Amanda Montell (@amandamontell) is a language scholar and author of critically acclaimed Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. Her latest book is Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which explores how cults co-opt the words we use in order to control us and affect our behavior.
What We Discuss with Amanda Montell:
- How the uncertainty of current times drives people toward the solace of community — and the sights of aspiring cult leaders and con artists.
- What personal experience drew Amanda, a language scholar, to explore how language is one of the most powerful tools of manipulation cults use to exploit their victims?
- What thought-terminating cliches are and why they’re so effective at shaping behavior.
- How MLMs operate like cults and who they predominately target with empty promises of wealth and prestige.
- How to tell if your language is being taken over by cultish manipulators.
- And much more…
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How do so many people who seem otherwise rational and resistant to obvious manipulation tactics get regularly suckered into cults and cult-like organizations? Does our collective need for social connection and solace during these trying times make us easy to pick off — like fish in a barrel — for the predators who seek to exploit our vulnerabilities? And if we accept that we’re as susceptible as anyone else to the influence of these bad actors, what can we do to defend ourselves against them?
On this episode, we’re joined by language scholar and Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism author Amanda Montell to discuss how cults — and organizations that use cult tactics, like MLM companies — co-opt the words we use in order to control us and affect our behavior. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Thanks, Amanda Montell!
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Resources from This Episode:
- Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell | Amazon
- Sounds Like A Cult Podcast
- Amanda Montell | Website
- Amanda Montell | Instagram
- Amanda Montell | Facebook
- Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell | Amazon
- Wild Wild Country | Netflix
- Taylor Swift Fans Are Sending Death Threats to ‘Folklore’ Reviewers Who Didn’t Give It a 10/10 | Junkee
- Church of Scientology | Wikipedia
- QAnon 101: The Search for Q | Vice
- No Evidence to Support QAnon Claims of Mass Arrests, Military Takeover, Illegitimacy of Biden’s Presidency, or Trump’s Return to Power | Reuters
- ‘PizzaGate’ Conspiracy Theory Thrives Anew in the TikTok Era | The New York Times
- Countering QAnon | Polaris
- Jews for Jesus
- How Internet Guru Teal Swan Lures Followers – and Why It Should Worry Us | The Wrap
- Study: Most Wealthy Countries Aren’t Religious. Then There’s the US. | Vox
- The Story of This Drug Rehab-Turned-Violent Cult Is Wild, Wild Country-Caliber Bizarre | Los Angeles Magazine
- Is the Landmark Forum a Cult? | Quora
- How to Speak Pig Latin | BLEND
- 3HO | Wikipedia
- Kabbalah and Mysticism 101 | My Jewish Learning
- Tara Isabella Burton | Twitter
- Jonestown Massacre: 13 Things You Should Know | Rolling Stone
- What You Need to Know About the Manson Family Murders | Smithsonian Magazine
- A Timeline of the Nxivm Sex Cult Case | The New York Times
- Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch | NPR
- Heaven’s Gate 20 Years Later: 10 Things You Didn’t Know | Rolling Stone
- Heaven’s Gate: How and When It May Be Entered
- The “Death Tape” – Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple | SDSU
- Thought-Terminating Cliché | RationalWiki
- The Story of Brownie Wise, the Ingenious Marketer Behind the Tupperware Party | Smithsonian Magazine
- From Our Cults, Scams, and Conspiracies Starter Pack:
- Steven Hassan | Combating Cult Mind Control
- Steven Hassan | The #iGotOut Guide to Quitting QAnon
- Frank Abagnale | Scam Me If You Can
- Leah Remini | Surviving Hollywood and Scientology
- Coffeezilla | How to Expose Fake Guru Scams
- Michael Shermer | Why We Believe Weird Things
- Renee DiResta | Dismantling the Disinformation Machine
- Justin Ramsdell | How to Detect and Disarm Pseudoscience
- ZDoggMD | Debunking Plandemic COVID-19 Pseudoscience
- Mick West | How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories
- Austin Meyer | Slaying the Patent Scam Trolls
628: Amanda Montell | Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:02] Amanda Montell: Back in the good old days of cult psych, you kind of had to have the charisma and just the organizational skills to get a bunch of people in the same room to get up on a pulpit and preach at them for a few hours to compel them to keep coming back IRL. Now, especially with the pandemic, I mean, speaking of like the perfect conditions for a cult, it's not really possible as much to meet in person, but what's also making this time so cultish is that you no longer have to be able to manipulate an individual standing in front of you. You just have to be able to manipulate an algorithm and that's a whole lot easier to do.
[00:00:38] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have high signal, low noise conversations with astronauts and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional mafia enforcer, national security advisor, or rocket scientist. And each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
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[00:01:24] Today, y'all know I'm a fan of exposing cults, scams, manipulative organizations, and the way that they operate. Today's episode is no exception. Amanda Montell, author of Cultish, joins us to discuss how cults co-op the words we use in order to control us and affect our behavior. We'll cover MLM, scams, QAnon, Scientology, and all the usual suspects but with a focus on how these groups use language to confuse and control and what we can do to protect ourselves and those we love from the undue influence of these creepy cultish organizations. Now, just to note, when I refer to MLM here on the episode, I mean, multilevel marketing organizations like Herbalife and doTERRA and others that I think are toxic and scammy, and also bad for society, and of course, very cult-like.
[00:02:10] If you're wondering how I managed to book all these great authors, thinkers, and creators every single week, it's because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over in our Six-Minute Networking course at jordanharbinger.com/course. The course is all about improving your networking skills, your connection skills, and inspiring others to develop a personal and professional relationship with you. It'll also make you a better networker, a better connector, and a better thinker. And it's decidedly not culty. That's jordanharbinger.com/course. And most of the guests you hear on the show subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[00:02:46] Now, here's Amanda Montell.
[00:02:50] So why are people so obsessed with cults? I can't help, but be a little bit obsessed with cults, whether it's multilevel marketing or Scientology or some Osho Rajneesh on Netflix, like I want to see all of that stuff and listen to all those podcasts. And even though many of them are the same, I kind of can't get enough. And it's weird because I don't really care. I've never been in one. I don't know anyone outside of people that have come to me on the show that have been in one and yet I can't help, but rubberneck. What's going on?
[00:03:19] Amanda Montell: Yeah. I would just claim that we're all a bunch of twisted voyeurs who get off on darkness and tragedy, but I think you named it, it's partially rubbernecking. We can enter fight or flight, just sitting where we are, reading a headline or watching a documentary. And I think on some level, when we binge cult documentary after cult documentary, and every time I tell myself that, like I've seen enough and I'm sick of talking about this stuff, another video, whether it's just of like overzealous Taylor Swift stans will just suck me. And I think when we binge that content or on some level scanning for threats to determine whether or not this group, this zealotry is a direct danger to us.
