There’s a sort of “cultish” quality to the people who bring Gilead to life in The Handmaid’s Tale. Where key actors in the new regime, Fred and Serena Joy Waterford, were booed in the U.S. and Serena was shot, by the time they are detained in Canada, disturbingly, they have developed a new group of pro-Gilead followers. (See Season 2, Episode 6, “First Blood” and Season 4, Episode 8, “Testimony”).
The word “cult” is thrown around a lot these days in the U.S., especially when trying to grasp whatever is going on with the Republican Party. Cults are also the subject of a new book – Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. Below are excerpts from Montell’s interview with CIIS Public Programs host Zara Zimbardo. The women consider how our human needs for “community, meaning, purpose and ritual” may lead to vulnerability to cults, in the episode, “Amanda Montell: On Cults, Language, and Social Science.” — LMO
Here are a few excerpts from the transcript:
“What makes cults so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Author and journalist Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has.
“In this episode, CIIS professor, writer, and speaker Zara Zimbardo talks with author and journalist Amanda Montell about her latest book, Cultish, in which she argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. Zara and Amanda discuss influence, the social science of cults, and how to recognize the language of fanaticism all around us…” — CIIS
“…when we are earnestly talking about spiritual groups, religious groups, socio-political groups, throwing around the cult accusation willy-nilly, it can really shut down conversations because nobody wants to be told you’re in a cult and if your ideologies and your group affiliations vastly differ from others who have equally strong ideologies and affiliations, that cult label is going to do nothing but increase and widen that rift.” — Amanda Montell
“…throwing around the cult accusation willy-nilly, it can really shut down conversations because nobody wants to be told you’re in a cult…”— Amanda Montell
“…certain terms, certain concepts, certain kind of, like, ‘wink’ code words can create a kind of a warm community of shared understanding that can be liberatory, that can be in the service of healing or social change. And then those same terms can get wielded in a way that can be abusive, policing, or justifying this treatment for people who have become heavily, emotionally, psychologically, financially invested in whatever the community is, and the- I’m wondering if we could hang out for a bit with this concept of thought terminating clichés, coined by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in the early 60s because you returned to this again and again from different angles and from different contexts, what is a thought terminating cliché and how does it function, and how can we be sensitized to it, to them?” — Zara Zimbardo
“Yes. Well, this is one of the key elements of cultish language. It’s one of those things that once you become aware of it, you won’t be able to unhear it. So, a thought terminating cliché again, I wish I’d come up with it. It’s the perfect label for this phenomenon which you’ll find everywhere. Also known as a semantic stop sign. They’re these stock expressions that are easily memorized, easily repeated, and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning. So, as you mentioned, questioning is the enemy number one for a cult. They’re trying to accomplish things that can’t be accomplished if people are allowed to express dissent and push back and weigh in individualistically on what’s going on. So, you need a robust glossary of thought terminating cliches to make sure people are not able to do that, to express that pushback.
“…a thought terminating cliché…Also known as a semantic stop sign. They’re these stock expressions that are easily memorized, easily repeated, and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning…questioning is the enemy number one for a cult.”— Amanda Montell
“So, examples of thought terminating cliches that we might hear in our everyday lives include things like ‘well, boys will be boys’. Or ‘well, everything happens for a reason’ or ‘you know, it is what it is. It’s all in God’s plan’ and expressions like that are really compelling because it’s work to think. And it’s a relief not to have to and they alleviate cognitive dissonance or the uncomfortable discord you feel in your mind when you’re holding two conflicting ideas in there and at the same time. So, let’s come up with some cultish examples and in those contexts, these can be a lot more destructive and nefarious.
