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Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism Hardcover – 22 July 2021
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The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.
What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .
Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.
Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.
A fascinating, enthusiastic narrative on the loaded language of cults. — Kirkus Reviews
“A rigorous and fascinating examination of the power of language to spellbind us all. Montell’s command over cultish language makes her as mesmerizing and charismatic as the gurus she dissects.” — Molly Ringwald, actress and author of When It Happens to You
“You will never think of cults the same way again—this is an unforgettable look at human nature and the power of language. I couldn’t put it down. Amanda Montell blends true journalistic sorcery with her trademark humor and intrepid curiosity to create a linguistic narrative so delicious and searingly smart, you will wonder, like I did, can we join her cult? If so, count me in as a follower for life. I’ll read anything this woman writes.” — Chelsea Bieker, author of Godshot
“Whip-smart, engaging, and utterly intriguing. Cultish is a witty and thorough examination of power, community, words, and the junctures between them.” — Alexis Henderson, author of The Year of the Witching
“A playful but canny exploration of the ways language can entrance and beguile us—sometimes past the point of no return.” — Elisabeth Thomas, author of Catherine House
“One of those life-changing reads that makes you see— or, in this case, hear—the whole world differently.” — Megan Angelo, author of Followers
“Compulsively readable and startlingly of-the-moment, this witty, slick, and self-assured book is as intriguing as the spellbinding groups it examines.” — Andrea Bartz, author of The Lost Night and The Herd
“At times chilling, often funny, and always perceptive and cogent, Cultish is a bracing reminder that the scariest thing about cults is that you don't realize you're in one till it's too late.” — Refinery29.com
“We’re all susceptible to coercion, and Montell’s phenomenal book that chilling point as clear as can be.” — Bitch Magazine
About the Author
Amanda Montell is a writer and reporter from Baltimore with bylines in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Day, The Rumpus, Byrdie.com, and WhoWhatWear, where she is the staff features editor. As a pop linguist, Amanda's insights have been featured in Glamour, Bustle, Refinery29, Hello Giggles, and Bust Magazine. Amanda graduated from NYU with a degree in linguistics. She lives in Los Angeles. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell.
- Publisher : HarperWave (22 July 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062993151
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062993151
- Dimensions : 13.97 x 2.67 x 20.96 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 14,383 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I liked that Montell doesn't cram in endless linguistic terms, but instead explains some of the most commonly used tactics in a way that makes this book more like a switched-on person's guide to spotting the language of fanaticism rather than a broad glossary of terms, which is infinitely more helpful.
I also loved that, although there are plenty of stories of people who have lost their lives, money and so many other things to cults and unhealthy communities, the book, on the whole, feels non-judgemental and, often, compassionate to how people fall into these situations and become swept away by cults and bad relationships.
I need to go back and read Montell's first book now because that somehow passed me by!
It does that very well but along the way seems to me to spend more time exploring a variety of those beliefs. The concentration on language is more of a perspective used to explore those strange worlds than the central content of the book.
It's very good and I highly recommended if you bear in mind that it isn't principally for linguists.
Serious research was lacking and there were some egregious errors which undermined her credibility throughout, e.g. using the Hindu term 'swami' to refer to 3HO's Sikh leaders, and referring to "Indian monks" when she probably meant sadhus. Despite her claims to be a linguist and an academic, her sources, where they exist, are less than convincing; for instance in discussing the Reformation, she cites historic information sourced from an interview printed in Grazia magazine (information which could have been taken from a much more credible source). She discusses the "use" of "exotic sounding" language in kundalini yoga, which is absurd, as the language she describes is simply the vernacular of the spiritual texts on which it is based. You might as well claim that the Arctic's coldness is a cult strategy for recruiting the Inuit. More interesting would have been an investigation into what it is about arcane language and 'foreign' cultural systems (including that of the Bible) that is so seductive to those outside the source culture. But this is never really addressed or considered.
Her few useful insights (the 'thought-stopping cliché' concept) drift lost within a rambling structure and ultimately what we have here is mostly just a bit of storytelling flimsily pinned down with anecdotal 'evidence' and strung together with what-I-reckonry, none of which amounts to a whole heap of beans.