Cults make effective brands, and today, they’re all around us. We engage with them on some level every day, and cult experiences have come to define so much of who we are as a society that you have to ask, how did we get here?
Perhaps the most insidious way cults have influenced the world around us is in everyday language that’s meant to control behaviors and change perspectives. It’s language we use with friends and colleagues, language in our media and content, and language we hear coming from today’s most powerful CEOs, on branded websites and in keynote addresses.
In this episode we’re talking with Amanda Montell, a language scholar and author of the critically acclaimed book, ‘Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism’ to understand why cults have had a resurgence in branding and in real life.
You’d be surprised to know that some of the successful brands of our time were either founded by, owned by, or closely tied to cults. There’s a very good chance that some influencer you’re following has at least borrowed from cult culture or knowingly created a radicalized cult around themselves. There are the cults we joke about like SoulCycle or Supreme, but they use the same dynamics and tools as the cults we like to gasp at in documentaries.
Cults and businesses have always been intertwined, and understanding how they use the power of language to move people is the first step to decoding how they work.
NOVEMBER 8, 2021
87 min read
THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF CULT BRANDS
Welcome to Unseen Unknown, I’m Jasmine Bina. Let’s start this episode by listening to an audio clip. You’re going to hear a woman talking about leaving a group. And I want you to see if you can tell just by listening to the way she describes her experience, what kind of a group she’s left.
Immediately within 15 minutes, I got a text message from my sponsor, “How dare you do this to me? How dare you leave without telling me,” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know this was about you. All right. Cool.” So, that friendship is gone, ruined it’s heartbreaking. And then it happened with another person, someone that I thought actually cared about me. The more I spoke out, the more I shared my story, the more friends unfriended me. It’s just, it’s mind games. It’s cult mind games.
This clip comes from a 2019 Vice documentary called Why Women Are Quitting Their Side Hustle: Leaving LuLaRoe. The woman in this clip isn’t talking about leaving a cult, she’s talking about leaving a business. LuLaRoe is a multi-level marketing company, MLM for short, that puts women in pyramid schemes to sell leggings and clothes and recruit other sellers beneath them much like Amway or Avon. And she’s a great reminder that cults and businesses have always been intertwined. Yogi Tea, The Washington Times, Newsweek, Celestial Seasonings, even Hobby Lobby are all successful brands that were either founded by, owned by or closely tied to cults. There’s a very good chance that some influencer you’re following right now has at least borrowed from cult culture or knowingly created a radical ice cult around themselves. There are the cults we like to joke about like Soul Cycle or Supreme, but they use the same dynamics and tools as the cults we like to gasp at in documentaries.
Perhaps the most insidious way cults have influenced the world around us is in everyday language that’s meant to control behaviors and change perspectives. Language we use with friends and colleagues, language in our media and our content and language we hear coming from today’s most powerful CEOs on branded websites and in keynote addresses. On some level every day, we engage with the cults around us, or at least do something cultish, because Cults make really a effective brands. In this episode, we’re talking with Amanda Montell, a language scholar and author of the critically acclaimed book Cultish: The Language Of Fanaticism. Cultish language has come to define so much of who we are and where we are as a society that you have to ask, how did we get here? But I started my conversation with Amanda in a very different place with the simple question in this day and age, why won’t cults just die?
This is a trickier question that it might sound, because it depends on your definition of the word cult, which is incredibly subjective and sensational and loaded with judgments. In fact, it’s a word that many of the scholars who study new religions that I spoke to for the book don’t even use because it’s so unspecific, it’s not enough to determine the particular dangers that are on the table with any given group. There are lists of criteria that various folks have come up with, that might define a cult, us versus them mentality, ends justify the means philosophy, supernatural beliefs, charismatic leaders, et cetera. But there are plenty of fringy groups that have been or could be called cults that don’t check off all of those boxes. And yet there are lots and lots of mainstream groups that do. The word cult itself is very fraught.
