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The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell

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eBook - ePub


The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell

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The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power. 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? Amanda Montell's argument is that, on some level, it already has...

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of "brainwashing." But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities "cultish, " revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven's Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of "cultish" everywhere.

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Part 1

Repeat After Me . . .


It started with a prayer.
Tasha Samar was thirteen years old the first time she heard the bewitching buzz of their voices. It was their turban-to-toe white ensembles and meditation malas that first caught her eye, but it was how they spoke that beckoned her through the front door. She heard them through the open window of a Kundalini yoga studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The prayers were so strange, all in another language,” Tasha, now twenty-nine, tells me over macadamia milk lattes at an outdoor café in West Hollywood. We’re less than a few miles away from the epicenter of the sinister life she led until only three years ago. Judging by her crisp cream button-down and satiny blowout, you’d never guess she could once tie a turban as naturally as any other young woman in this courtyard could toss her hair into a topknot. “Yeah, I could still do it now, if I had to,” Tasha assures me, her meticulous acrylics clack-clack-clacking on her porcelain mug.
Tasha, a first-generation Russian American Jew who experienced an agonizing lack of belonging her entire childhood, was struck by this yoga group’s sense of closeness, so she peeked her head into the lobby and asked the receptionist who they were. “The front-desk girl started telling me the basics; the phrase ‘the science of the mind’ was used a lot,” Tasha reflects. “I didn’t know what it meant, I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I really want to try that.’” Tasha found out when the next yoga class would be, and her parents let her attend. You didn’t need to be a permanent member of the group to take a class—the only requirement was an “open heart.” Learning and reciting their foreign prayers, all directed toward a man with a long peppery beard whose photograph was plastered throughout the dimly lit studio, cast a spell over tween Tasha. “It felt ancient,” she says, “like I was a part of something holy.”
Who was this group in all white? The Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, or 3HO—a Sikh-derived “alternative religion” founded in the 1970s, which hosts Kundalini yoga classes all over the US. The guy with the beard? Their captivating, well-connected leader, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa (or Yogi Bhajan), who claimed—to much contest—to be the official religious and administrative head of all Western Sikhs, and who was worth hundreds of millions of dollars by the time he died in 1993. The language? Gurmukhi, the writing system of modern Punjabi and Sikh scripture. The ideology? To obey Yogi Bhajan’s strict New Age teachings, which included abstaining from meat and alcohol,* surrendering to his arranged marriages, waking up at four thirty every morning to read scripture and attend yoga class, and not associating with anyone who didn’t follow . . . or who wouldn’t be following soon.
As soon as she turned eighteen, Tasha moved to Los Angeles, one of 3HO’s home bases, and for eight years, she dedicated her entire life—all her time and money—to the group. After a series of exhaustive trainings, she became a full-time Kundalini yoga instructor and, within months, was attracting big-name, spiritually curious celebrities to her Malibu classes: Demi Moore, Russell Brand, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody. Even if they didn’t become full-time followers, their attendance was good PR for 3HO. Tasha’s swamis (teachers) praised her for raking in the dollars and allegiances of the rich, famous, and seeking. At the café, Tasha unsheathes her phone from an inky black clutch to show me old photos of her and Demi Moore, garbed in ghost-white short-shorts and turbans, twirling around a desert retreat, backdropped by Joshua trees. Tasha slowly blinks her eyelash extensions as a bewildered smile blooms across her face, as if to say, Yeah, I can’t believe I did this shit, either.
Obedience like Tasha’s promised to yield great rewards. Just learn the right words, and they’d be yours: “There was a mantra to attract your soul mate, one to acquire lots of money, one to look better than ever, one to give birth to a more evolved, higher-vibration generation of children,” Tasha divulges. Disobey? You’d come back in the next life on a lower vibration.
Mastering 3HO’s secret mantras and code words made Tasha feel separate from everyone else she knew. Chosen. On a higher vibration. Solidarity like this intensified when everyone in the group was assigned a new name. A name-giver appointed by Yogi Bhajan used something called tantric numerology as an algorithm to determine followers’ special 3HO monikers, which they received in exchange for a fee. All women were given the same middle name, Kaur, while men were all christened Singh. Everyone shared the last name Khalsa. Like one big family. “Getting your new name was the biggest deal ever,” Tasha says. “Most people would change their names on their driver’s licenses.” Until last year, Tasha Samar’s California ID read “Daya Kaur Khalsa.”
