Words as Weapons: How Cult Leaders Manipulate Language Against Us

Cults. What’s not to love?
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The world’s obsession with all things cult has only grown darker and wilder as years go by. Fascinating, terrifying, and sexy (in a shameful way), cults have an element of mysticism that is both addicting and dangerous. If you’re looking to fall down the rabbit hole of cults, then add Amanda Montell’s newest book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism to your to-be-read pile.

In her signature razor-sharp writing style, the critically acclaimed author and linguist dives deep into the cult phenomenonthe reasons why we find them so interesting, the differences between those who fall victim versus those who don’t (spoiler alert: they’re smaller than you think), and the secret weapon that all charismatic leaders use to cultivate their massive power: good ol’ lethal, deceivingly inconspicuous language. It’s the first thing followers change about themselves and the last thing they ever let go of. 

“From the crafty definition of existing words to powerful euphemisms, secret codes, renamings, buzzwords, chants and mantras, ‘speaking in tongues,’ forced silence, and even hashtags, language is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur,” writes Montell in Cultish.

All charismatic leaders, from suicide cult leaders like Jim Jones to divisive figureheads like Donald Trump, use the same basic linguistic tools to captivate their followers. “Cultish language,” as Montell calls it, works first by inspiring a sense of intrigue to lure in recruits; once they’re in, it creates camaraderie. Members feel chosen and elite to the point that they view everyone who isn’t privy to this exclusive code as inferior. Then, it squashes independent thinking through brief, definitive-sounding phrases that leaders will use to silence anyone who asks too many questions. These could sound like seemingly harmless truisms such as “It is what it is” and “Everything happens for a reason,” or religiously charged declarations like “You simply haven’t been bestowed with the gift of recognition.”

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Montell draws her examples of cultish groups from a wide variety of contexts. Beyond analyzing infamous “revolutionary suicide” cults, she also zeroes in on social media influencers, multi-level marketing companies, trendy brands like Glossier, and of course, traditional religious institutions such as the Catholic Church. While all these groups use cultish language, there’s no clear good cult/bad cult binarylike most things, cultishness falls under a spectrum. 

In the local context, think FBI-wanted Apollo Quiboloy, the self-proclaimed “Appointed Son of God” and leader of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. The 71-year-old “pastor” is facing criminal charges in the U.S. for recruiting “personal assistants” (a.k.a. his primarily female following, typically aged 12 to 25 years old) who he would allegedly coerce into having sex with him through the required ritual of “night duty,” according to his Wanted by the FBI poster. Otherwise, his followers were threatened with “eternal damnation.” 

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But also, think of the cult-like influence of our local love teams, who build fortunes of branded merchandise and assign cute, quirky names to their fanbases. Their “followers” then stalk their couples of choice online with a level of thoroughness that rivals that of private investigators.  

Of course, celebrity fandoms are far more harmless than fanatic cult religions, and there’s a difference between obsessive communities and dangerous organizations. In distinguishing harmless versus destructive groups, Montell cites Steven Hassan, author of The Cult of Trump: “Groups toward the destructive end use three kinds of deception: omission of what you need to know, distortion to make whatever they’re saying more acceptable, and outright lies.” 

In Cultish, Montell contributes to the important conversation on the trickiness of defining what a “cult” is, and the dangers of writing off every group we dislike as one of them. The conventional use of the word conjures disturbing images of human sacrifice and Midsommar-esque dance rituals, but in modern-day speech, “cult” is a fluid term that can refer to a new religion, an online conspiracy group, a devoted fanbase, and a popular cosmetics brand all at once. Despite how dissimilar all those things are, “cult” encompasses them all, and cultish language pervades the vocabularies surrounding them, too. 

Cultish language is everywhere, and it’s just as lethal as it is alluring. But once you learn to detect what it sounds like, there’s no way you’ll be able to unhear it. 

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism is available on the Fully Booked website for P1,400.

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Claudine Abad Santos
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