22 Mar 2022

Cultish: The linguistic tricks cults use

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 22 March 2022

What really drives people towards cults is language, says linguist Amanda Montell.

Her new book Cultish: the Language of Fanaticism explores the linguistic patterns that cults and cult-like brands use.

And it's not just the most sinister cults like Jonestown, Heaven's Gate or Scientology, Montell argues that the modern wellness industry, multilevel marketers and even brands like Amazon and Lululemon are employing "cultish" language and techniques.

She’s has a personal stake in cults, she tells Nine to Noon.

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Photo: Supplied

“My dad spent his teenage years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on a remote socialist compound called Synanon, that started out as an alternative drug rehabilitation centre, but grew to accommodate so-called lifestylers or Americans who wanted in on the blossoming counter cultural movement of the time.”

Children at Synanon were separated from their parents, she says.

“No one was allowed to go to school or work on the outside, at one point everyone shaved their heads. At another point, couples were split up and reassigned new partners that the Leader Chuck Dedrich approved of.

“But the most fascinating stories were about this nightly ritual called the Synanon game, it was something that everybody had to participate in, where you would gather around in circles and be subjected to vicious interpersonal criticism by your peers. This was not a fun activity, and yet it was referred to as a game that you played.

“So, I was fascinated to hear about how language terms like the game shapes members views of the world.”

Her father was a natural sceptic, he’s now a scientist, and forged his own path, Montell says.

“He arrived and he took a look around at everyone wearing the same thing and speaking the same way. And he just got that feeling that this was a group that he needed to keep his distance from.

“So even though he was forced to live there, he snuck off of the commune every single day to hitch a ride into San Francisco, so that he could attend a normal accredited high school. And as soon as he was able to graduate, he matriculated at college, got his PhD and I grew up in a family of scientists.”

A cult is nebulous term, she says.

“The word has become so loaded with judgment that the word cult is not really enough to be able to determine what particular dangers and risks are on the table with any given group."

One thing all cults employ is a system of language to control, Montell says.

“The aim of my book is to break down some of these hard and fast linguistic techniques that all of these cultish groups use to manipulate, not just followers of groups like Heaven's Gate but us all to some degree.”

Cultish language works to so three things – the three Cs, she says.

“It converts you, it conditions you and it coerces you.”

A cult uses techniques like ‘love bombing’, which gets people into the fold.

Then they will condition you to respond in a certain way to a certain stimulus and coerce you into behaving in ways that seem in opposition to your former self, she says.

Jargon is also a universal linguistic tool, she says.

“My parents, they're scientists and they will use jargon that I don't understand. But that jargon is there to make communication clearer. Cultish language has these ulterior motives and it's there to make communication hazier.

“It's there to divide people, to shut down independent thinking.

“And that's how you know that language is cultish, when it causes strong emotional response, but you yourself have trouble translating what it is that you're saying.”

Heaven’s Gate uses scifi-esque language, she says. They believed they would eventually ascend to heaven on a hovercraft.

“The mansion that they shared when they were inside of it that was referred to as ‘in craft’ when they were outside in the world that was ‘out of craft’.

“The kitchen was referred to as the ‘nutro lab’, the laundry room was referred to as the ‘fibre lab’. They all received different names that shared the same suffix in order to bond them.

“And this language wasn't just gobbledygook. It might sound ridiculous to those on the outside, but it was doing real religious work to put them in a rhetorical headspace where they could imagine that hovercraft that they believed they would board one day.”

The terminating cliché is another ubiquitous technique, she says.

“This is a classic cultish language technique. It's the sort of thing where once you understand what it is, you won't be able to unhear it.”

The phrase was coined in the early 1960s by a psychologist Robert J Lifton, she says, and describes a stock expression that's easily memorised, easily repeated and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning.

“Questioning, scrutiny, pushback, these are the enemies of any cultish group that wants to remain an unchecked power.

“So, whenever anyone tries to express any dissent, you're going to need a roster of these catchy stock phrases in order to shut that person down.”

The QAnon conspiracy group uses a bunch of them, she says.

“Thought terminating clichés include things like ‘trust the plan’, or ‘do your research’ or ‘don't let yourself be ruled by fear’.

“In some New Age groups thought terminating clichés come in the form of dismissing valid concerns or anxieties as ‘limiting beliefs’.”

Such phrases are effective because they alleviate cognitive dissonance, Montell says.

“That uncomfortable discord when you hold two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time, you feel that something is amiss, but you want so badly for this group that you've put so much time and energy and bandwidth into to be true, to be what it was promised.

“And so, when you're served one of these thought terminating clichés, it puts that cognitive dissonance to bed for long enough for the leader to remain in power.”

Jim Jones

Jim Jones Photo: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jim_Jones,_1977.jpg/CC3]

Cult leader Jim Jones was a master at such dark arts, she says.

“He would use a number of populist language techniques that he had studied in order to meet people on their linguistic level, to love-bomb them by speaking their quote unquote language.

“So this is the way that he was able to appeal equal to white 20-something recent college grads to whom he would wax philosophical and quote Nietzsche, but also middle-aged black women active in San Francisco's church scene with whom he would use the familiar lilt of a Baptist preacher and quote Bible verses, he would sometimes quote Nietzsche and Bible verses in the same sentence.”

The language of cults has permeated other areas of life, she says.

“The multilevel marketing industry in the United States exploited so many values that we’re taught to have: perseverance, meritocracy, bootstrapping, ambition, and it takes them to an extreme and it uses toxically positive language geared specifically toward women who have these entrepreneurial aspirations in order to keep them in what is ultimately truly cult like group that prevents pushback and makes exiting the group very difficult.”

The MLM industry will co-opt vogueish terms, she says.

“It will capitalize on trendy feminist vernacular, whatever trendy language is buzzing about at the time.

“In the 1940s and ‘50s multilevel marketing was promised to be the best thing that happened to women since they got the vote, that was language used in Tupperware.

“Now, multilevel marketing is pitched as the opportunity to be a boss babe, a girl boss, a mompreneur; to work from home and make a full-time living without ever having to leave your kids.”

There is also a quasi-religious tone to the language, she says.

“They'll talk about how you're serving not only your bank account when you become a seller for one of these companies, but that you're becoming a better mother, a better wife.

“A lot of these groups have patriotic implications, religious implications. So, by being affiliated with multilevel marketing you're serving God in a sense.

“It's no accident that so many multilevel marketing companies are Christian-affiliated, Mormon-affiliated because the promises made with this language are in fact transcendent and spiritual in nature.”

Groups such as CrossFit and SoulCycle are taking a leaf from the cult handbook, she says.

“Young people are increasingly moving away from the traditional sites of religious community that we grew up with, or that our parents grew up with - our churches and synagogues, but we're still craving that sense of belonging and ritual.”

Young people are looking to fitness studios to fill those voids, she says.

“CrossFit and SoulCycle are some of the companies that young people name as giving them a religious identity. And these companies know that full well.

“SoulCycle calls itself a sanctuary and will encourage its instructors to become mini pastors, mini cult leaders of their own using language as their primary power tool.”

So how does she advise people be alert to cult-like groups?

“I would say if a form of language cues you to have a strong emotional reaction, but causes us to stop asking questions; if it forces you to separate yourself from those who don't know how to use the language; if you find yourself becoming ideologically bound to a set of terminology, filled with a sense of elitism just for showing up, those are some cues that you might be involved with a group that's a little too cultish for comfort.”