It can be used to refer to anything from a really dangerous destructive fringe religion to a makeup brand. And this wide spectrum of meanings really says something about our culture’s extremely precarious relationship to community and identity and meaning. So, why cults still exist? I mean, in a way, cults are fundamental to human nature and human civilization, we crave connection. We crave finding a purpose, trying to figure out what our existence is for. We crave participating in rituals with other people doing the same, even early humans would engage in group dance and song when there was really no survival reason to do so, it just felt good. Obviously there are societal factors that cause a spike in cultish activity during times of societal crisis, like right now with the pandemic and so much political turbulence. This is when people tend to turn to alternative groups to fill certain voids. We saw something similar in the late sixties, early seventies, but cults continue to crop up, especially in the United States, which is a place of not only religious freedom, but a lot of disparity and ideological conflict.
You know, you mentioned the us versus them mentality, a sense of meaning in community. These are all things that you could say of brands as well. I think that’s what really struck me about the book is that cults are just really, really successful brands in some ways.
I totally agree. What is marketing language? It’s there to manipulate you. And of course, cultish groups, really destructive ones, even the People’s Temple, AKA Jonestown, are expert rebranders and always come up with clever opportunistic ways to pitch what might be even non-existent ideology to followers, to inspire them, et cetera. But yes, if you go Google how to create a cult following, or you know how to create a loyal customer base, you will find dozens and dozens of articles on the internet instructing you how to structure your business like a cult. So fuck yeah, that again speaks to the flexibility of this word, but yeah, no, you can, I, you can. And I completely do make the argument that even if certain brands aren’t full blown cults, they’re at the very least cultish.
Yeah. So, let’s talk about Jim Jones and Jonestown a little bit. You mentioned that he was an expert rebrander, how did he do that?
You know, we have this idea that cult leaders are these evil geniuses with grand master plans from the start, but no cult leader I’ve come across, knew where they were going to end up, knew how far their power was going to go. So, Jim Jones’ original intentions were actually quite positive. He started out as an integrationist pastor. that was in Indiana. And then it evolved as he gained more followers, as his power hunger increased. It went from this church movement to more of a sociopolitical movement that was progressive and combined Christian ideology because he was trying appeal to a lot of black folks in San Francisco who were active in the church scene, but felt left out of the civil rights movement. He was also trying to appeal to young white liberals who were just out of college and were interested in communal living.
And in order to appeal to all of these different groups, the branding, the language had to be really wiggly, if you will. And he had to code switch depending on who he was talking to. He wasn’t code switching in the sort of natural, organic way that we tend to hear about code switching, he was doing it in a very strategic and diabolical way. So, say, there’s a source in the book named Laura Johnston Kohl, who was really interested in anti-racism. She was a young, white, 23 year old activist who had a lot of idealism for the future of the United States. When he would talk to her, he would quote, MEChA and impress her with his philosophical texts. And then, with other folks, he would speak the familiar lilt of a Baptist preacher. And he would do those things intentionally in order to appeal to whatever audience he wanted to follow him.
So, he was basically tailoring his message for the different sub audiences that he had.
Exactly. Without necessarily knowing what his end game was. Because we’re all familiar with Jonestown, this jungle commune where these mind controlled minions lined up and drank the Kool-Aid. But what most folks don’t realize is that that was never the intention and most folks did not die there voluntarily. In fact, you could argue that no one died there voluntarily, and it certainly didn’t start out as a suicide cult. Otherwise, no one would join. It started out as this movement that offered solutions to the world’s most urgent problems in a time of existential turbulence in the United States, not unlike now.
And your source that you talk about, she’s a perfect example of something that I thought was so interesting while I was reading the book, I think a lot of us think that people that join cults, first of all, we think it could never happen to us, but we’re going to talk later about how all of us are probably in some sort of cult without realizing it. But people think those that join cults are broken people, they’ve had trauma in their lives. They’re missing something, they’re weak, or they’ve been quote unquote brainwashed, but that’s not the case, is it?
No, it’s really not. We have this mythology that the people who wind up in cults are desperate, disturbed, intellectually deficient. But what I found, talking to dozens and dozens of sources is that they were incredibly bright, service-minded. Why would a cult want anything less? They want winners. They want folks who are well connected in their communities, who can help recruit more people. They want folks with enough privilege that when they aren’t making money right away, like they were maybe promised, or things are starting to turn sour, that they’ll have the energy and time and money to burn. And what I found was that the ultimate fatal flaw across all of these cult followers from folks who joined the Heaven’s Gate, the nineties suicide cult, to folks who strike up with multi-level marketing cults, in scare quotes, was yeah, not desperation, but optimism.