“…examples of thought terminating cliches that we might hear in our everyday lives include things like ‘well, boys will be boys’. Or ‘well, everything happens for a reason’ or ‘you know, it is what it is. It’s all in God’s plan’”— Amanda Montell
“So, in Synanon for example, where everybody is physically isolated, and their lives are being dictated by this one person at the top. This guy named Chuck Dederich. If someone in Synanon wanted to question, you know, why do we have to play the game, the Synanon game, every single night, or why aren’t kids allowed to go to outside schools? Or you know, why do we have to shave our heads? Why do we have to be reassigned new Synanon partners? There was a thought terminating cliché that could be served on command, and it went ‘act as if’ and it was this imperative to act as if you believed in this policy that Chuck Dederich put in place until you did because if you’re feeling dissonant about it, well that’s a you problem. This is the gaslighting that you were talking about, that’s a you problem, and Chuck is a visionary and a genius and he knows what’s best. And so, if you have an issue, act as if and then you can tell your- you can sort of brainwash yourself, right? Like you want badly to believe that this place where you spent the past 5, 10, 15 years, is everything that it would promised it would be, you don’t want to have to cut your losses, you don’t want to have to create conflict and so you’re going to use ‘act as if’ as a cue to put that cognitive dissonance in that dis- that, you know, dissent to bed. In a group like NXIVM, if folks binged the NXIVM docuseries like I did, you might recognize thought terminating clichés that Keith Ranieri would use things like, ‘well don’t let yourself be ruled by fear’ or dismissing valid concerns as ‘limiting beliefs’. In Jonestown and so many different cultish groups throughout history and the world of thought- classic thought terminating cliché is ‘it’s all the media’s fault. Blame the media.’ So thought terminating- [Zara: Fake news?] fake news! Yeah. And that’s an example of loaded language, right? So, they’re up there, so many examples of that, but yeah, the media is a classic, classic scapegoat and it’s, you know, it’s tricky. And this is what toxic relationships are in general. Whether you’re in a toxic one-on-one relationship, or in a toxic relationship with the group you’re in, like, there’s always some truth to what’s going on there. If there weren’t, you would, you would never have joined, you would never have stayed. And so, you know, it’s like we do need to express skepticism toward the media to a degree, we do need to, you know, check preconceived notions that we have in our minds about what our limits are and what we can achieve or can’t achieve. Like there’s a little bit of truth there. But when you have these stock expressions that are there to shut you down anytime you have a question, that’s a red flag because anything legitimate will stand up to scrutiny…
“…anything legitimate will stand up to scrutiny…”— Amanda Montell
“I think the multi-level marketing industry is this sort of really extreme case study in toxic positivity and the prosperity gospel that imbues all of American workplace culture in general. But the way that the multi-level marketing industry exploits this American value for you know, productivity and progress and self-improvement is well, it’s, I don’t know how far I want to go back, but you asked about the language of, you know, pseudo feminism and how the multi-level marketing industry exploits that.
“I think the multi-level marketing industry is this sort of really extreme case study in toxic positivity and the prosperity gospel that imbues all of American workplace culture in general.”— Amanda Montell
“So, since the dawn of the modern direct sales industry in the 1940s and 50s, the industry has always targeted non-working wives and mothers as the primary sales force. The reason why is very interesting, I won’t get into it. But so, while in the 40s and 50s, Tupperware, just like the OG multi-level marketing company, MLM, was pitched as like, the best thing to happen to women, since they got to vote, this opportunity to be a businesswoman to earn a full time living with part time work from home. Now multi-level marketing companies and Tupperware, still around, pitch themselves as an opportunity for ‘girl boss’, ‘boss babe’, ‘mompreneurs’ to become part of an empowering movement. So, the precise terms have changed but MLMs have always capitalized on whatever commodified pseudo feminist language was trendy at the moment to convince women that they should be a part of not only this industry, but a movement, a community and that’s part of what makes these companies so cultish is that they’re not just sort of scammy and predatory, they are missionary in character. They are helmed by these charismatic leaders that members come to revere and worship almost in a religious way. There is such intense pressure in these groups that truly codependent life consuming relationships start to form when you invariably do not become a millionaire mompreneur within a year like they promised, because mathematically, it’s not possible.
“The way that these pyramid scheme-esque organizations are structured, they will do what these other cultish groups that we’ve been mentioning before do, they will gaslight you into believing that you didn’t try hard enough, you aren’t really dedicated to the American dream like you should be because this is a good system, and a good system always works. And the exit costs are incredibly high because of these high pressure, boundaryless relationships that have formed since everything- since everybody’s financial success depends on the financial success of the recruits below them. So yeah, I decided it was important to focus on the language of multi-level marketing, not only because it is fascinating in and of itself, but it says something about our workplace values in America at large…
“The way that these pyramid scheme-esque organizations are structured, they will do what these other cultish groups that we’ve been mentioning before do, they will gaslight you into believing that you didn’t try hard enough, you aren’t really dedicated to the American dream like you should be because this is a good system, and a good system always works.”— Amanda Montell
“So, it’s this, it’s this combination of vulnerability with sort of resilience and idealism in the face of that vulnerability that can make someone attracted to cultish groups and that doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. You just have to approach them with the right combination of fact checking and cross-checking. And all of these things that we’ve been talking about the, the skepticism to keep you safe.” — Amanda Montell