[00:04:01] And then we very quickly, as a self-protective mechanism, tell ourselves like, no, I would never fall for something like that. I'm too skeptical. I'm too confident. I have too strong sense of self or I'm too well-educated but the fact of the matter is that we might not all fall for the same type of cultish influence, but these techniques of manipulation really spare no one.
[00:04:22] Jordan Harbinger: I kind of understand it. And I have seen in the past, when I was in my 20s, I was really into like certain self-help and dating stuff and I saw it get culty and I stayed a little bit away from it. But then when I look back now at age 40, I'm like, okay, I did dip my toes a little bit into those waters. Like I stayed away from the actual cult stuff, but I was still in the room with the people who would like run to the front to upgrade to the advanced program. And I was like, I don't know why, but I'm not into this. And later I'm like, "Oh, because it was psycho and not really helpful and totally weird. That's why." And I look at the things where like these self-help cults have all these grown people crying about their childhood wounds, even though it's like day two in the afternoon and you're hugging a 50-year-old man who's crying like a child in your lap. And you're like, "I really can't put my finger on it, but something is not quite right about this business development seminar or like leadership training or whatever, I got suckered into.
[00:05:17] Amanda Montell: Totally. But I think it says so much about how badly human beings want to connect with one another and want to engage in sort of culty rituals, linguistic and otherwise, because especially when it comes to language, which is the topic of my book like we are so willing to do that chant. Like we are so willing to do that call and response. We are so willing to pick up on that exclusive terminology because it just feels good to belong. But like you, yeah, I have a track record of like dropping out of slightly cultish groups and communities and clubs. Like I was a theater kid in my childhood and I have this habit of dropping out of like theater communities because everybody was just too damn culty and everybody would like worship the theater teacher. Everybody wearing black and constantly singing Rent. I was like, "I can't, I can't."
[00:06:07] Jordan Harbinger: That's funny. Because as far as cults go somewhat harmless to really like this teacher, who's just a passionate guy and makes probably not enough money to put up with the amount of crap he puts up with. Yeah.
[00:06:18] Amanda Montell: Well debatable, debatable, because I mean, who would be more vulnerable to cultish influence than like a young misfit kid who also kind of thinks maybe they could be famous. That's an easy person to take advantage of.
[00:06:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That's a good point. You don't think of high school theater teacher as a dangerous predator. And most of them aren't to be fair, but you're right. It's kind of like a, what do you call it? Like, it's like an unexplored niche. So if you're looking for a cult, maybe really what you want to be as a high school theater teacher.
[00:06:47] Amanda Montell: Theater kids, theater communities, that is a cultish topic that I planned to cover on my podcast sometime in the future, because I'm very interested in these sort of niche groups that we might not all agree are full-blown cults on the level of Scientology. Although Scientology is another group that definitely recruits theater kids and aspiring actors that we can all, at least agree are cultish.
[00:07:11] Jordan Harbinger: Do you think people, especially young people now, are looking more for meaning, I guess maybe spirituality, but also just meaning and not getting it through regular faith? Because you see people leave churches and things like that, but instead, maybe they like go to SoulCycle one day and they're like, "Whoa, filling a need that I have that I didn't maybe even know I had."
[00:07:29] Amanda Montell: Totally. Well, I think that meaning, purpose, ritual community, these are profoundly human drives that have existed since the earliest hominids. Like even early humans would gather with their tribes in circles and engage in group song and group dance, even though there was no adaptive or survival benefit, it just felt good. It felt profoundly human. And I think right now is an interestingly cultish time, because our sources of meaning and connection and community are changing. So increasingly young people, in particular, are losing trust in these traditional sites of spirituality, like our churches and our synagogues that we maybe grow up in.
[00:08:10] We're also losing trust in larger institutions like the government, the healthcare system, but we're still craving those things and want to fill those voids. And so we look to alternative groups, scholars at the Harvard Divinity School, for example, have done studies finding groups like SoulCycle and CrossFit are some of the sites that are filling this truly religious craving or spiritual craving that we continue to have. These are sort of like secular forms of religion. That sounds like an oxymoron, but I think it really can exist. Wellness spaces, so many different spaces are serving this spiritual and community role in people's lives and not all of them are destructive, but some of them are. And it's really like the wild west in terms of cultish is particularly with social media.
[00:08:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, we'll get into a little bit of that in a bit here, but I think cults seem to arise during times when people are maybe a little bit lost or at least they arise in people's lives. But right now, look, a lot of people might be looking for a savior. We have QAnon, which is like the sort of dumbest, but also largest example of that recently where people believe completely ridiculous things. And those things keep evolving and there's not even one doctrine, but it's also like, "No, the world isn't this big chaotic mess that I can't make sense of. It's all a secret plan and I'm in on it, but everybody else is not. So actually I'm the important one that's doing well. And all these other people who looked like they were beating me in life are actually just sheep."
[00:09:36] Amanda Montell: Yes, exactly. So especially during times of sociopolitical turbulence, larger cultural tumult, we crave answers and closure and comfort, and there are plenty of megalomaniacal gurus in-person and online, especially online nowadays, who are willing to take advantage of those cravings.
[00:09:56] QAnon is tricky because we tend to think of it as like this community of MAGA bros in their parents' basements following the Q drops. But as time has gone on QAnon has really come to encapsulate every breed of conspiratorial thinking that exists nowadays. It's like this spiderweb of QAnon denominations. So even if you're not willing to get on board with Pizzagate type ideas or the global Hollywood elites, like sex trafficking children or whatever, you might get on board with anti-vax rhetoric that could serve as an on-ramp to the more extreme stuff.
[00:10:35] But yeah, I mean, it's interesting because another spike in cultural turbulence was during the '60s and '70s when we saw the emergence of so many new religious movements, the more politically correct term for cults, like everything from Scientology to Jews for Jesus. What's different now is that we're seeing similar tumults, but the Internet has made it such that there is now for better and for worse, a cult for everyone. You know, back in the good old days of cult psych like you kind of had to have the charisma and just the organizational skills to get a bunch of people in the same room to get up on a pulpit and preach at them for a few hours to compel them to keep coming back IRL. Now, especially with the pandemic, I mean, speaking of like the perfect conditions for a cult, it's not really possible as much to meet in person, but what's also making this time so cultish is that you no longer have to be able to manipulate an individual standing in front of you. You just have to be able to manipulate an algorithm and that's a whole lot easier to do.