This overabundance of idealism, that the solutions to their problems, whether that was racism or classism or for financial insecurity, could be found and if that they affiliated with this group, with this leader, they could be a part of that change. It takes someone really optimistic to sign up for a belief like that. If you’re a cynic, you’re probably protected from joining a group, like The People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate or an MLM, you might die alone. But yeah, it was really optimism that was their Achilles heel more than any of the qualities that the cult documentaries you might watch would lead you to believe.
I think any business person listening to what you just said right now would hear a lot of your language and realize that’s very similar to what businesses and brands look for as well in the audiences that they try to capture, the sense of optimism, eventually having time and money and resources to burn on these causes. I kept thinking of the parallels as I was reading the book and the real big parallel, which is the crux of your research is, that when it comes to branding cults or businesses or anything, the strongest tool that they have is almost always the language they use and the stories that they tell. So, let’s just stick with cults. How do they use language to actually change people’s behavior and stories as well?
Well, first of all, without language, there can be no shared beliefs, no community, no cults. We take language for granted because it’s invisible and seemingly commitment free, sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you, that sort of thing. But language has this real material power to coerce and condition, a power that we often overlook. Now, when we think of why people wind up in cults, there tends to be one pretty flimsy explanation, which is they were brainwashed, they were mind controlled. But I’m not the first person to point out that brainwashing is nothing but a metaphor. It’s not a real or testable scientific phenomenon. You can’t prove that brainwashing doesn’t exist, it also completely discounts people’s ability to think for themselves. You can’t just open someone’s brain and scrub it clean and cause them to do things that they absolutely on no level want to do.
It makes us feel elite. It makes us feel intellectually and morally superior, who didn’t like learning pig Latin on the playground and feeling excited that you knew the secret language that nobody else did. It’s like putting on a snazzy new uniform. It makes you feel like you’re doing something right in life that you know how to speak this special language, and in terms of business, I myself have worked in cultish corporate environments where BS corporate vernacular was used, not to make communication more specific or clearer, but to establish hierarchies, encourage conformity, to squash independent thinking and questioning. And this is ultimately what cultish language does.
And let’s talk about some of that language, it’d be great to hear some examples, especially ones that are maybe more in the mainstream or in pop culture or quasi cult leaders that might be on our Instagram feeds. What are some of the phrases that we might be familiar with that you can unpack for us?
Sure. Well, the first one that comes to mind is a phrase that would fall under the category of thought terminating cliche. Once you understand what it is, you won’t be able to unhear it in your daily life, but it’s a stock expression that’s easily memorized, easily repeated and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning. So, questioning is the enemy to any cult leader. And whenever anyone who’s following them wants to express dissent or a wrinkle in their procedures, they’re going to need a repertoire of these thought terminating cliches to silence that person, to assuage their cognitive dissonance and make them fall in line. So, a thought terminating cliche that we hear a lot on the internet these days, or that I come across a lot is the phrase, do your research. So, there’s a lot of conflict in terms of vaccinations and trusting science.
And a lot of the times you’ll find people who don’t trust the mainstream healthcare industry, and some of that is for a very valid reason, but who’ve struck up with an online cultish group of sorts who believes that doctors are brainwashed and COVID was a conspiracy, et cetera. They don’t believe in peer reviewed studies, they don’t trust the scientists behind those studies. So, research to them means something completely different. It could mean something different from person to person, but when they get into a online argument with someone about science and the person is presenting research that conflicts with what they’ve been led to believe, they’ll say, well, I did my research, do your research, and then you can talk to me.
And this is this buzz phrase that you’ll hear repeated, and it really prevents the conversation from moving forward. It really shuts them down. But other forms of new age thought terminating cliches that you’ll often are in really destructive cultish groups like NXIVM, but also in mainstream woo woo circles, or at least not super fringe woo, woo circles. You’ll hear valid concerns being dismissed as limiting beliefs rather.
Yes, very familiar.