It might not have been totally apparent, what with the peaceable yoga classes and high-profile supporters, but there was a dangerous undercurrent to 3HO—psychological and sexual abuse by Yogi Bhajan, forced fasting and sleep deprivation, threats of violence toward anyone attempting to leave the group, suicides, even an unsolved murder. Once followers fully adopted the group’s jargon, higher-ups were able to weaponize it. Threats were structured in phrases like “Piscean consciousness,” “negative mind,” “lizard brain.” Take a bite of a friend’s meaty burger or fail to attend yoga class, and lizard brain, lizard brain, lizard brain would play on a loop in your mind. Often, familiar English terms that once held a positive meaning were recast to signify something threatening. “Like ‘old soul,’” Tasha tells me. To an average English speaker, “old soul” connotes someone with wisdom beyond their years. It’s a compliment. But in 3HO, it incited dread. “It meant someone had been coming back life after life, incarnation after incarnation, and they couldn’t get it right,” she explains. Even three years after escaping 3HO, Tasha still shudders whenever she hears the phrase.
In 2009, shortly after Tasha arrived in Southern California to give her life to 3HO, another eighteen-year-old moved to LA to start a new life. Her name was Alyssa Clarke, and she’d come down the coast from Oregon to start college. Afraid of gaining the freshman fifteen, Alyssa decided to try joining a gym. She had always struggled with body image, and she was intimidated by LA’s formidable fitness scene. So, over holiday break, when she reunited with a family member who’d recently started a new workout program, dropped a ton of weight, and beamed with the honeymoon glow of fresh muscle tone, Alyssa thought, Damn, I have to check that out.
The new workout was called CrossFit, and there was a location right near Alyssa’s dorm. Upon returning from break, she and her boyfriend signed up for a beginners workshop. The sweaty, sculpted instructors oozed masculine enthusiasm as they introduced Alyssa to a whole new world of terminology she’d never heard before: The gym wasn’t called a gym, it was a “box.” Instructors weren’t teachers or trainers, they were “coaches.” Their workouts consisted of “functional movements.” You had your WoD (workout of the day), which might consist of snatches and clean-and-jerks. You had your BPs (bench presses), your BSs (back squats), your C2Bs (chest-to-bars), and your inevitable DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). Who doesn’t love a catchy acronym? Alyssa was captivated by how tight-knit all these CrossFitters seemed—they had such a culture—and was dead set on mastering their private patois.
A portrait of CrossFit’s founder, Greg Glassman (known then to devotees as “The WoDFather,” or simply “Coach”), hung on the wall of Alyssa’s box next to one of his most famous quotes, a fitness proverb that would soon sear into her brain: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts . . . master the basics of gymnastics . . . bike, run, swim, row . . . hard and fast. Five or six days per week.” Alyssa was taken with how CrossFit focused on shaping members’ mentalities not just inside the box, but everywhere. When driving trainees to work harder, coaches would bellow “Beast mode!” (a motivational phrase that reverberated through Alyssa’s thoughts at school and work, too). To help you internalize the CrossFit philosophy, they’d repeat “EIE,” which meant “Everything is everything.”
When Alyssa noticed everyone at her box was wearing Lululemon, she went out and dropped $400 on designer workout swag. (Even Lululemon had its own distinctive vernacular. It was printed all over their shopping bags, so customers would walk out of the store carrying mantras like, “There is little difference between addicts and fanatic athletes,” “Visualize your eventual demise,” and “Friends are more important than money”—all coined by their so-called “tribe” leader, Lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson, an aging G.I. Joe type just like Greg Glassman whose acolytes were equally devout. Who knew fitness could inspire such religiosity?)
As soon as Alyssa learned that most CrossFitters followed a Paleo diet, she cut out gluten and sugar. If she made plans to go out of town and knew she wouldn’t be able to make her normal workout time, she quickly alerted someone at the box, lest they publicly shame her in their Facebook group for no-showing. Coaches and members were all fooling around with each other, so after Alyssa and her boyfriend split, she started hooking up with a trainer named Flex (real name: Andy; he changed it after joining the box).
So here’s the big question: What do Alyssa’s and Tasha’s stories have in common?
The answer: They were both under cultish influence. If you’re skeptical of applying the same charged “cult” label to both 3HO and CrossFit, good. You should be. For now, let’s agree on this: Even though one of our protagonists ended up broke, friendless, and riddled with PTSD, and the other got herself a strained hamstring, a codependent friend with benefits, and a few too many pairs of overpriced leggings, what Tasha Samar and Alyssa Clarke irrefutably share is that one day, they woke up on different sides of Los Angeles and realized they were in so deep, they weren’t even speaking recognizable English anymore. Though the stakes and consequences of their respective affiliations differed considerably, the methods used to assert such power—to create community and solidarity, to establish an “us” and a “them,” to align collective values, to justify questionable behavior, to instill ideology and inspire fear—were uncannily, cultishly similar. And the most compelling techniques had little to do with drugs, sex, shaved heads, remote communes, drapey kaftans, or “Kool-Aid” . . . instead, they had everything to do with language.


