3 Things Never to Say to Someone Involved With a Cult
A follower entrenched in cultish ideology will not respond well to these phrases
“My brother got caught up with QAnon, and now he won’t speak to me.”
“My best friend is obsessed with this sketchy New Age guru, and I don’t know how to talk to her anymore.”
“I think my dad is in a cult. How do I convince him to leave?”
These are some of the most frequently asked questions folks have posed to me, ever since I started researching the social science of cult influence. Partly inspired by my father’s childhood in a notorious cult called Synanon, I’ve spent the past two years writing a book about the language of cults: how cultish leaders — from notorious villains like Jim Jones to more quotidien figures like CEOs, SoulCycle master instructors, and scammy spiritual influencers — use a systematic pattern of language techniques to condition and coerce their followers. (The book is called Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, and it comes out in June.)
Equally important is the conversation about how we as a society talk about cults and their believers. What I’ve learned after interviewing scores of sociologists and psychologists, religion scholars, and cult survivors themselves is that cultish influence isn’t just reserved for wild-eyed Charlie Manson types stationed on remote compounds in the woods; it imbues our everyday lives, from our corporate offices to our Instagram feeds. Dividing us into “brainwashed cult followers” and “normal” people who’d never fall victim to “mind control” is both unhelpful and reductive in that it prevents us from understanding what is truly going on with people who wind up on the more dangerous side of the cultish spectrum. The truth is that most folks who wind up in “cults” are not desperate, disturbed, or intellectually inferior. They tend to be educated, idealistic seekers who slipped a little too far down a rabbit hole…. and then way too far… winding up in a headspace where certain words and phrases, which may sound totally rational to “outsiders,” land differently for them.
How to talk to “cult followers” is an extremely thorny question (and one that I’ll attempt to answer in a later post), but I find that it’s a bit easier to start out with what not to say. Speaking with someone who seems to be a psychological lightyear away can be wildly frustrating and discouraging; and maintaining a measured tone is easier said than done, especially when it’s someone you love deeply and want to help. If you have a friend or family member neck-deep in a fanatical fringe group, I hope that these suggestions provide some insight or solace. Derived from my research into cult influence, here are three phrases I recommend avoiding when communicating with someone currently under major cultish influence.
1. “You’re brainwashed”
“Brainwashed” sounds like the technical term for what happens to someone when they get roped into a cult, but scholars of new religions tend to agree that this word is nothing but a metaphor and an emotionally charged buzzword with no real “scientific” definition at all. People across the spectrum of politics, beliefs, and ideologies tend to toss around “brainwashed” to describe any group of people who hold steadfast beliefs that differ from theirs. People in cultish groups are conditioned to believe that everyone outside their group is truly brainwashed (for example, QAnoners are convinced that “mainstream” doctors are by definition brainwashed by Big Pharma); so, using this term, even with pure intentions, will most likely just trigger them to throw right it back: “No, you’re brainwashed.”
2. “But [insert reputable source] says…”
You’d think a sound method of persuasion would be to quote a trusted source — a therapist, a New York Times article, a peer-reviewed Harvard study — to try and help your loved one see the wrinkles in their beliefs. But, because so many cultish groups are based on the tenet that conventional institutions, from the media and academia to the medical establishment, are secretly manipulating and controlling us in evil ways, quoting these sources will not only ring hollow, it will signal to them that you don’t understand or respect where they’re coming from at all. This may incite even more tension.
3. “This is a cult”
Similar to “brainwashed,” sociologists and religious studies scholars agree there is no hard-and-fast definition for the word “cult”; in fact, it has become so subjective and sensationalized — often used simply to condemn religions and social groups society doesn’t approve of (regardless of how dangerous they are) — that it’s not even a word they use formally. (“New religious movements,” “alternative religions,” and “marginalized religions” are a few of the terms they use instead. Though personally I tend to hedge the word and opt for phrases like “cultish groups” or “groups along the cultish spectrum,” to accommodate for secular communities as well.)
It’s so tempting to come right out and tell someone they’re in a cult, but once this phrase is invoked, it kills the conversation. First of all, because “cult” can mean anything, it’s objectively not an effective way to illuminate the specific dangers one might be up against. And second of all, since the word is so loaded with judgment, it winds up leaving no hope of mending the rift between your loved one and reality. Would you want to engage in a dialogue with someone who just told you, “You’re in a cult?” I wouldn’t.
What are your thoughts on how not to talk to someone involved in a cultish group? I’d love to read them in the comments below.