[00:11:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. We've seen some of it. You mentioned in the book, Teal Swan, who's like this very — how do you even describe her? A bizarro influencer that in ways, maybe or maybe not allegedly convinces some people to just kill themselves because it's better that way. And she is like, not somebody that I would follow because I just immediately cringe and sort of am not interested at all in somebody like that. But I can see the allure for somebody like that. She's almost like a siren.
[00:12:00] Amanda Montell: Totally. Right. So she has this sort of like divinely feminine energy. She is someone I would classify as like a spiritual influencer, a new age influencer.
[00:12:10] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:12:10] Amanda Montell: These people are a dime a dozen now, but she got her start a little bit earlier, you know, 10 or 12 years ago. And she would exploit SEO marketing, other clever Internet marketing tactics in order to capitalize on the lonely Googling of people, struggling with their mental health. And she would create these videos where she would combine the language of the DSM, you know, real mental health diagnoses, like borderline or anxiety with spiritual language, talk of frequencies and vibrations, and the Akashic records. And what this vernacular would do suggests that she's tapped into a power higher than science, that she has the sort of prophetic power. And by aligning with her, whether you're watching her videos casually or signing up for her exclusive Teal Tribe, or following her to one of her retreats in the wilderness, you can gain access to that transcendent wisdom. And definitely, her delivery and her look create this charisma that really seemed to resonate and continues to.
[00:13:13] Jordan Harbinger: Developed countries seem to have less culty behavior. And I'm going to actually take a little bit of exception with that because I feel like if we count MLMs as cults, then maybe that's not true at all. But if we just talk about spiritual cults, developed countries tend to have less culty behavior. The United States is definitely an exception though. Why?
[00:13:32] Amanda Montell: So we tend to see this pattern where countries that have higher standards of living, you know, longer life expectancies, higher education levels tend to just have fewer believers in religions, traditional and alternative. But the US is this glaring exception, as you mentioned, where we do have those comparatively high standards of living and yet there are so many religious people here. People who believe in all kinds of spirituality, traditional and otherwise. One of the potential answers for this or explanations for this is that in places like Scandinavia and Japan, obviously these countries have their own problems, but there are these social safety nets in place, such that if a person loses their job or becomes very ill, there will be institutional support to catch them when they fall so that they don't die or become destitute.
[00:14:16] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:14:16] Amanda Montell: And we don't have as many of those things here in the United States. And so that combined with our culture of individualism leaves, people feeling pretty existentially high and dry, unmoored. And so they look to these alternative groups in order to find that support. And again, some of them are mostly harmless and some of them are profoundly unethical, but this seems to be the pattern throughout our culture.
[00:14:41] Jordan Harbinger: I know, in part, you're interested in cults because your dad had joined one and you — did you grow up in one? Am I understanding that correctly? In a way or grew up around one. I don't know how you would phrase it.
[00:14:54] Amanda Montell: Okay. So I guess my argument is that we're all a member of something cultish, to some degree. I was in the cult of my community theater. I'm certainly now in the cult of Instagram. I lost my phone and didn't get another one for like a week and I was in true withdrawal purely because I can log into Instagram.
[00:15:12] So my dad was forced to join a cult when he was 14.
[00:15:16] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, okay.
[00:15:16] Amanda Montell: Yeah. His dad was a card-carrying communist. He considered himself an intellectual and the year was 1969. He wanted in, on the blossoming countercultural movement. And he heard of this group called Synanon, which started out as an alternative drug rehabilitation center for hard drug users, and then grew to accommodate so-called lifestylers or people who were interested in sort of this socialist utopian way of life.
[00:15:41] And so my dad's dad and my dad's new stepmother forced my dad and his two little toddler age, half-sisters to move on to this compound in the Bay Area where kids lived separate from their parents and weren't allowed to go to an outside school. And at a point, everyone shaved their heads, and everybody, you know, dressed in this very conformist style. And my dad had up until that point, grown up in Manhattan's school of hard knocks, in poverty in New York City. And he took a look around and he was like, "This is a cult. This looks like a cult." And so he sort of flew under the radar. He broke the rules and hitched a ride into San Francisco every day to go to an outside school, graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth, got into Berkeley, and then — now he's a neuroscientist.
[00:16:25] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:16:25] Amanda Montell: So he worked out his life. He's doing just fine, but he always identified throughout my entire childhood as anti-growth. He was, you know, obviously like pretty triggered by groups.
[00:16:35] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I mean, starting in the communists and then going into a cult. It's like, "You know what? I've had enough of organizations."
[00:16:41] Amanda Montell: Totally. He still, interestingly, thought it was important for me to have a spiritual reference point. So I was raised in like a very, very reformed Jewish synagogue, just I guess, because community is still important. I don't know. And this is the thing we can't think of these things in such a binary fashion. It's like cult or not a cult. It's more nuanced than that. But anyway, I grew up on my dad's stories of Synanon, and the conformism of it, and all the wild rituals that went on there.
[00:17:07] For example, every night, everyone in Synanon had to participate in an activity called The Game, which was this extreme truth-telling event when people would gather around—
[00:17:17] Jordan Harbinger: Already creepy.
[00:17:18] Amanda Montell: Oh yeah, the creepiest, and this same thing is done in a lot of groups from Jonestown, all the way to Amazon, cult of Amazon if you will. We can talk about that more later, but you gather around the circle and you basically have to subject yourself to vicious personal criticism by your peers.
[00:17:36] Jordan Harbinger: Like North Korea style.
[00:17:37] Amanda Montell: I'm no expert in North Korea, but yeah, yeah.
[00:17:41] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:17:41] Amanda Montell: And you would like single out, you know, someone in the circle and you would be like, "Hey Jordan, you son of a bitch. You're so lazy. I see you like moping around. Don't you know how lucky you are to be here? You better get your sh*t. And there was all of this like special terminology that they would use in Synanon to create that sense of solidarity and to shut down independent thinking. There was this phrase "act as if" that was this imperative, that if someone wanted to question one of the leader, Chuck Dederich's rules or protocols, you would just tell them "act as if" which meant act as if you believe in this until you do because eventually, you will.
[00:18:20] And so I was really fascinated to hear about all of this terminology and that kind of planted the seed of my fascination with cults and cultish language.
[00:18:28] Jordan Harbinger: The language is so crucial to the existence of a cult. You write about this. This is the focus of the book, but language obscures truth, it enhances bias. And, you know, you can really tell when somebody is in some sort of culty thing because it's almost like they can no longer talk without using that language. Have you ever heard? I had a couple of friends of mine and they were obsessed with Landmark at the time and they would argue about things. And I'm just like, "What are you talking about?" "You're trying to make me wrong about making you wrong. And now you're on this dah, dah, dah." And I'm like, "Is this English? What is even going on?"