Yes. That’s a limiting belief. And that can cause you to mistrust your own very valid experiences and feelings. This language can work as a form of gas lighting. Another example of a thought turning cliche you might hear in certain spaces is telling people, don’t let yourself be ruled by fear, where that fear might be completely legitimate and is there for a reason. So, these are just a few examples and every cult has their own roster of thought terminating cliches that they need in order to cause people to conform and not to think independently.
So, how does this kind of language go from being inside the confines of a cult and then crossing over into pop culture and then showing up on my social media feeds,
Right. Well, in the good old days of cults, in the sixties and seventies, you needed to be able to command a group of people in person and sort of fringe, new religious movements, sociopolitical movements, they had to gather in the real world. And that takes a certain amount of production skills, management skills in person oratory charisma to coordinate. But now with the internet, multiple social media platforms, you don’t need the charisma to manipulate a group of people, you just need the charisma to manipulate an algorithm, and that’s a whole lot easier to do. So, for better and for worse, social media has caused there to be a cult for everyone. I mean, I joke, but I also mean it sincerely that the algorithm is the ultimate cult later, because it just sends you down rabbit holes, encouraging you to believe more and more extreme versions of what you already do to find yourself in these really insular online circles.
You may never meet the influencers, the cultish gurus on social media that you follow in real life, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a material impact on the way that you think, formulate your ideas, vote, buy things, gather in person. Parasocial relationships can be just as cultish as relationships in real life. And of course also, years and years ago, there was a clearer separation between business leader, celebrity, spiritual leader. There wasn’t such a thing as an influencer decades ago, but now those lines are really, really blurry. Take someone like Elon Musk, that guy is a business leader. A few decades ago, the average American wouldn’t even know that guy’s name, we wouldn’t be able to name see CEOs in that position, but he’s become not just a business leader meets celebrity meets influencer, some people really do worship him almost as a new religious guru.
They think he’s such a super genius that he’s operating on another more awakened, enlightened plane. He’s literally trying to transport people to outer space, which has these millenarian UFO cult vibes. So, yeah, the boundaries blurring guru self-help star workout instructor, celebrity, they’re, they’re causing our culture to become increasingly cultish, I think.
You know what’s so funny? We’ve seen in our own research that more and more boards are looking to place CEOs that I think the terminology is blue whales, CEOs that already have huge followings on social, that can command an audience that have compelling public personas. That’s really seen as a value add for placing CEOs in public companies, where before it was really about growth, right?
It’s completely infiltrated the business world. So, like you’ve pointed out, brands have borrowed a lot of clear devices from Colts. You mentioned creating rituals … I think you mentioned creating rituals, is that and health brands, tech brands, the in group, out group dynamic, I think a lot of brands create language around that kind of feeling or concept, but what are some less obvious mechanics that brands have borrowed from cults in their everyday marketing that we might know not see, but they’re there?
Well, honestly I think that the language is the most subtle thing because you pick it up so organically and so invisibly. I remember when … obviously, I’m extremely tuned into language just because of, I was even very tuned into language as a little kid. It’s just the lens through which I see, or I guess hear the world. But I remember I used to work at a digital media company that owned a fashion magazine, a beauty magazine, very cliquey, a little bit cultish. And I remember arriving at my first day and thinking it rather odd that absolutely everything was abbreviated or acronymed in the company, even if it took longer to say the abbreviation or acronym than it did just to say the regular word. And I think it created this culture of elitism and coolness, like you know what this acronym means or you don’t, and once you do know it, you better use it or you’ll be clocked as a rebel, an iconoclast, a troublemaker.
I remember there was so much corporate vernacular that was used that made me cringe to, oh gosh, the worst one to me was the noun sunset was used as a transitive verb to mean when some sort of project or initiative was not working out, you would sunset it. You would kill it in a way. But it was this creepy euphemism that I just couldn’t understand. Like, I didn’t know why we had to use language in this way. But it became clear that it really was just to identify who was a team player, who would really participate in that echo chamber and reflect the higher up’s madness back at them. And those people would be chosen for opportunities, promotions, et cetera. And those who didn’t use that language in that particular way would be in a very subtle manner penalized for it. And I don’t think anyone else noticed this, these dynamics in the company but me, and it’s really because language, it’s so subtle and it’s so natural to us that we don’t really pay attention to it.
