I put a hold on Amanda Montell’s 2021 book Cultish when the local library acquired it, and read it when an ebook copy was available.
|Author||Amanda Montell||Wikipedia entry||Personal site||Sounds Like a Cult Podcast|
(Publisher) Book Page
The focus in on modern cults as understood in the modern vernacular.
In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia, and has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study. The word “cult” is usually considered pejorative.
An older sense of the word cult involves a set of religious devotional practices that are conventional within their culture, are related to a particular figure, and are often associated with a particular place.
Sociological classifications of religious movements may identify a cult as a social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices, although this is often unclear. Other researchers present a less-organized picture of cults, saying that they arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. Groups labelled as “cults” range in size from local groups with a few followers to international organizations with millions of adherents.Wikipedia entry “Cults” October 2021
This short book covers a lot of material. It discusses several 20th century cults that involved odd beliefs, exploitation and harm to members: the Peoples Temple (Jonestown), Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh (the Waco compound of Branch Davidian cult), Scientology, and the Childen of God commune(s) (later named the Family International organization). There are sections on Synanon and the bullying and sexual abuse in the NXIVM movement. It mentions the problems of Shambalha International based on the author’s conversations with a person involved in the movement in Vermont. It does not mention the coverage of the story by the Canadian magazine The Walrus, Canadian CBC coverage, or internet reports by concerned Buddhists. There is discussion of glossolalia in Pentecostal, Chrisian fundamentalist, and Christian evangelical religions.
It is a book by a well educated person on the young and affluent side of the age gap in the digital divide written for persons similarly situated. It explains well publicized recent events to persons who may be unaware of them. It uses terms like stan (a rhyming and disrespectful contraction of stalker and fan) as if this word had been published in a dictionary.
The book notes correctly that new teachings and groups within religious movements are viewed mildly by scholars of new religious movements, while cults can be seen as sinister in the popular imagination and in stories, or a desireably rare sources of resources or personal approval. Itrefers to a number of sources on new religious movements:
- Sociologist – Eileen Barker in the Guardian May 29, 2009;
- Culture Journalist – Jane Borden in Vanity Fair September 3, 2020;
- Writer – Elizabeth Woollett in the Guardian November 18, 2018; and
- Religion writer – Tara Elizabeth Burton in Vox April 19, 2018 and What is a Cult in the Aeon magazine. The book attibutes a statement in quotation marks to the academic and writer Megan Goodwin in a passage at ebook page 24. The (end)note attributes the words to Burton.
It isn’t a deep discussion – the book is not a dissertation or treatise. There is a discussion, based on the ideas of the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman of impulsive and deliberately rational decision making (Thinking Fast and Slow). In the podcast, the author and the co-host conclude discussion of individual cultish groups with an assessment of “Watch your Back” or “Get the F&%* Out” which is prone to the optimism bias. Tthe podcasters identify LuLaRoe as a harmful cult and the media personality and self help speaker Tony Robbins as a cult leader. However, the podcasts tend call out cults after there has been public criticism of the cult or person. They do not lead the story.
The book rejects the idea that cults appeal to only to persons with low cognitive ability or social skills. It points out that cults recruit persons with capabilities, appeal to normal aspirations and overcome the caution and skepticism or many persons with above average cognitive ability.
One line of discussion is the cult-like or cultish features of the organization and operation of:
- several fitness and personal wellness businesses including CrossFit, SoulCycle and the yoga studios of the Healthy, Happy and Holy organization founded by Yogi Bhajan; and
- most multi-level marketing organizations (“MLMs”, with references to MLMs including Younique and LuLaRoe. The discussion of MLMs looks at the history and methods of MLMs since Tupperware, including Amway and Mary Kay.
MLMs recruit individuals to make direct sales on commission, and to recruit and administer a sales force. This system has drawbacks:
- Direct selling is not a reliable way for an individual to earn income;
- The responsibilities, costs and risk of the downline (sales force) fall on the earlier or “higher level” recruits;
- Depending on the MLM, a recruit may face pressure to purchase unnecessary inventory;
- Depending on the MLM, a recruit may be dumped or displaced if the recruit and the downline failed to produce sales;
- The income of a new recruit is unlikely to progress and is often low or nil.
The cultish features of MLMs and the fitness businesses are said to be the uses of language and social techniques to persuade people to make irrational decisions about money, time, reputation, relationships and health. Some MLMs exploit existing social networks including churches, clubs and political organizations. The book discusses, tangentially, the way in which many sellers of goods and services use cultish methods to maintain their brands and influence workers and customers. Amanda Montel develops and explains in the episodes on SoulCycle, MLMs, LuLaRue and others in the Sounds Like a Cult podcast (link above). The podcast episode on LuLaRoe may have been inspired by the documentary series LuLaRich on Amazon Prime.
The arguments about MLMs are collectively persuasive. This isn’t the first book to consider MLMs to be exploitative. Robert L. Fitzpatrick has published the PyramidSchemeAlert web page and several books including Ponzinomics.
Other interesting lines of discussion in Cultish:
- the penetration of business language into social media and other internet channels,
- the role of social media in allowing grifters to become influencers,
- monied interests generating profits through cultish influencer marketing. The book discusses the promotion of personal advice and wellness services in the final chapter called Follow for Follow which addresses influencers exercising influence, and
- social media users to being influenced to their detriment.