bevy of top-down resources, including universal healthcare and all sorts of social safety nets, the U.S. is more of a free-for-all... This lack of institutional support paves the way for alternative, supernaturally-minded groups to surge."

I mean, that's an interesting take on why the U.S. has so many cultish groups! I would love to delve deeper into this theory, but the above quotation is the only mention of it. Another one I found particularly interesting only gets a few pages: our "conditioning to automatically trust the voices of middle-aged white men." This is reflected in so many areas of life - politics, business, and academia, to name a few outside of the "cult" realm. (It made me think about my dad as an administrator at RIT. He didn't use his privilege to deceive people or create a toxic cult following! But he obviously benefited in many ways from being a middle-aged white man. Speaking your mind and telling people what to do is socially acceptable when it comes from a voice that has been deemed "trustworthy.")

Anyway, all this to say I think it is an interesting read for those who want a basic overview of cults and cult-like groups. Unfortunately, it's also very repetitive, at times sensationalist, and full of parentheses where she notes that there will be (more on that later)... I don't know why that should be necessary if a book is well written and well edited.

I was also frustrated by her glib and condescending attitude. Take this short passage, for example:

"Jones's image wasn't just progressive and pious. He was handsome too... Personally, I don't see the appeal... I suppose deranged murderers might just not be my type."

Deranged murderers aren't anyone's type. The point is that followers see these people as leaders. I'm interested in what makes them feel that way. And while I might find such a snarky comment funny on Twitter, I guess I was expecting a more academic approach in the book. Additionally, Montell makes some noises to proclaim that it's not about how smart you are, but she'll then share a story that proves to me that she thinks it really IS all about that. There are so very many factors that could contribute to someone's involvement, outside of simple intelligence level. In this 200+ page book, she spends, for instance, two pages on the impact of race and how the outcomes of the civil rights era affected BIPOC people in the 1970's (a heyday for cults).

Are you really interested in cults and MLMs? Check out these two podcasts instead:

Maintenance Phase: Wellness & weight loss, debunked & decoded. (with Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon)

You're Wrong About: Reconsidering events, people or phenomena that have been miscast in the public imagination. (with Michael Hobbes & Sarah Marshall)

UP NEXT: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

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