[00:19:00] Amanda Montell: Yeah.
[00:19:00] Jordan Harbinger: And I asked my friend, I'm like, "Robbie, what are you talking about with Alison?" He's like, "Oh, we went to Landmark. And so like being wrong—" And then he's explaining all this stuff and I'm like, "But it's just as meaningless as anything else because now you're just arguing over semantic definitions instead of the problem that you guys were having." And he's like, "Yeah, it's not very helpful."
[00:19:19] Amanda Montell: Totally. I mean, one of the things that cultish rhetoric, you know the special buzzwords and labels does is it's not saying anything that can't be said in plain English. It has these ulterior motives just to make you feel this sense of elitism. Like who does it remember learning pig Latin on the playground as a child and instantly feeling superior to all the kids who couldn't speak it? You feel like you're doing something right in life, you feel like you're not only intellectually superior but morally superior.
[00:19:48] And so when a cult gives you a new name that helps you shed your identity. When they give you a set of buzzwords that no one else can understand, now all of a sudden you have that sense of belonging. When they use phrases, like act as if, which is a thought-terminating cliche. This is a cultish language technique that I talk about in the book that causes you to stop thinking for yourself as critically. And there's so many things that cultish language does that are essential for the power of a cult leader. But because we take language for granted because it's invisible and we grew up with phrases like, "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you," we often don't stop to consider how powerful it can really be.
[00:20:30] Jordan Harbinger: Language is, I believe you wrote this verbatim in the book and I just didn't put quotes around it, but let me paraphrase so that I don't just take your language here. Language is so important because speech is the first thing we're willing to change about ourselves. And one of the last things we will let go. You want to talk like you're in the club and then after you're out of the club, maybe the habit dies hard. I don't know. Tell me about that.
[00:20:51] Amanda Montell: It's true. Yeah. I was touching on this a bit earlier, but let's say you go to an introductory meeting for something like Landmark or I don't know, some yoga group that one of your friends wanted you to come to and they ask you to repeat a chance. You know, odds are you do it. They're not asking you to shave your head or relocate anywhere. It's seemingly harmless. But slowly and perniciously a group can twist your understanding of the language that you've grown up speaking your whole life, such that you start to feel this really intense level of internal conflict.
[00:21:24] Something that a lot of cults, Scientology is one that comes to mind, will do is they'll take words that you thought you knew the definition of forever. You've been growing up speaking this language and they will slowly and deliberately warp them to give them a new cult-specific meaning.
[00:21:40] Actually, a great example that comes to mind is one of the first interviews I did for the book was with this woman who for a few years was a member of a group called 3HO, the Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization. It's a Kundalini yoga cult. Fun fact. They own Yogi Tea, the tea brand grocery store tea brand.
[00:21:56] Jordan Harbinger: Oh wow.
[00:21:56] Amanda Montell: We probably all have it sitting in our kitchens. So she explained to me that this was a new age cult and used a lot of phrases, like vibrations and Piscean consciousness and whatnot. But one phrase that they used was old soul. Old soul to an average English speaker is almost a compliment. It means someone who's wise beyond their years, but in 3HO, it meant someone who had reincarnated life after life, afterlife and could never get it right, was still an old soul. And it could be framed as this threat. You could hang the sprays over someone's head as a way to manipulate their behavior, to control them. It's really a form of like linguistic gaslighting. When you cause someone to question the language that they've been using their whole entire life, and it's something that a lot of destructive cultish leaders take advantage of.
[00:22:43] Jordan Harbinger: Linguistic gaslighting, meaning maybe then you can't even speak into not being able to find the words you, then can't even find the words to describe something, because all those words that you would normally use to describe, maybe an abusive relationship, now mean totally different things. And they've been co-opted by the cult. So you have no way of even really explaining to yourself what's going on because none of it makes sense anymore.
[00:23:06] Amanda Montell: Totally. I mean, Scientology has all these courses. Well, the first ones you take are about like communication or ups and downs in life. They're really innocuous, at least they seem so. And then as you go on in Scientology, you've been in there for 10 years, you've invested half a million dollars in it, they get more and more extreme, and more and more ridiculous, and more and more monotonous. And I had an ex-Scientologist talked to me about how she took a course called key to life where you would basically like look up all the most minuscule words in the English language, conjunctions, prepositions, words like and, a, whatever. And you would make sure that you understood those words according to Scientology's specific definition. It was such a tedious thing, but it was considered quite prestigious because if you graduated from key to life, it meant that you were so loyal, so committed to Scientology that you were even willing to unpack your understanding of something is as simple as a preposition or conjunction. So, yeah, linguistic gaslighting, meaning they're causing you to doubt your very perception of reality, your variability to communicate in the way you've been communicating your whole life.
[00:24:15] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Amanda Montell. We'll be right back.
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[00:26:30] Now, back to Amanda Montell.
[00:26:34] I know that you grew up in a reformed Jewish synagogue, and I'm a Christmas tree Jew, meaning like, I didn't even know I was Jewish until I was a teenager. And I was like, cool, whatever Christmas is fine.
[00:26:43] Amanda Montell: Same.
[00:26:43] Jordan Harbinger: But like you ever look into Kabbalah where it's like, we're going to spend six months talking about the olive symbol and like what it means. And it's totally not just a letter, even though it kind of is, right? And so these ultra-Orthodox Jews or whatever will study the history of these letters or these symbols and like where they appear. And then they make patterns in the book if you have the right version of the book. And then that's like magical stuff, that's not just Torah. Like, it's all hidden meanings are in there. That's what that sounds like to me.
[00:27:13] Amanda Montell: Kabbalah xpert over here.
[00:27:15] Jordan Harbinger: No, I mean, look, I don't even know how to do Hanukkah.
[00:27:20] Amanda Montell: Kabbalah was one of other groups that ended up just kind of on the cutting room floor of cultish. Like there are truly thousands upon thousands of groups that could be considered cultish that I could have included in the book. I know Kabbalah as far as like Madonna was into it, but—
[00:27:35] Jordan Harbinger: I was like, maybe she's going to mention that. There you go.
[00:27:37] Amanda Montell: But something that you reminded me of just now is that — you know, now that so many young people are rejecting the religions that they grew up with. Some scholars, including a theologian named Tara Isabella Burton, have spoken about how our spirituality of today has become more remixed. So everybody kind of creates their own bespoke version of religion. So maybe like in the morning, you do a meditation app and in the afternoon you go to SoulCycle and in the evening you do like Shabbat with your friends that has kind of like a witchy aesthetic. You know, people are sort of playing fast and loose with what is considered religion these days, which I think can be quite positive. But you know, when you're putting spiritual stake in corporations and in groups that aren't vetted, it can always be risky, of course.
