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Cults in Everyday Life: How Language and Culture Mimic Cults

I just finished watching Escaping Twin Flames on Netflix and thought of a book I read (inhaled would be a better description) last year that delved into the world of cults - Cultish by Amanda Montell. I approached it expecting to read about those poor people who are gullible enough to fall for cults and instead walked away surprised.


If you think only dummies fall for cults — you’re wrong.
If you think you would surely never fall for a cult — you’re wrong!


Cult-like behaviour is more prevalent than I thought. Not in a move-into-the-dessert-and-follow-a-charming-leader kind, but in everyday activities. Thus cult-ish. Joining a fitness studio might be cultish, following a New Age spiritual guru on Instagram might be cultish, even the Twitter bro fetish for work hard, play hard mantra is cultish.


In her book, Amanda explores the language, psychology, and dynamics of cults and fanaticism in various aspects of society.


A quick overview

  1. Language is everything: Cults and extremist groups often use specific language and terminology to manipulate and control their followers. She discusses the way these groups create their own lexicon and jargon to create a sense of exclusivity and belonging (us-versus-them sentiment).
  2. We have unrealistic ideas about cults: The book explores how unlikely and out-of-the-ordinary popular culture presents cults to be (A crazy guy convinces crazy people to do crazy stuff). This leads us to underestimate the influence and potential danger of cults by assuming only crazy people fall for them.
  3. Manipulation: No cult starts by feeding its followers insane ideas. They employ psychological tactics to gradually bring the person into their universe, which gets more extreme over time. She examines the use of love bombing, isolation, and other tactics to exert control.
  4. Cults in everyday life: Cultish behaviour and language can be found in various aspects of everyday life, including self-help movements, wellness trends, and consumer culture. Montell proposes people unknowingly engage in cult-like behaviour.
  5. Social media and technology: She examines how online platforms can serve as breeding grounds for fanaticism.
  6. Escape and recovery: Throughout the book, you can find stories of individuals who have managed to escape cults and extremist groups, shedding light on the process of recovery and deprogramming.
  7. Preventing cultish behavior: How to recognize and resist cultish behaviour, develop critical thinking and media literacy.


The book examines how cultish language extends beyond traditional cults and influences various aspects of society, from marketing and self-help gurus to political movements. Montell illustrates how cult-like dynamics can be found in unexpected places, thus Cultish.


1. The Power of Language

  • Cults create a unique language and vocabulary that serves to isolate their members from the outside world. This terminology reinforces a sense of belonging and reinforces the group’s ideology.


Cults need to create a sense of separation that requires either reinventing existing words or inventing new ones. Because most manipulation and coercion occur in language, instilling a new vocabulary is crucial.


Think of Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak:


War is Peace.
Freedom Is Slavery.
Ignorance Is Strength.


Another tell-tale sign something’s cultish is “love bombing” — overwhelming recruits with affection and attention to create a sense of dependency and loyalty. For example, MLM recruits people through their cutsie-empowering-you’re-the-special-one kind of jargon: Girly!! Omg, I saw your Instagram profile and you’re clearly such an entrepreneur, you’d be such a GREAT addition to our team!! We love go-getters and empowered people who don’t play into the victim mindset — and you seem like a powerful creator!!


By employing this term, cult leaders normalize what is essentially a form of emotional manipulation. Members may mistake these excessive displays of affection for genuine care and connection, making it difficult for them to recognize the underlying control tactics.


Language is a powerful weapon in the hands of a cult leader because language is how we create reality. If somebody gains power over your use of language, they can make assertions and plant beliefs you wouldn’t have chosen yourself.


“In every corner of life, business and otherwise, when you can tell deep down that something is ethically wrong but are having trouble pinpointing why, language is a good place to look for evidence.” — Amanda Montell


2. Cults in Pop Culture

  • The book delves into the portrayal of cults in movies, television, and literature. Montell argues that these portrayals often sensationalize cults and may downplay the seriousness of the issues they pose in reality.


For example, Montell references the film “The Invitation,” where a dinner party takes on cult-like qualities, illustrating how cults can be portrayed in a suspenseful and sensationalized manner in movies.


  • Our interest in cults is reflected in the increased availability of cult documentaries on streaming services. Just a few recent examples: Wild Wild Country (the Enlightenment guru Osho’s community gone too far, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (promised its followers a never-ending, sexless alien life), and Jonestown: The Life And Death Of People’s Temple (how the followers got convinced to join mass suicide).


Montell gives a plausible reason for our collective obsession with cults:


“The reason millions of us binge cult documentaries or go down rabbit holes researching groups from Jonestown to QAnon is not that there’s some twisted voyeur inside us all that’s inexplicably attracted to darkness… We’re scanning for threats, on some level wondering, Is everyone susceptible to cultish influence? Could it happen to you? Could it happen to me? And if so, how?”