So, can language change the way someone sees the world? Can it actually change someone’s identity?
No, no. There’s this theory in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which talks about the relationship between language and thought. And most linguists tend to agree that language cannot determine thought. You’re still able to things for which there is no language, language does influence thought, but it doesn’t determine it. Even if you are deep into religious cults or a corporate cults, and you’re using their vernacular from sun up to sun down, if you start to feel as though there’s something amiss or this isn’t right for you anymore, you may not have the language to push back, that cultish vernacular might be really, really embedded in you, but you’ll still be able to have those inklings, those emotions. And ultimately, if you don’t want to believe in a certain idea anymore, no amount of language could force you to, this isn’t 1984.
And some people do think, Jim Jones certainly tried to quote unquote, brainwash his followers with language. He would instate this silent rule where whenever he was speaking over the loud speaker in Jonestown, no one was allowed to talk. He would force all of his followers to express daily thanks toward him, even when they were starving and the labor was backbreaking and there was really nothing to be thankful for. This is also something that’s that was done in the LuLaRoe documentary that I just watched, if anyone has watched LulaRich on Amazon Prime, all of those followers were supposed to express daily thanks to the MLM higher ups.
Oh yeah. Well, every time anything positive happened in their lives and they posted it on social media, they were supposed to include the hashtag because of LulaRoe as if everything good in their lives were a product of their affiliation with LuLaRoe.
So, a very similar idea there. And yet, even if you’re hashtagging because of LuLaRoe or thanking Jim Jones all day long, if you know in your bones that your life sucks and that there’s something really wrong here, that language isn’t going to do much. So, it’s validating and simultaneously unsettling to know that people who wind up really, really deep in destructive cults are in large part there because they want to be, there’s a lot of psychological manipulation going on, obviously, and the more destructive a cult is, the harder it is to get out. And in certain circumstances, your life is threatened if you attempt to defect, the stakes can be incredibly high, but if someone really, really wants to push back, even if they can’t leave physically, mentally, they still can.
So, let’s talk about LuLaRoe for a second and all these MLMs, just the ones we’re familiar with Mary Kay, Avon, Arbonne, but most of these, this really heady mix of cults, MLMs and female empowerment. A lot of brands sit in this trifecta, including LuLaRoe, what is happening here and why is this such a powerful combination?
Sure. Well, the direct selling industry is almost like the American dream on steroids. Like this spoofed version of values that we are all taught to have as Americans, individualism, progress, ambition, and most of all meritocracy, the idea that those who succeed really deserve their success and those who don’t succeed simply didn’t work hard enough. The MLM industry takes these values to an extreme. So, the MLM industry has simultaneously always targeted people locked out of the dignified labor market. So, since the Dawn of the MLM industry, the primary target has always been non-working wives and mothers. And that’s because in the 1940s, which is really the start of the modern direct selling industry, a lot of women who had worked, who had been gainfully employed in World War II were sent back into the home, pushed out to the suburbs after their husbands or their partners returned home from war.
And they started families, and now after these women had left the workplace, they were lacking that empowerment, that sense of individualism and certainly the cash that they had been making before. And so, the direct selling industry found an opportunity there. And so, while in the 1940’s and 50’s, Tupperware was promised to be the best thing that happened to women since they got the vote, which was the sort of trendy, pseudo feminist message at that time. Now the direct selling industry, here’s your expert rebranding uses this sort of Pinterest commodified feminist message about boss babes and She EOs and mompreneurs, start your own business, become part of the movement without ever having to leave your kids. So, yeah, the MLM industry has always co-opted whatever trendy, quasi feminist vernacular was resonating at the time.
And now, not only do you hear words like girl boss, et cetera, but you get the MLM industry praying on certain millennial women’s interest in natural, organic, holistic skincare, not to mention in and outside of the MLM industry, millennials and just consumers today want their products and their workplace not only to sell things and provide them with an income, but they want to be part of something bigger. They want, what’s called an organizational ideology, which I’m sure many listeners are familiar with, which is the idea that this is not just a product or service, but this is an identity. There are identity benefits here, by you buying this beach towel made out of recycled fishing net, you’re not only, you know, coming into a towel, but you’re coming into an identity as someone who’s eco-conscious and beachy and sexy, someone who’s hip and in the know.
