Lucid Interview: Amanda Montell and the Language of Cults
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Amanda Montell, who is a writer, language scholar, and the author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism and Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. Amanda's books have earned praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and others, and Amanda is currently developing Wordslut for television with FX Studios. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell. Our conversation, which took place on July 18, has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): What made you decide to write a book on cults? Why is language so important in creating and sustaining cults?
Amanda Montell (AM): I've always been interested in the relationship between language and power: that was the subject of my first book in the context of gender and feminism. How one speaks allows them to move through the world and access certain spaces (or not have access to certain spaces) or cultivate an identity. My dad spent his teenage years in the Synanon cult and I grew up on his stories of his time there. And the most fascinating part about them was the special language that was used in Synanon to create solidarity and an us vs them dichotomy, and to shut down independent thinking and encourage conformism and all these things that a cultish group needs to do in order to gain and maintain power.
RBG: You say there are three techniques used in cultivation of cult members: conversion, conditioning and coercion. Can you unpack those?
AM: These from my perspective are executed mostly with language techniques. First you need language that will sort of love-bomb you, as they call it in the literature, and shower you with praise and attention to make you feel very special and make you feel like solutions to the world's most urgent problems are available. And if you affiliate with this group, you can access those solutions. So that's the first thing you need to do to get people on board.
Then you need conditioning, or a system of language techniques that gets you used to behaving in a certain way and reacting in a certain way to stimuli. And then you need coercion because you need to get people to behave in ways that are seemingly totally in conflict with their former self. In my book, I talk about how language techniques, from us vs. them labeling and emotionally charged buzzwords to thought terminating cliches, work to accomplish these three things.
RBG: Is there a certain type of person who is susceptible to cults, and are there certain times of history or social conditions that favor cults?
AM: There are a lot of myths surrounding cults and the type of people that join them. And there isn't even really one hard and fast definition for the word cult. It's so subjective, everybody's just tossing it around to describe groups that they don't like. But people are attracted to alternative fanatical fringe groups during times of cultural crisis, whether in the late sixties and seventies, or now: this is a time of incredible cultural turbulence. There are so many divisions, politically and culturally, and the pandemic was fuel on the flame.
So people are looking for answers, for closure, and for connection, and there are certainly confident people on the Internet who are willing to take advantage of them. But the people who are most likely to get involved with these groups are not necessarily desperate or disturbed or stupid. The fatal flaw that I found in talking to so many survivors of the most notorious cults was an excess of optimism. This idea that the solutions to problems really do exist and can be accessed and you can be a part of this knowledge if you are special enough to be involved with this group and this person. If you're a cynic, you're not going to believe that any one person holds those answers.
RBG: How does QAnon fit into this? QAnon adherents are being elected to school boards and town councils, and some are running for office.
AM: I think is really tricky because due to the Internet, QAnon has basically become this big tent conspiracy theory. It could describe any breed of conspiratorial thinking that exists right now - anyone from a super right-winger who believes in the deep state and thinks that there's a cabal controlling the sociopolitical order, to fringier people who really, really believe that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children to stay young, to anti-vaccination yoga moms.
RBG: Can you talk about what it takes to make people leave cults? Does language play a role in disengagement?
AM: It's easier for me to say what not to do. It can be very tempting to shake your family member or go online and comment on a post and say, "this is a cult" or "I don't know how to talk to you, you're brainwashed," or something like that. And that's a really good way to alienate someone, because nobody wants to think that they're in a cult. It's helpful to resist such labeling, because it just stops the conversation. And if you're talking to someone who believes anti-vaccination stuff, you don't want to prove them wrong using a real system of logic, because that's been destabilized. So, if you say to them, no, vaccines are okay, and here's a study from the National Institutes of Health showing that, they will say you just don't get it, the government and the healthcare system are brainwashing you.
RBG: It's compromised information for them.
AM: We're brought up our whole lives to value peer reviewed evidence, but all of that is contaminated, in their view. So, all that you really can do is make them feel you aren't judging them (even though we want to judge them!) and keep them in your orbit so you can be an outside influence. Sadly, there's no one thing you can say, no magic linguistic spell that will all of a sudden change them, but you can learn the buzzwords that they've been taught to believe, like "great awakening" or "paradigm shift," and you can just ask them, what does that mean? And odds are, they won't be able to provide you with a definition. But you can't confront them, you just have to make them feel supported and hope that they will come around on their own.
RBG: You're part of a generation of writers and public figures that tells its professional and life story through social media. So, what do you do personally to step back from the public sphere and keep perspective?
AM: I have a new hobby: there's a farm in Orange County where I like to go to pick fruit and be close to the earth. I also find it's important to connect with my actual friends, face to face, which was not possible for a long time, as a reminder that I'm a valid person, even if I don't have like the perfect optimized post on Instagram, I'm valid just by sitting on the couch with my friend who I know loves me. I also have three pets and so I try to go outside and water the plants in my yard and walk around with the cats and the dog, as a reminder that I'm a mammal on the planet. It's grounding.