[00:28:25] Jordan Harbinger: This is almost a throwaway line in your book, but I love it. "The craving for belonging doesn't take someone broken or disturbed to take effect. We are wired for it." Like I said, it was just like one line in the book but I think it's such an important point because what you're saying is you're not joining a cult necessarily because you had a terrible childhood and you were a homeless teenager who got addicted to drugs. This can affect anyone. This scaffolding for these beliefs is language, which we all have and we all use, unless you're like a feral child, right? So language is the foundation of what we use to think. Therefore, we already have the programming, really the basic operating system that a cult needs to infect it.
[00:29:07] You don't have to be this insane person. You fall into it slowly like people do with Scientology or multilevel marketing. "Hey, I'm just selling protein, shakes...you're on a cruise ship talking about, "It works if you work it," or whatever slogans. And it's like, "How did I get here? How did I end up spending all this money? Why did I leave my husband to do this?" It doesn't make any sense.
[00:29:27] Amanda Montell: It's so true. I mean, there's so much to touch on there. I mean, the media, particularly media coverage of cults, like Jonestown and the Manson family murders, and more recently Nxivm would lead you to believe that people who wind up in cults are desperate, disturbed, intellectually deficient. And I went in believing those same things. You know, I went into—
[00:29:46] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:29:46] Amanda Montell: —this research thinking like, "I'm so skeptical. I'm better than these people—" Okay. Maybe not that extreme, but I definitely went in with my—
[00:29:53] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, you admit it.
[00:29:54] Amanda Montell: —preconceived notions. Well, I mean being the daughter of research scientists, you definitely think like, "Oh, I'm above all this."
[00:30:01] Jordan Harbinger: My dad's really smart. So, therefore, I am very smart. I get it. Yeah.
[00:30:05] Amanda Montell: I'm like, my daddy told me about you. Yeah.
[00:30:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:09] Amanda Montell: But when I got on the phone or the, so many of these sources, they struck me as incredibly bright, service oriented, but like fatal flaw. The pattern that I saw from cult survivor to cult survivor was not desperation. If anything, it was optimism. It was this overabundance of idealism and faith. That solution to the world's most urgent problems, whether that'd be poverty or racism or addiction or a mental health crisis, whatever it is, are able to be found. And you, by associating with this group or guru can be a part of that change. Like, "You're special. You believe in this, you have what it takes." Who among us would not want to hear something like that?
[00:30:52] And so then, of course, you know, media coverage will tell you like, oh, these were mine controlled. Communicants who like willingly took their own life or willingly got branded or whatever it is. But of course, nobody would sign up for a group out of the gate if that was what was presented from the jump. You're presented with what seems to be the promise of a better world. And you're exactly right. Like language is the fabric that makes up our very existence. Without language, there are no beliefs. There are no ideologies. There are no cults. So while a cult can look like a bunch of people on a compound wearing robes and with shaved heads are looking like the Amish or whatever it is, the linchpin is what it sounds like.
[00:31:35] Jordan Harbinger: Let's talk about some of the — I don't even know language concepts or am I even using the right terminology here? Now, you got me in my head about language. Things like code switching, right? Let's talk about what this is because a lot of cult leaders. Most notably in your book, Jim Jones used this a lot.
[00:31:51] Amanda Montell: Yeah, well, Jim Jones was a pretty diabolical practitioner of code switching. I mean, code switching is essentially using every linguistic resource available to you in order to communicate most effectively. So code switching might look like alternating between different dialects, different languages, different language varieties in general, in the space of a single sentence in the space of a conversation. And the stakes can be as low as like, "Oh, I hear you're from Chicago or whatever." I don't know where you're from. Where are you from? Where'd you grow up?
[00:32:22] Jordan Harbinger: Michigan.
[00:32:23] Amanda Montell: Michigan. Okay. Sure. So like, let's say, there are some like slang terms or whatever that everybody in Michigan uses and I hear you using them, or I hear — you're like, "Spread eval," or whatever. And I let's say I'm also from Michigan and I want to connect to you. So I slip into my Michigan accent, you know?
[00:32:40] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:32:40] Amanda Montell: That's sort of a low stakes form of code switching, but then code switching can also be as — the stakes can be as high as someone who speaks a marginalized dialect, like African-American English deciding to, or not even deciding because it's almost always subconscious, slipping into so-called standard English in order to access opportunity or avoid persecution, and so on.
[00:33:00] But Jim Jones used code switching in a much more Machiavellian way. He change his lexicon, according to what he knew, the person standing in front of him wanted to hear. So Jim Jones was able to appear to a variety of people from all different walks of life, including, you know, young, white, socialist, college graduates, but also middle age black women who were active in San Francisco's church scene. And so with them, he would use the sort of like familiar lilt of like a Baptist pastor. But with the like young white college grads, he would quote Nietzsche and he would like wax philosophical. And sometimes he would do that in a single sentence.
[00:33:42] I mean, I had a Jonestown survivor say to me once that he could quote the Bible and then turn around and preach socialism and because of innate biases that we as human beings already have, including confirmation bias or the penchant to seek out and hear and remember information that confirms what we already want to believe and to disregard information that controverts it. Because of biases like that, you hear what you want to hear and you tune out the rest. So that sort of defies some of the stereotypes that exist out there about what brainwashing is. You can't really coerce someone into believing something that they are on no level open to believing. You can just sort of radicalize and radicalize and radicalize from there with language.
[00:34:28] Jordan Harbinger: This stuff is so interesting. Looking at cults like Heaven's Gate, which I guess is like a '90s throwback cults. It's a little OG for Internet era.
[00:34:36] Amanda Montell: Yes.
[00:34:36] Jordan Harbinger: I think they made a bunch of money designing websites. Like that's kind of how I vaguely remember this. They had like a GeoCities website, which have you used the Internet in the nineties. You might know what that is. It was kind of like the equivalent of Squarespace or something like that way back then.
[00:34:50] Amanda Montell: Totally. You can still see the Heaven's Gate website like it's up and running. And it is like a cluster f*ck of Comic Sans. And it's, yeah—
[00:34:58] Jordan Harbinger: Things flashing.
[00:34:59] Amanda Montell: It's a throwback.
[00:35:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:35:00] Amanda Montell: Yes.
