Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Is There A Common Cultic Language Pattern And Praxis?

newrepublic |  Among L. Ron Hubbard’s most pressing concerns was a singular problem: how to get his followers to turn their nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns. Like a Californian Hamlet, the founder of Scientology pondered the dilemma of “to be or not to be” and settled on beingness. There was no real basis for Hubbard’s morphological experiments, as linguist Amanda Montell explains in her new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism; he simply “liked the sound of technical jargon.” So much so, in fact, that he published two extensive Scientology dictionaries filled with thousands of terms, many of which were borrowed (and subsequently mangled) from fields like psychology and software engineering “to create the impression that Scientology’s belief system was rooted in real science.”

Hubbard also wanted to establish, through language, a clear way of demarcating believers from nonbelievers (or, sorry—“suppressive persons”). A nonbeliever, for instance, would very likely struggle to parse the following exchange without the aid of Montell’s annotations:

“How are you doing?”

“I’ve been a bit out ruds [rudiments: tired, hungry, or upset] because of a PTP [present time problem] with my second dynamic [romantic partner] because of some bypassed charge [old negative energy that’s resurfaced] having to do with my MEST [Matter, Energy, Space, and Time, something in the physical universe] at her apartment.”

While this all comes across as profoundly idiosyncratic, Montell says there is in fact nothing unique or special about Scientology’s fascination with language. “The most compelling techniques” espoused by cults have had “little to do with drugs, sex, shaved heads, remote communes, drapey kaftans, or ‘Kool-Aid,’” says Montell. As she breaks down the glossary of terms espoused by members of QAnon, Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, and even Crossfit, Montell says it is language that can best clue us in as to whether an organization we have joined is a cult or is at least engaging in cultlike behavior to extract resources out of its members. She develops a taxonomy of “cultish” linguistic tendencies from “the crafty redefinition of existing words” (i.e., calling a gym a “box” for no real reason), thought-terminating clich├ęs (labeling good-faith doubts and concerns as “limiting beliefs”), and monikers that establish an us-versus-them binary (the “truth seekers” versus “sheeple” of QAnon).

Montell’s first book, Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language (2019), explored everything from the history of sexist slurs like skank and hussy to the gendered assumptions about what it means to “speak with authority.” With Cultish, Montell is still writing about feminism, arguing that many of these organizations often target working-class and minority women who, feeling failed by capitalism, begin looking for some semblance of a social safety net. Nearly half of the victims of the Jonestown massacre were Black women, she points out, and the majority of people working for multilevel marketing companies are unemployed women living in blue-collar towns. An empathetic listener, Montell takes careful note of the empty words that cult members turn to for solace. Though written in punchy and fun prose style, Cultish is more than a fascinating guide to the workings of cults; it’s also an infuriating window into just how starved people have been made to feel for community and structures of collective care. 

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