The Language of Fanaticism
- ISBN: 9780062993151
- Published By: HarperCollins Publishers
- Published: June 2021
In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell provides the reader with an engaging look into the power of language. Her central argument is that language is the ultimate tool of power used for social formation and control by groups that she labels “cultish.” Montell defines the term “cultish” very broadly, as “the language of fanaticism in its many forms,” but fails to define what “fanaticism” (or “extremism,” another word she deploys) are, which suggests that she expects the reader to share her colloquial understanding of these terms (13). She applies the term “cultish” to groups that are generally regarded as dangerous and delusional (Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and The People’s Temple), but she also uses the term for more mainstream for-profit wellness businesses (CrossFit, SoulCycle, and multilevel marketing businesses). She casually incorporates her own personal experiences into the text—such as having a father who was once in a “cult” and her experience being “kidnapped” by members of Scientology—creating an atmosphere of relatability and accessibility for readers. However, this tactic creates the impression that her personal experiences are representative of the frequency at which such phenomena occur.
Montell divides the book into six parts, each focusing on the language tactics of a different group. The first section walks the reader through a very brief history of the term “cult” and how its definitions and usages have fluctuated over time, shifting from an academic term used in sociology to a pejorative word implying deviance and/or danger. She acknowledges the term’s turbulent history and the ongoing academic debates about whether to use the term “cult” or alternative descriptors such as “New Religious Movement.” The subsequent sections discuss various groups, focusing on the language they use and Montell’s analysis of that language. For example, she uses the sunk-cost fallacy and loss aversion to discuss The People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate, as well as “System 1” and “System 2” thinking in multilevel marketing. Montell draws on a wide range of disciplines for her analysis, including sociology, psychology, economics, and religious studies. This helpfully demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of the topic, but it simultaneously simplifies intricate and multi-faceted phenomena and theories.
Cultish is certainly a fun and entertaining book, but in her attempt to explore the power of language, Montell falls into an essentialist and reductionist perspective of religion, often utilizing absolutist language—as when she asserts that “with Scientology, as with all cultish religions, language is the beginning and end of everything” (122, my emphasis). Given that one of her main goals is to produce shared characteristics of the groups she labels “cultish,” this approach makes sense to a degree. For example, early on she asks the reader, “What do Alyssa’s and Tasha’s stories have in common? The answer: they were both under cultish influence” (9).
However, it’s worth considering that perhaps these stories have nothing in common except for the author’s choice to declare them as similar. Rather than asking whether a group is or isn’t “cultish,” it would have been more intriguing to explore the choices that are made when labeling and classifying groups, as such choices privilege certain groups over others and, to quote a source from the text, “The political ramifications of identifying something as a cult are real” (37).. Put differently, for a text that emphasizes the power of language and how it is used by “cultish” groups, it’s peculiar that the author only briefly discusses the power of the language she employs to classify and construct comparisons between disparate groups, ultimately reducing them to a single denominator.
A sophisticated text, Cultish incorporates public scholarship from scholars whose expertise is on New Religious Movements. A quick glance at the notes section reveals that most of the sources for this book come from online newspaper and magazine articles that cover complicated and intricate topics in a predictably and necessarily condensed manner, which are then further distilled through Montell’s summation of them. The book introduces the reader to a variety of topics of scholarly interest, such as “love-bombing,” thought-terminating cliches, and glossolalia, but it is simply that—an introduction. It appears that the author’s main audience for this book is a popular one, and as such it should not be treated as a comprehensive or authoritative text. Rather, it should serve as an introductory resource for people fascinated by the phenomena that Montell generalizes.
Overall, Cultish is a book that falls short of its potential. First, on the matter of how charismatic leaders exploit people,, she declares that “the real answer all comes down to words” (12, my emphasis). But surely this is reductive; it suggests that there is a singular answer to such a complicated topic, and that her answer is the “real” ones. Of course, language does have the power to shape and influence people, but to declare it as the one and only tool rather than as one of many potential tools, is reductive and overly simplistic. Second, the use of “cultish” implies something that is, in part but not entirely, a “cult.” Although Montell is not arguing that members of “cultish” groups are deviant or worthy of malignment, she is nonetheless participating in a discourse of “good” and “bad” religion that works to further marginalize minoritized groups, and that implies there is such a thing as “true” and “correct” religion. Her breezy judgements, built on existing popular biases, can be seen throughout the book when she uses words like “wacky,” “kooky,” and “spooky” to describe “cultish” groups and their leaders. Ironically, Montell is uncritically utilizing the same language techniques to persuade her readers that she asserts are problematic when employed by “cultish” groups.
Ciara Eichhorst is an independent scholar.Ciara Skye EichhorstDate Of Review:June 30, 2022