The Facebook page of a new startup in Israel declares that the company is “building the next generation of tools to improve human creativity in completely new ways.” Scrolling through the posts, one comes across concepts such as “inspiring,” “infinite creativity” and the repeated use of the word “community,” particularly in connection with “enhancing human creativity” among the company’s employees. The company, by the way, is developing applications that edit images and clips for social media.
More surfing through the Facebook and LinkedIn pages of Israeli startups reveals that many of them resort to flowery, hyperbolic phrases that ostensibly describe their operations but actually hide them behind a cloyingly sweet verbal fog. Emphasizing their familial, community atmosphere, they’re signaling everyone outside that they’re wasting their time if they haven’t yet submitted a CV and “joined the family,” and reminding everyone inside that on the outside there are no cupcakes every Thursday or happy hours. All these companies claim to connect people, enhance human capabilities and be involved in changing the world for the better, one app at a time.
In recent months, it’s been difficult to avoid the discussions surrounding Israel’s exploding high-tech industry. It’s being criticized for its ostentatiousness and inflated salaries, for not leaving good people to be hired by other industries and for the responsibility it bears for transforming the country into a spiritual wilderness. Is it possible that these companies are, in the final analysis, simply cults?
If you ask the American writer and language scholar Amanda Montell, the answer is yes. Or, more precisely, she would say these companies speak “cultish.” In her latest book, “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” (HarperCollins), Montell probes the factors that situate companies and communities on the cult spectrum. For most of us, the word “cult” conjures up people who are identically dressed, the concept of “brainwashing” and also weird rituals conducted in unlikely places. But all that, the author argues, doesn’t address the essence of the phenomenon. What drives a group of people up and down the cult ladder, she maintains, is the language they use.
In a familiar (sometimes overly so) style written in the first person, and as the daughter of a cult-member father (he was in Synanon), Montell provides a compelling description of the evolution of the concept of “cult,” the American obsession with the phenomenon and its effects in terms of social and linguistic attitudes. Underlying the book is her question: “What techniques do charismatic leaders use to exploit people’s fundamental needs for community and meaning?” Her answer: language.
In her previous book, “Wordslut: A Feminist Guide for Taking Back the English Language” (HarperCollins, 2019), Montell examined how the English language oppresses women. In “Cultish,” she cites testimony from women and men who have dipped their toes into and were exploited and hurt by different groups – all of which have a common denominator: a charismatic leader who uses language to diminish the group’s members, exalt himself or herself and take advantage of others’ weaknesses in order to keep them within the circle for all time.
The sting in Montell’s study is that she doesn’t refer only to the obvious cults, such as Jonestown, Scientology or churches that seem unhinged even to a pious Christian (for there is no clear consensus among researchers in the field as to what constitutes a cult, and no agreed-upon, definitive way to distinguish it from a religion). She’s referring as well to so-called multilevel marketing companies (a euphemism that companies conducting business according to a pyramid structure give themselves), fitness brands and spiritual influencers on Instagram.
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The reason that the use of language is so effective in altering behavior and belief, Montell says, is that language is the first thing we ourselves are ready to change: When we start a new job, within a few days we are already using the jargon of the place. Our dress code and lifestyle hang on a bit longer.
According to Montell, use of “cultish” does three main things. First, it brings about a “conversion”: It makes people feel special and think that someone understands and sees them, and thus encourages them to join. Afterward comes “conditioning,” which makes people feel they are dependent on the leader and that life outside the group is no longer tenable. Finally, in the “coercion” stage, language persuades people to behave in ways that may be utterly at odds with their former reality, values and sense of self.
Cultish includes a heightened use of the “us-versus-them dichotomy”: The leaders and their followers have all the answers, which an outsider will never understand. This is the reason that cultish contains distinct jargon, multiple acronyms, neologisms and mantras: Using them forges a sense of collective belonging and closeness that can’t be shared with those outside. This type of speech also easily marks dissidents: for example, members of the lethal cult Heaven’s Gate that would cringe when being described as “students of the Kingdom of Heaven” would probably find themselves publicly shamed and quickly expelled. This highly charged language, in which familiar words acquire a new meaning known only to the group’s members, is reinforced by clichés whose purpose is to disable independent thinking. If you have ever expressed astonishment to a conspiracy theorist – be they from the right or the left, an anti-vaxxer or a Bibi-ist – who employs vague terminology to describe how mysterious individuals control the media, the government or “Big Pharma,” and in response you heard a cliché along the lines of “You wouldn’t understand, it’s all part of the plan” – you have been exposed to cultish language.
How, then, does one differentiate between innocuous groups with a distinctive language, and groups that use cultish language in an exploitative and harmful way? And if distinctive language is a red flag, what is the difference between the argot of Wall Street and that of Goel Ratzon, the Israeli polygamist and cult leader? Besides going along with the catchy notion that a cult is like pornography – you know it when you hear it – Montell uses the example of the generic neighborhood gym we all know, where people of all types come and go, and whose whole purpose is to “uplift” fitness buffs, even if it has developed a harmless sort of jargon of its own; and, by contrast, fitness brands such as SoulCycle, a network of spinning and cycling workout places that emphasizes the “us-versus-them” dichotomy with cultish language, for example, calling on devotees to “Move your body. Take your journey. Find your soul.”
In the past decade, in which Westerners’ faith in institutionalized religions and the medical establishment has plummeted, increasing numbers of young people have placed their spiritual trust in New Age, alternative medicine and myriad types of exercise and fitness regimens. Montell offers a riveting survey of the spiritual renaissance of American fitness and of the way that industry tries to offer American millennials a response to life’s big questions. Amid this she presents muscle-contracting evidence about SoulCycle, in the form of the language its instructors use to spur on the practitioners (“I want the next breath to be an exorcism,” “Change your body, change your mind, change your life!”); the blurring of the boundaries between a male personal trainer and a sexual fantasy (including sex with female SoulCyclists); the insults aimed at practitioners because they aren’t trying hard enough; an extreme use of “us-versus-them” terminology; and gaslighting that targets those who dedicated themselves to pedaling to the point where they sustained serious injuries.
Thus, Montell writes, a culture is created that aims to encourage people to forget the collective cultural and social environment in which they are living and to replace it with one that vests inordinate power in leaders, at the expense of individual autonomy. This culture exists in certain religious communities, in the fitness industry, in multilevel marketing and in high-tech firms. In an era where the algorithms of Instagram and Facebook identify which language wields particular influence over us and continuously uses more of it – this culture is blanketing ever more parts of our life. It’s not by chance that many self-styled New Age gurus are flourishing in the social media.
Even if its style of writing sometimes recalls an overly long article in an au courant American magazine, with a chattiness and casualness meant to appeal to millennial readers – Montell’s book provides a useful and well-grounded alternative to the usual answers to the question of “how to define a cult” and adds new items to the toolbox of critical thought. “The words we hear and use every day can provide clues to help us determine which groups are healthy, which are toxic, and which are a little bit of both – and to what extent we wish to engage with them,” she writes.
So, can we say that new Israeli tech startups are also cults? Even if we haven’t heard about a CEO who led the employees to an act of collective suicide in order not to have to cope with the failure of an app that was supposed to change the world, it is useful to ponder the cult-like traits reflected in the language of this sector – a language that could also have a detrimental effect on the lives of its workers.
Nadav Neumann is a writer, culture critic and poet.