These things are important to a lot of us these days, especially as we increasingly mistrust and move away from traditional religion and these other sites of community support. Now we’re looking a lot of the times to companies, brands to fill those voids, to provide those role models. And that can sometimes be okay, but there’s a lot of room for exploitation and predator as well.
Yeah. I want to talk about another group that’s tangential to this, which is also female focused, which is the fitness industry. You talked about that a lot about in your book. That’s also a place where you see a lot of crossover between cultureness and pop culture. But what was fascinating to me was the origins of the modern fitness industry and its cultish influences. Can you give us the background on how those two became intertwined?
Sure. So, the dawn of cultish new religions in the US, which is around the 70’s, really corresponds to the dawn of women exercising in general. So, for a very long time, women were not encouraged to exercise in the United States. In fact, doctors recommended that they didn’t. But in the 1970s and then the 1980s with the women’s liberation movement well underway and the classes of Title IX and the invention of the sports bra, actually, women figured out that it was actually fun to exercise, and it was even more fun to exercise together in groups. So, that’s when you saw the dawn of Jazzercise, which took off in the mid 80’s and you saw the Dawn of Big Box Gyms and celebrity influencers like Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch, who were the first fitness influencers, if you will. And then shortly after that in the 80’s and 90’s, that’s when and yoga really started to enter the Western mainstream.
And so, concepts from yoga, which had existed for thousands and thousands of years in the east and for a few decades in America’s fringes, these yoga concepts combined with images from body building that came from Europe and it produced this Americanized, westernized version of yoga, which was very acrobatic. And yoga studios were the first places where the idea that your spiritual fitness and your physical fitness were connected. So, these studios were not just a place to change your body, they were a place to change your mind. And by the 21st century, all kinds of what are known as cult fitness studios took that concept and really ran with it. So, now we have dozens of fitness studios that put their own spin on the idea that this fitness place is not only a place to get flat abs and a tight booty, but it’s where you’re going to meet your best friends, become enlightened, find the inner strength to divorce your abusive spouse, overcome cancer.
I mean, the promises made in these studios are really enormous. And I think that is actually the most cultish thing about them is these enormously lofty promises, which are made by these cult followed instructors who are trained to build their own mini cult following. And of course you can’t actually cure your cancer by going to SoulCycle five times a week, but the sense of transcendence in those studios is so gargantuan that not every follower, but some of them will come to develop this really spiritual dependence on these places.
You mentioned that cults seem to crop up more when there’s moments of social unrest or insecurity like in the 70’s and now, but have calls changed much? Because it seems to me like a lot of the modern day cults you’re talking about, or let’s say cultish brands you’re talking about, borrow from tried and true methods that have been around for a while. Is there any innovation, let’s say, happening in the cult space?
Cults really just prey on whatever imagery, ideology is resonating at that time and just clothing trends, they go through cycles. So, the new age is really, really popular right now. The new age was also really popular in the 60’s and 70’s. New age, meaning a lot of mystical ideas that incorporate co-opted appropriated concepts from Eastern and indigenous religions and given a sort of Western boho twist, I suppose you could say. But yeah, I mean, like doomsday ideas, ideas of paradigm shifts and reckonings, these are all the same. And in fact, new age ideas also really pull a lot of ideas from Christianity, evangelicalism. The idea of a great awakening or a paradigm shift is not different from the idea of a rapture. The idea of being born in trauma is not that different from being born in sin. There are a lot of good evil binaries in the new age space in the same way that there are good evil binaries in evangelical Christianity. So, yeah, it’s a lot of recycled ideas totally not unlike other sorts of trends.
Right. Now, you say that on some level, probably all of us are in some sort of cult. I know as I was reading the book and as I started to think of language devices and in, out groups thought terminating cliches, all his stuff, I started to see it everywhere in my life. And I know the cultish groups that I subscribe to. People hearing this, SoulCycle, Supreme, MLMs, yoga studios, they’re on the same spectrum, albeit maybe wildly apart, but still on the same spectrum as the cults that we actually, think of as quote, unquote, scary cults. When does something cultish become a cult? When do groups of people or businesses, because most cults are businesses too, when do they actually cross the line?