A short answer as to whether this could happen to you is yes, argues Amanda. I encourage you to read the book to understand why.


3. Psychological Manipulation

  • Montell provides in-depth insights into the psychological tactics used by cults to recruit and maintain control over their members. These tactics include the aforementioned love bombing, isolation from family and friends, and fear-based manipulation.


The thing with cults is that they happen gradually as opposed to all at once. If you join Scientology, they won’t tell you about an alien called Xenu, described as a planetary ruler 70 million years ago who brought billions of aliens to Earth. They will tell you that:


“Man is basically good and his spiritual salvation depends upon himself, his relationships with his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the universe.”  from Scientology.org


This sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It says:


  • You are intrinsically good
  • Your spiritual enlightenment is in your own hands
  • There are others on the path just like you. You’re not alone
  • Connection with the Universe/Divine/God is definitely attainable.


It’s easy to attract people with a message like that. No crazy stories, just tell them you know the key to their existential problems and they’re good to go.


This gradual revelation of the ‘Truth” and alienation of others (you are special because you know something others don’t, and being with them corrupts you) is what turns otherwise “normal” people into followers. Cult leaders exploit basic human needs for belonging, purpose, and security to draw people into their fold.


4. Influence on Everyday Life

  • The book examines everyday scenarios, such as self-help movements and wellness trends as cult-adjacent. Montell argues that these can exhibit cult-like characteristics, with charismatic leaders, exclusive language, and unwavering loyalty from followers.


Let’s take the multi-level marketing (MLM) industry, where companies often employ cult-like tactics, such as exclusive terminology and relentless recruitment, to create a dedicated salesforce. These organizations often rely on creating a sense of belonging and loyalty among their members, similar to how cults operate.


Another example would be beauty and wellness influencers promising that this magical face cream changed their skin forever, that attending CrossFit classes is a lifestyle, not a thing you do or that exercising overall is a morally right thing to do.


Most Instagram coaches market their services as I was in this terrible place before, just like you, and then I discovered the magic formula X, and I’m willing to sell it to you so you don’t suffer like I did.


In the two examples above, there’s usually a charismatic leader (be it an influencer or a coach) who appears happy and confident.


In the coaching world, they also have testimonials from former clients who are now super happy having taken the magic formula they sold. I know I know, it’s just marketing, but if you watch Escaping Twin Flames you’ll see A LOT of similarities.


5. Social Media and Technology

  • Montell discusses how social media and technology have become platforms for the rapid dissemination of extremist ideologies and cult-like behaviour. Online echo chambers and algorithms can amplify radical beliefs further.


For example, QAnon didn’t need to gather together physically — ideas of Q spread through the internet spread and created a movement of cult-like following. Even then-president Donald Trump joined in the “fun” to exploit the followers’ beliefs further for his gain. Another example would be either radical left or right, with each movement using tribalistic language and slogans to create a sense of identity and belonging.


6. Escape and Recovery

  • The book shares stories of individuals who have managed to escape cults and extremist groups.


These stories shed light on the challenging process of recovery and deprogramming. The hardest part about recovery is learning to trust yourself again. It’s a catch-22 because it feels like you got yourself into the cult, so how can you now learn to trust your judgment?


The process of leaving a cult can be emotionally and psychologically taxing, and understanding the recovery process is crucial for assisting survivors. Yes, using the term survivors sounds dramatic, but it’s what it feels like for people who have escaped cults.


7. Preventing Cultish Behavior

  • Montell concludes by offering strategies for recognizing and resisting cultish behaviour. She encourages critical thinking, media literacy, and open dialogue as tools to prevent falling into the traps of manipulation.


Develop healthy skepticism and seek independent thinking and diversity of thought. If you think you know the right way, reconsider the strength of your beliefs. Finding yourself feeling morally superior to others for doing a certain activity (exercising, using specific face cream, dressing a certain way, etc.) is also a sign you are acclimatized to a cult-like language and community.


Conclusion

In essence, humans are social and spiritual beings seeking meaning, connection, and purpose. It’s almost like cultish behaviour is part of our makeup. People want to be a part of something important and language helps them identify as part of the tribe. So, becoming cultish is hard to avoid.


Overall, the book provided a thought-provoking exploration of the language of fanaticism, drawing on examples from various contexts to illustrate the power and pervasiveness of cult-like dynamics in our culture. There’s much more to be found in the book than I could have provided in this piece. I highly recommend you read it for yourself.


P.S. This is a hilarious IG account uncovering the cultish and ridiculous world of coaching and spirituality.