[00:35:01] Jordan Harbinger: And all the members changed their last names to some portmanteau of the leader's names, right? So it was like, you lose your identity by changing it and using the language of, "Oh, we're all a family, because we all have the same last name because we all changed it, and that's how we refer to each other." So it's just like an extra step of removing the person you were before you joined the suicide cult.
[00:35:24] Amanda Montell: Right. So in Heaven's Gate, everybody would drop the name that they had before and pick a new name, and they all have the same suffix, which was Ody. So there was like Andody, Sildody, Chkody, and something that Ody was right. This portmanteau of Ti and Do, which were the names of the two leaders of Heaven's Gate. But yeah, I mean, a lot of monastic religions will give you a new religious name to represent your new identity. And that's done in a lot of groups, not just religious ones, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a massive red flag. But it does represent the sort of shedding of your old identity and assuming of a new one. And in combination with other language tactics, you can start to put together a picture of, okay, this is a little too cultish for comfort.
[00:36:09] Some other fun language, things that Heaven's Gate would do fun was, obviously this was like this sort of Sci-Fi cults in the '90s when digital technology was up and coming and was presenting potential answers to the world's oldest questions. That is the language that Marshall Applewhite, who was the final leader of Heaven's Gate would use. And so in Heaven's Gate, the kitchen was called the nutri-lab and the laundry room was called the fiber-lab. And if you were in the mansion where everybody lived, that was referred to as in craft, but if you were out in the real secular world that was called out of craft. And so that language was not just gobbledygook, it was doing a real religious work. It was putting members in this rhetorical headspace, where they could envision themselves on the spacecraft heading toward the Kingdom of God, which is where they want it to be.
[00:36:58] Jordan Harbinger: It also completely makes sense to rename people, right? It builds other bonds with the people in the in-group and it breaks the bonds of people on the out-group. I mean, look at nicknames, I guess like the foxiest way to lose your identity in a dangerous cult, but really like, you know, you're on a sports team and you start calling somebody by a nickname. Only the team uses it. The guy's got a different name inside his house with his family, but then like the teachers call him by a totally different name. So he's got almost like separate identities. He's Bubba at home and he's like Captain D on the football field and at school he's Russell, right? And that's a real example from my best friend in high school. And he was like different people. You know his mama's boy at home. At school, he was whatever. And on the football team, he was an animal and it really worked well. And I can see why you'd want to do this.
[00:37:44] Amanda Montell: Football is so culty.
[00:37:46] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, football is culty. That's for sure. I mean, even high school football is culty.
[00:37:50] Amanda Montell: College football, especially, I mean the rituals and prayers, and so many college groups are just the like classic definition of a cult. It's just that they are culturally accepted one.
[00:38:01] Jordan Harbinger: Right. That's true. Yeah, because they make a lot of money for a lot of different people and it's popular widely, even the aspects that are not culty. Right? You can sort of indulge in football without being in the cult part. And I don't know if that's true for a lot of cults. I mean, maybe it is. I suppose you could always sell Herbalife without being a part of all the other stuff, but that's certainly not what they encourage you to do.
[00:38:23] Amanda Montell: Yeah. That's why all these groups belong on this spectrum, right? Like there's no such thing as this is a good cult. That's a bad cult or this is definitely a cult. That's not. So many of the scholars that I spoke to for this book disagreed slightly about what constituted a cult or even refuse to use the word altogether because it's so judgment loaded. It's so subjective. Cultural normativity has so much to do with what's considered a cult versus a better accepted religion versus another kind of tightly bound group. Some scholars will say alternative religion or marginalized religion in order to seem less judgy. But while those terms, I think, work in more of an academic setting, I kind of just like to say cultish. Oh, that's cultish.
[00:39:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I suppose that makes sense. Euphemisms is another technique. And the example of this that comes to mind, of course, speaking of communists, is re-education, right? We don't say it's a torture camp or a hard labor camp. We say, "We're going to reeducate you." China's doing it right now with the Uyghurs. And it's like, "Oh, we have to teach you why our system is really great by making you do tedious things over and over. And removing your identity and maybe pulling out your fingernails if you don't do what we want in the way we want you to do it." You know, that kind of stuff you hear about it with North Korea as well.
[00:39:34] And you see these used these types of euphemisms use to gloss over — it's almost like the same thing with a gaslighting, right? It's used to gloss over terms that might be that we want to avoid, but also it helps redefine things in ways so that we can't use the word for anything else.
[00:39:51] Amanda Montell: Totally. I mean, when we think of extreme groups like Jonestown and Heaven's Gate, we know about their tragic codas. We know about the suicides. But the people who joined those groups did not join thinking their experience would end in death. They joined thinking their experience would end in transcendence or a better world. And then as the leaders became more powerful and more radical and more power-hungry, the ideology changed and that's a lot of what you see from cult to cult. Like they start out with one belief system and then the language is so vague that it's easy enough to switch the rules, to break the rules, to move the ideology, according to whatever's convenient for the leader.
[00:40:34] So for Heaven's Gaters, like I remember I talked to a Heaven's Gate survivor named Frank Lyford, who ended up leaving long before the suicide. But when he joined, like transitioning to the next evolutionary level above human, which was one of the euphemisms that they would use, for in the end death, that didn't require you exiting your vehicle as they would call it. That didn't mean killing your earthly body. It could be done while you were still in your body, but then over time, Marshall Applewhite decided, "No, we need to exit our vehicles, which, you know, this is the euphemism. "We need to get rid of our earthly bodies so that we can transcend," or whatever. And because the language was so euphemistic and lofty, that ideology was able to change more easily.
[00:41:20] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that certainly makes sense because if I'm sitting there and it goes, "You know, I've decided to make a quick change. We're no longer just going to meditate a lot. We have to kill ourselves." I'm like, "Oh, okay. What? Say that again. I'm out." But if it's like, "We have to exit our vehicle." I'm like, "Oh, okay. What does that mean? Shed preexisting beliefs?" And then over a period of years, I'm like, "Oh, we're just going to leave our bodies behind." "I get it now." But if he's like, "We have to kill — you have to drink cyanide." I'm like, "Okay. You know, I came here to make websites. I'm leaving."
[00:41:48] Amanda Montell: Yeah. Yeah. And oftentimes like the leaders at the top, we think of them as these like evil masterminds who had a grand plan the entire time. But oftentimes they're just spitballing. They're just following the power as it comes and making it up as they go along. Even someone like Jim Jones, I mean, I think he was like slightly smarter and better read than someone like Marshall Applewhite, the leader of Heaven's Gate, but what's the use of comparing the intelligence? These are like terrible people.