Yeah. Well, every cult scholar you talk to is probably going to give you a slightly different answer because there is no hard and fast definitive algorithm that can determine whether or not this is definitively a cult. Again, because what is the difference between cult, religion, another kind of sociopolitical group? The word itself does not provide enough information, as I mentioned, but yeah, you can really go down that list of criteria for yourself, which again, even the criteria will differ from one person to another and every cult scholar has their own school of thought. There’s Steven Hassan, who is a cult expert who does a lot of press and has written a few books. And he has something called the bite method, which has its own criteria and boxes to check off.
For me, I tend to think of that list I mentioned before, are there gray exit costs? Are there, those ends justify the means philosophies going on? Is it very difficult to express dissent? Anything legitimate will stand up to scrutiny. So, if you’re not able to express scrutiny, that’s a major red flag. Are there extremely lofty promises being made? And then sort of bait and switches coming after, these are all red flags, but none of the red flags will tell you yes, for sure, this is a cult. You have to determine that for yourself.
Yeah. And all of this brings us to the really big point I think of the book, and I think it was really summarized perfectly by this Harvard religion scholar that you interviewed. And he said something so interesting. He said, “Meaning making is a growth industry.” Can you unpack that for us a little bit?
Sure. Well, as I was mentioning before, we as human beings, crave meaning purpose, ritual, connection. These are profoundly human drives that have always existed since the dawn of human civilization. Life is confounding, there are so many questions that we have yet to answer. Life is extremely overwhelming. And there are lots of different groups that attempt to provide those much desired answers. Now, tens of thousands of years ago, those answers were provided in the forms of stories that were passed down generation to generation, but we’re in late capitalism, baby. So, something can be monetized, it will. And that’s the reason why so many corporations are serving this pseudo religious role in our lives because they’re not just providing you with products and services, they are providing you with that almost liturgical experience, that sacred space where you can go into a soul cycle studio, or you can identify as a Glossier girl or you can strike up with any other brand and get that feeling of, okay, I feel comforted, I feel like I have answers, I feel like I know who I am.
Because especially in the 21st century, there are countless directions that a person’s life could go in, compared to 50 or more years ago. What should my hair color be? What should my job be? What kind of music should I like? Where should I live? That chooser’s paradox is really overwhelming. And if a brand can provide a identity template, this is what your life means, this is who you are. That can be incredibly comforting, and if that will help a brand succeed, they’re certainly going to do everything they can to provide that template.
So, if somebody goes through the experience that you’ve gone through, which is this very eyeopening clarifying realization of how language works in our world, how the spectrum from cultish to cult exists all around us, how we’re immersed in it, what is the good of all of this? What is the other side to this story?
Yeah. Well, I was concerned writing this book that it would turn me into this cynical misanthrope, but in fact, the opposite happened. And I have this newfound appreciation for how fundamentally communal and dreamy human beings really are. And I by no means think that people should be paranoid or hyper weary of the cultishness that imbues our everyday lives. I don’t think we should disaffiliate from every cultish group or brand that we participate in or patronize. I think it’s simply about being aware of these cultish techniques, that all kinds of groups from religious ones to secular ones are using. And instead of maybe wholly submitting yourself to one group, to one guru, to use a finance analogy, diversify your social and spiritual portfolio, to be a member of multiple cultish groups that Jonestown source I mentioned earlier, Laura Johnston Kohl, who was a member of not one but two infamous cults Jonestown and Synanon, look that up later, my dad spent his teenage years in that cult, which is another story, she finally determined after joining these two communes.
She was like, “Nope, I’m, I’m giving up this single compound solution.” And then she decided she was going to become a Quaker and an immigrant’s rights activist and hang out with her Synanon buddies from time to time and meditate with a different group. But it was important at the end of each of those experiences, to tap out and to return to her independent life and identity, which was more complex than any one given group or guru. So, it’s fun and it’s meaningful and it can be healing to participate in a cultish group, whether it’s SoulCycle or some divine goddess moon circle, or whatever it is, listen to your Joe Rogan podcast, I don’t know. But you can’t wholly, 100%, put your identity and your worth and your beliefs in that figure, because that’s when you start to lose yourself to a more destructive form of cultish influence.
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