Cultish groups are an all-out American obsession. One of the most gushed-over debut novels of the 2010s was Emma Cline’s The Girls, chronicling a teenager’s summer-long dalliance with a Manson-type cult in the late 1960s. HBO’s 2015 Scientology documentary Going Clear was critically deemed “impossible to ignore.” Devoured with equal gusto was Netflix’s 2018 docuseries Wild Wild Country, which told of the controversial guru Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) and his Rajneeshpuram commune; embellished by an irresistibly hip playlist and vintage footage of his red-clad apostles, the show earned an Emmy and millions of online streams. All any of my friends could talk about the week I started writing this book was the 2019 folk horror film Midsommar, about a (fictional) murderous Dionysian cult in Sweden characterized by psychedelic-fueled sex rituals and human sacrifices. And all anyone is talking about now as I edit this book in 2020 are The Vow and Seduced, dueling docuseries about NXIVM, the self-help scam turned sex-trafficking ring. The well of cult-inspired art and intrigue is bottomless. When it comes to gurus and their groupies, we just can’t seem to look away.
I once heard a psychologist explain that rubbernecking results from a very real physiological response: You see an auto accident, or any disaster—or even just news of a disaster, like a headline—and your brain’s amygdala, which controls emotions, memory, and survival tactics, starts firing signals to your problem-solving frontal cortex to try to figure out whether this event is a direct danger to you. You enter fight-or-flight mode, even if you’re just sitting there. The reason millions of us binge cult documentaries or go down rabbit holes researching groups from Jonestown to QAnon is not that there’s some twisted voyeur inside us all that’s inexplicably attracted to darkness. We’ve all seen enough car crashes and read enough cult exposés; if all we wanted was a spooky fix, we’d be bored already. But we’re not bored, because we’re still hunting for a satisfying answer to the question of what causes seemingly “normal” people to join—and, more important, stay in—fanatical fringe groups with extreme ideologies. We’re scanning for threats, on some level wondering, Is everyone susceptible to cultish influence? Could it happen to you? Could it happen to me? And if so, how?
Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” Why did all those people die in Jonestown? “They drank the Kool-Aid!” Why don’t abused polygamist sister wives get the hell out of Dodge as soon as they can? “They’re mind controlled!” Simple as that.
But it’s actually not that simple. In fact, brainwashing is a pseudoscientific concept that the majority of psychologists I interviewed denounce (more on that in a bit). Truer answers to the question of cult influence can only arrive when you ask the right questions: What techniques do charismatic leaders use to exploit people’s fundamental needs for community and meaning? How do they cultivate that kind of power?
The answer, as it turns out, is not some freaky mind-bending wizardry that happens on a remote commune where everyone dons flower crowns and dances in the sun. (That’s called Coachella . . . which, one could argue, is its own kind of “cult.”) The real answer all comes down to words. Delivery. From the crafty redefinition of existing words (and the invention of new ones) to powerful euphemisms, secret codes, renamings, buzzwords, chants and mantras, “speaking in tongues,” forced silence, even hashtags, language is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur. Exploitative spiritual gurus know this, but so do pyramid schemers, politicians, CEOs of start-ups, online conspiracy theorists, workout instructors, even social media influencers. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, “cult language” is, in fact, something we hear and are swayed by every single day. Our speech in regular life—at work, in Spin class, on Instagram—is evidence of our varying degrees of “cult” membership. You just have to know what to listen for. Indeed, while we’re distracted by the Manson Family’s peculiar outfits* and other flashy “cult” iconography, what we wind up missing is the fact that one of the biggest factors in getting people to a point of extreme devotion, and keeping them there, is something we cannot see.
Though “cult language” comes in different varieties, all charismatic leaders—from Jim Jones to Jeff Bezos to SoulCycle instructors—use the same basic linguistic tools. This is a book about the language of fanaticism in its many forms: a language I’m calling Cultish (like English, Spanish, or Swedish). Part 1 of this book will investigate the language we use to talk about cultish groups, busting some widely believed myths about what the word “cult” even means. Then, parts 2 through 5 will unveil the key elements of cultish language, and how they’ve worked to inveigle followers of groups as destructive as Heaven’s Gate and Scientology . . . but also how they pervade our day-to-day vocabularies. In these pages, we’ll discover what motivates people, throughout history and now, to become fanatics, both for good and for evil. Once you understand what the language of “Cultish” sounds like, you won’t be able to unhear it.
Language is a leader’s charisma. It’s what empowers them to create a mini universe—a system of values and truths—and then compel their followers to heed its rules. In 1945, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that language is human beings’ element just as “water is the element of fish.” So it’s not as if Tasha’s foreign mantras and Alyssa’s acronyms played some small role in molding their “c...

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