[00:42:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:42:13] Amanda Montell: But Jonestown started out as an integrationist church. Like it started out with these like really pure intentions, and then evolved into this like sociopolitical movement. Then they moved to South America and, you know, it's spun completely out of control. But no cult starts out saying like, "This is what we're going to do. We're being very clear." If a cult does start out that way, that probably means it's like a more ethical cult it and you should feel free to keep going.
[00:42:40] Jordan Harbinger: For people who don't know, by the way, probably should've done this earlier, but Jonestown started as a sociopolitical mover, at least, like you said, a church in the United States, sociopolitical movement. It started getting a lot of heat from, I think, Congress or something like that, or maybe that came later, but they moved down to, was it Belize or Bolivia?
[00:42:56] Amanda Montell: It was Guyana.
[00:42:58] Jordan Harbinger: Guyana. Okay. Move down to Guyana. And then they created their church/camp down there. And then, they started getting more and more heat from the US government, a Senator, I think flew down there. They murdered him because he was like, "What the hell is this? I'm going back. And I'm coming back with the Marines," or something like that. Right? He tried to take a few members back with him and they killed him because they wanted to avoid that. And then I think he realized, "Okay, we're going to get assaulted by the army at this point. Like step two is they're coming down for us." So he had everyone drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, right? Was that it? And that's where the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from.
[00:43:33] Amanda Montell: Yeah. And it actually wasn't even Kool-Aid it was a generic brand called Flavor Aid.
[00:43:38] Jordan Harbinger: It was Flavor Aid but nobody cares about Flavor Aid.
[00:43:40] Amanda Montell: Yeah.
[00:43:41] Jordan Harbinger: Sorry. Kool-Aid brand, suffering all these years.
[00:43:43] Amanda Montell: Yeah. No. Speaking of brands whose names have been sullied by cult tragedies, the Heaven's Gaters were all wearing these Nike Decades when they died. And so Nike was like, "Goddammit," and like immediately struck the style, like fold it from shelves because they were like, "This is sad PR."
[00:44:00] Jordan Harbinger: "We're selling this. Dammit."
[00:44:01] Amanda Montell: Yeah. But I have noticed that that style of black and white Nike is back oddly, I don't know if there's like some poetry there or some symbolism there, but yeah, right — when they moved down to South America, it became Jonestown down there. Life there sucks. Like the ground wasn't fertile. It was not the promised land that they were expecting, that they were promised. A lot of families were concerned about their loved ones who were down there and suffering. And so they put pressure on Congressman Ryan to go down and see what's going on. And Jim Jones, charismatic figure that he was, put on this whole show for Congressman Ryan and really tried to win him over. But I think, Jim Jones by then knew that they were screwed. Like they were bound to be found out.
[00:44:45] Congressman Ryan went to leave and some people tried to escape with him. Like a lot of people were profoundly unhappy there. We think of the Jonestown victims as these like brainwashed idiots who like lined up voluntarily and drank the Kool-Aid, but it was completely coerced. It was really a more of a murder. A lot of people tried to escape. But it was the sort of thing where it was like, "If you try to escape, we're going to kill you." Jim Jones had a military of his own. And so they opened fire. They shot a lot of people. A bunch of people died, including Congressman Ryan. And so by then, Jim Jones was like, "Okay, I'm going down. And if I'm going down, everybody's going down with me." And so he gathered everyone in the pavilion and he gave this speech that's incredibly eerie.
[00:45:26] You can listen to it. There's a recording of it. It's available online. It's called the Jonestown death tape. And you can hear this type of cultish language that he was preaching on the pulpit to, you know, try to create order, to try to prevent chaos. And he speaks very calmly and very euphemistically. He refers to death as the great translation, just a mere transition to the other side. He talks about how they had to kill themselves as a form of revolutionary suicide, which was a term co-opted by the Black Panthers that Jones then twisted to suit his own goals. Yeah, it was not at all the events that a lot of us grow up believing it was. Certainly, I thought, it was something completely different than what I discovered.
[00:46:08] Jordan Harbinger: Let's talk about thought-terminating cliches because these are everywhere. And people often don't even know that they're using them or that people are using them around them because they can kind of sneak in under the wire in a way. What are they, first of all?
[00:46:22] Amanda Montell: Yeah. Well, I mentioned one earlier "act as if," but a thought-terminating cliche, it's a phrase that was coined in the early '60s by a psychologist named Robert Jay Lifton. It describes a sort of stock expression that's easily memorized, easily repeated and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning. So scrutiny is obviously the enemy to any cultish group. Like they need to be able to have shut down people when they try to express pushback or dissent. And if you have a repertoire of these like zingy stock expressions that can end people's cognitive dissonance, that's going to be really helpful to you.
[00:46:56] So thought-terminating cliches can sound like, you know, dismissing a valid anxiety or doubt as a limiting belief. That's just a limiting belief. In multilevel marketing companies, they'll often say like, "Oh, well, if you can't sell all these products," these like nasty creams and leggings or whatever, "that's just a victim mindset. No, don't be a victim." Oh, another new age thought-terminating cliche that you will sometimes hear in QAnon circles is like, "Well, don't let yourself be ruled by fear." QAnon thought-terminating cliche, another one would be, "Trust the plan," or "Do your research."
[00:47:30] And thought-terminating cliches also show up in everyday life in the form of phrases like, "Well, boys will be boys," or, "It's all in God's plan."
[00:47:37] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:47:37] Amanda Montell: "It is what it is." And they're really compelling because it's work to think like it's work to have to reconcile two conflicting ideas in your mind. Like, "This is my family. I've been in this group," or, "I've subscribed to this idea for 10 years. I want to believe it's true. But at the same time, I have this instinct that something is wrong." If someone says, "Well, that's a victim mindset," or, "That's a limiting belief." You're like, "Okay." And it puts that cognitive dissonance to bed long enough that the person serving you that line can remain in power.
[00:48:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right. So it helps us alleviate that cognitive dissonance and also says essentially to our brain, "Hey, don't think about what's going to happen next," or, "Don't think about these potential consequences of the action that you just took." Like, "Hey, look, I realize you just spent the money you needed for food for your kids and rent on your monthly re-up of crappy hair products that you still can't sell, that you have a garage full of, but that's all part of the system you got to work the system," or like you said, "Don't be a victim."
[00:48:36] Amanda Montell: "A good system always works.
