By Amanda Montell
One of my new year’s resolutions was to lose some weight and, realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, I looked at some diet apps. I went through the one-week free trial of the ubiquitous Noom, and though I found it somewhat helpful, the language in the lessons made me a bit uneasy. I decided to read Cultish as a counterbalance, to help me ward off any susceptibility to a diet cult. (I ended up quitting Noom at the end of the trial, partially because of the high cost but mostly because it’s nutritional guidelines did not allow for my morning latte and my evening glass of wine, and those are non-negotiable.)
However, Cultish still ended up being hugely relevant. Amanda Montell looks at a variety of ‘cult-like’ entities, from the obvious like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate to the much milder like Instagram influencers, primarily through the lens of language and speech. As she delved into the oratory style of Jim Jones, who studied persuasive speakers ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Adolf Hitler, I began to recognize similar stylings in extremist politicians (on all sides of the political spectrum, though I do think the ultra-conservative right has a special talent for it) and even in mainstream media chasing after clicks.
Catastrophizing news items or historical events, often out of context, and creating a sense of urgency sounded exhaustively familiar:
Jonestown survivor Yulanda Williams recalls Jones showing the Redwood City congregation a film called Night and Fog about the Nazi concentration camps. “He said, ‘This is what they have planned for people of color. We’ve got to build our land up over there in Jonestown, we’ve got to get over there. We’ve got to move fast, we’ve got to move swiftly, we’ve got to pool our resources together,’” she explained.
The repetition of key phrases is also a seemingly obvious but very effective oratory tool, as well. It also reminded me of the Scam Goddess podcast, which I highly recommend and which ties into this quite well. As podcaster Laci Mosley describes, scams rely on creating a sense of urgency where there’s no time to stop and think through practicalities and logistics, since you may then start seeing the logical holes.
The big cults are the ones known throughout the country, so it’s not until Montell starts diving into MLMs and fitness crazes that she turns to more personal connections and anecdotes. They are fascinating and relatable, but at the same time, pervasively LA-centric. There’s a certain glib assumption that the author and her family are the most sophisticated skeptics possible, which sticks out from the narrative, though doesn’t take away from the still fascinating analysis of language usage.