A Critical Review of Amanda Montell’s “Cultish”

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I only recently read Amanda Montell’s book Cultish, originally having dismissed it as a superficial overview of cults. After I finished it I thought it was a sophisticated piece of cult apologist propaganda. It couched some of the most staunch attacks against the anti-cult movement in a fun and cheeky package. I saw it like a Trojan horse; innocent and unassuming but with a hidden danger inside.

The book repeated every cult apologist talking point: brainwashing doesn’t exist, cults are not real, fear-mongering over labeling something a cult, using “new religious movements” to describe destructive cults, chastising the anti-cult movement, and using only cherry-picked cult apologist experts.

Montell refers to cults as “so called cults,” and puts the term in quotes, along with cult leader, mind control, and brainwashing. She warns of labeling someone like David Koresh a cult leader or calling Jonestown a cult because it causes “active harm.” Throughout the book, she attacks the idea of brainwashing saying things repeatedly like, “Importantly, they do not ‘brainwash’ them.”

The false ideas that Montell uncritically platformed have been used for decades to undermine the anti-cult movement. There are well-funded and cult-backed efforts to destroy our efforts and undermine our language. “Cults hate being called cults,” expert Steve Hassan says. But cult is a powerful and important word for survivors, cult reporters, and experts. For those of us deeply entrenched in the cult wars, it’s impossible not to see Cultish as a continuation of the decades-long attack.

“She truly was irresponsible in her book Cultish,” tweeted Hassan. “I have been disappointed in Amanda Montell since she published cult propaganda.”

Montell pleads ignorant. Remarkably, she told me she had no idea what the cult wars were or what a cult apologist was. “Why didn’t Steve Hassan tell me about any of this?” she protested after I challenged her. He was one of the few anti-cult experts she interviewed for the book, but she didn’t include his views countering the cult apologists she platformed.

“All I knew is that they had a different perspective on the word cult,” Montell told me about why she chose only cult apologists for her book. She found articles online that embraced a counter-narrative. She thought it was an interesting take “because everyone already knows cults and brainwashing are real.” As a linguist, she wanted to challenge people to think deeper and not just throw around sensational terms.

Fair enough. But it’s irresponsible and borderline reckless to write a book without researching the subject properly. It’d be like writing a book interrogating the idea of transgender identity, uncritically platforming Jordan Peterson-type views, and then pleading ignorant when challenged. The impact is no different, regardless of your intentions. Montell recognized that it was irresponsible and apologized for any harm or confusion her book had caused. She offered to add a clarifying statement to Cultish.

Montell falsely portrayed an expert consensus against the use of the terms cult and brainwashing. “Most experts I talked to don’t even use [cult] anymore,” Montell writes. “Brainwashing is a pseudoscientific concept that the majority of psychologists I interviewed denounce.”

At first glance, I would see this as a deceptive attempt to frame the issue. Montell left out the fact that almost all cult experts embrace these terms. People like Margaret Singer, Janja Lalich, Alexandra Stein, Stephen Kent, Hugh Urban, Rick Ross, Steven Hassan, and Flo Conway. She left their voices out of the matter.

Content retrieved from: https://www.gurumag.com/a-critical-review-of-amanda-montells-cultish/.

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