‘a cult is like porn: you know it when you hear it’

Recently I have found myself increasingly interested in the language used by ‘culty’ people and establishments: so much so that I have been throwing the word ‘cult’ around haphazardly. For instance, watching my mum scan every goddamn thing she puts in her shopping trolly to check the ‘syns’ (not to be confused with ‘sins’ which is a real word). I say to her ‘oh is that for your cult?’ AKA Slimming World. And of course, I am joking, but hear me out on this one. The group meet once a week to ‘weigh in’, to see if they have gained or lost weight. This is fine and my mum enjoys it. But the bit that makes it just a tiny bit ‘culty’ is the jargon and the little sayings – ‘no shame in a maintain’ and ‘healthy extras’ and please do not start with the obsession with FryLight, which in my opinion tastes like crap and ruins any reputable non-stick pan. I chuckle under my breath as I drop my mum off and see her fellow SW goers all turning up in a floaty dress and flip flops, even when its -3 degrees outside. My other problem with it is the simple fact that being heavy doesn’t necessarily equal being overweight. People are often shocked when I tell them how much I weigh because let’s bet honest I do resemble a cocktail stick the majority of the time. In addition, I went to school with girls as young as 12 (I was also 12 – I felt as though that needed clarifying) who would attend SW sessions with their mums, this just makes me sad. And once you hit 16 you no longer need a parents permission – an age where eating disorders, body dysmorphia and body image issues are rife.

So maybe Slimming World isn’t up there with the likes of Scientology. But something they have in common is their use of ‘cultish’ language. I was so excited around this time last year when I learned that the author of one of my favourite non-fiction books was bringing out a book all about the language of cults and fanaticism. And when I finally received it this July, I couldn’t put it down.

Amanda Montell discusses all things culty and potentially culty. She starts with the horrifying scenes of Jonestown where over nine hundred ‘followers’ were murdered in a mass suicide on 18th November 1978, three hundred of whom were children. They died for the cause of ‘revolutionary suicide’ which was the only way to ‘protest the conditions of an inhumane world’. But none of Jim Jones’ ‘followers’ went along to this place and thought ‘yeah let’s all just die’, they were manipulated into thinking that was the only way to live a better life. tragically it would only end one way, fatally. An Elvis Presley doppelgänger who wanted a Socialist world, prayed on the most vulnerable people to start his revolution; people who were already marginalised and being failed by capitalism. Women, people of colour, gay people, poor people, people who wanted to believe in something. And he did all this through language.

When I first learnt about cults in year 12 of my sixth form college, I was taught by a strange, quirky man who had a PhD, but no clue to how to control a class of twelve gobshite girls (me included) on a Friday afternoon. He talked to us about Scientology; showed us a film about all the celebs who are part of this freaky establishment. Then I thought it was a load of old rubbish, ‘surely people aren’t that stupid to join a cult.’ But Montell shows us how language is such a powerful tool, how it takes over the mind. Scientology was always one of those dodgy things that I didn’t really understand; if someone asked me what I was I wouldn’t be able to tell them. But after reading ‘Cultish’ by Amanda Montell, I understand that it is a lifestyle. It is as much nothing as it is something, a set of ideas, merely an ideology. But this one involves money and a lot of it. People are recruited through personality tests, if they possess certain traits (which are probably a load of old bollocks) then they are offered workshops – to pay for, obviously.

When I read about the people paying for mentoring workshops in Montell’s book, I couldn’t help but think about the multi-level marketing schemes that some people on my socials are part of. This is not a diss or an attempt to drag anyone who joins an MLM in a hope to ditch the 9-5 and become their own boss (yeehaw) but please do remain skeptical. I have seen these ‘coaching sessions’ and such an overwhelming push for ‘self-development’ which is great but it sounds like a whole lot of words with absolutely no substance. I understand that people attend these ‘workshops’ and enjoy them, become inspired maybe. That’s how the language is used to persuade one to sign up to be recruited, just like Scientology would. The whole positive vibes thing from MLMers gives off the biggest cult vibes to me as it is, never mind the next parts of the process.

Amanda Montell discusses the language of MLMs a lot in part four of her book which is titled ‘Do You Wanna Be a #BossBabe’ which while I am trying my best not to be offensive to MLMers, did make me giggle. Montell speaks to many people inside and out of the MLM world and their stories are shocking and hilarious, not forgetting utterly terrifying. Their use of language is just perfect for their mission, to recruit people just like me and you.

For me, quite a lot of things feel culty. Disney, yoga, Linkdin, mindfulness, life coaches, Weight Watchers, the people who clean toilets and restock their cupboards on TikTok, Peloton, Mrs Hinch, car meets, running clubs, I could continue but I’m sure you get my gist. Of course these things are not going to tell you to move to a desert island and eventually kill yourself for a higher cause. But the language they use is so powerful; it holds their followers, manipulates them and usually gets them parting with cash. Some of these and others that we become involved with, pose no threat to us or our wallets, culty or not. Most of us just want to belong to something, to make friends and exchange stories, which is a great thing for us all to do. Whether they rinse us dry, brainwash us, bring us a sense of belonging or make our lives worth living, there’s no doubt that certain things just are a bit culty.

Something which Montell writes about which I had never thought about before is what she describes as ‘semantic stop signs’. These are often used by cults but can be used by anyone. Semantic stop signs basically cut off the thought process of another person, allowing them no room to think about the situation. These are phrases like ‘it is what it is’ or ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘it’ all part of god’s plan.’ Essentially, these are phrases which don’t actually mean anything, but what they do is wrap up and kill the conversation. Unless we challenge the semantic stop sign, the conversation is terminated and the idea is buried.

Lastly, I would like to share my huge love for this book. If you ever get the opportunity to read this book then do it, it’s so important to keep our brains aware of linguistic techniques used by people who want to exploit us. But try not to be too wary, like me. ‘Cultish – The Language of Fanaticism’ gets 5 starts from me, duh, Amanda Montell wrote it! I will finish this post by exploring a quote from page 95 of this book, which reminds me that people don’t just think ‘ooh a cult, sounds good!’ It is so much more complex than that. Language could never make me join Scientology or an MLM, but I could never say never when it comes to something I am interested in. Maybe I’d be the perfect recruit for something out there.

‘Language doesn’t work to manipulate people into believing things they don’t want to believe; instead, it gives them licence to believe ideas they’re already open to’ -Amanda Montell.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for the next post 🙂 ❤

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