[00:48:38] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Yeah. "So if the system's not working, it's not the system, it's you." "Oh, okay. It must be I'm now I'm blaming myself." That's a slightly different concept as well, but it also helps redirect your thinking. We do use these kinds of things all the time. And it's really infuriating. Even our friends will use it, right? I know somebody who lost their job during COVID and now they're losing their house. And he wrote into our Feedback Friday, which is like our advice show and his friends are all, "Well, everything happens for a reason. This is part of what the universe has in store for you." And he's like, "No, I want to strangle you. I'm going through a hard time. Stop minimizing what I'm going through by being like, 'Well, the universe provides,' Does it? There are dying people on the streets in other countries. Did the universe provide for them? Maybe I just have some sh*t luck right now. And I'm screwed."
[00:49:24] Amanda Montell: Yeah, completely. I mean, even a phrase like, well, that person was just brainwashed can be a thought-terminating cliche in and of itself because it so easily allows you to write off that person to shut down conversation, to prevent it from moving forward. Yeah, these phrases show up all the time. And I think, especially online, they're in large part responsible for so many of the ideological schisms that we're seeing nowadays. There are just these buzzwords and thought-terminating cliches that shut down conversation.
[00:49:56] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Amanda Montell. We'll be right back.
[00:50:01] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help online therapy. A lot of you have written in saying, you're glad you made the decision to seek a therapist. Even I put it off for a long time myself, I came up with a million different reasons why I didn't need it or why it was just a huge thing for me. I was struggling, but eventually, I took the first step and it helped me tremendously better help makes it so easy from the privacy and convenience of your home. You can make appointments, do text, phone, video, all easily within the Better Help app. If you're not the type that can verbalize your thoughts and feelings easily, there's also a virtual journal in the app that you can add notes to whatever, and you can share sections with your therapist right there in the app. If you don't vibe with your therapist, you can also quickly and easily get matched with a new one until you match with a therapist that works for you. Take the first step by signing up. See why over two million people have used Better Help online therapy.
[00:50:49] Jen Harbinger: And our listeners get 10 percent off your first month at betterhelp.com/jordan. That's better-H-E-L-P.com/jordan.
[00:50:57] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored by Cuts Clothing. Are you tired of deciding what to wear for the day? The fewer decisions you have to make every day on rudimentary tasks like choosing our clothing, the more brainpower you have for more important decisions. Cuts Clothing has perfected men's shirts. You can throw one on and look great without ever thinking twice about it. Not all shirts are created equal. Cuts' shirts have a great fit and feel really comfortable on the body. Cuts make my favorite shirts and Henleys, not only because it's insanely soft, but it's also got the perfect thickness. I'm a sucker for the thickness of a garment. Who isn't? I also love that Cuts Clothing also has a simple, modern design. Great color options. They don't have distracting logos plastered all over them. And when I say it's really soft, I mean, it is made of superior fabric that's patented not to shrink, peel, or fade over time in the wash.
[00:51:39] Jen Harbinger: Join hundreds of thousands of guys who have made the simple decision to elevate their wardrobe with Cuts. Get 15 percent off your first order by going to cutsclothing.com/jordan. That's C-U-T-S-clothing.com/jordan for 15 percent off. The only shirt worth wearing.
[00:51:55] Jordan Harbinger: By the way, you can now rate the show if you're listening to us on Spotify. That is a huge help. It makes the show more visible search for us in your Spotify app, click the dots on the upper right, and make it happen.
[00:52:04] Now, for the rest of my conversation with Amanda Montell.
[00:52:08] Asking for more information, essentially it's like kryptonite to a power abuser or a cult leader. So they have to use these cliches to shut it down. I think Jim Jones, his thing was like, "Well, it's all the media's fault," which is funny because where have we heard that recently, right? That's everywhere.
[00:52:23] Amanda Montell: Yeah. Does that sound familiar? Oh, that's a classic. That's a classic. Like people have been blaming the media since the invention of the media. You know what I mean?
[00:52:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yes.
[00:52:32] Amanda Montell: Classic.
[00:52:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I mean, Hitler did it, right? Hitler was like, "Oh, it's the media trying to whip everyone up." "Really? It's not the guy who's got brown shirts running around breaking Jewish businesses' windows? It's the media." "Okay, whatever." The voice of God concept, I found kind of interesting, that like middle-aged white males have this inbuilt authority, even if they're pseudo-intellectual buffoons, like Billy McFarland of Fyre Fest, Jim Jones, Jordan Harbinger. Not that I'm as persuasive as Jim Jones.
[00:53:01] Amanda Montell: Yeah. You're putting yourself in quite the company there.
[00:53:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I know. I'm fanning myself right now. Like, well, well, you know, go on.
[00:53:09] Amanda Montell: Yeah.
[00:53:09] Jordan Harbinger: This is kind of an interesting concept that I'd never thought of, but I suppose that there is an element of truth to that, right? Where I'm thinking about like my teachers and the voices of authority in my own life. We're kind of all that guy.
[00:53:21] Amanda Montell: Yeah. I mean, we give people the power that we've been conditioned to think they deserve. And what have we been conditioned to think the sound of authority is it's the voice of like a Walter Cronkite. It's the voice of these white men that have held positions of power for so long. We hear the voice of like a young woman, a young woman of color. We think there is an inherent, like ditziness or lack of authority attributed to their voice. But it also depends on the context. So, you know, a lot of these sociopolitical cults and religious cults are helmed by white men. I mean, I sometimes joke that like Jim Jones, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, they could all be like identical twins. They just all look same and sound the same.
[00:54:10] But let's say we're talking about like a wellness cult or a new age cult it or a yoga cult. Well, what's the type of authority figure that we've been conditioned to trust in that space? That's someone more like Teal Swan, like a Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike. The voices that we've been conditioned over years and years and years to cue the signal of authority in our minds are the ones that we're going to automatically trust. Whether they're talking about God or government or whatever we think they have the inherent right to talk about.
[00:54:40] Jordan Harbinger: Let's talk about MLMs a little bit. I don't want to focus too much on it because I am going to do a big exposé with Robert Fitzpatrick, who's like the MLM guy, but MLMs are so interesting to me. They always kind of have been because they prey on certain groups, like women or immigrants more because there's an often like an element of vulnerability or at least economic vulnerability. Like, "You're an immigrant. You want to get ahead? You're a woman. Maybe your husband works. You're in the middle of America. You want to feel more valuable now that your kids are in college or you want to bring in a little extra income on the side?" And it's easy to recognize these people online because the groups themselves often look and sound the same, to your point.
[00:55:18] Well, when we were allowed out of the house, I went to an event and I saw this group that just looked, it looked like a meteor with a Forever 21 outlet on it, just hit a trailer park at 600 miles an hour. And these people were the result and it was like, they all look the same. And they were all like yelling and screaming and drunk. And I was like, "What is that?" And of course, one of them's like, "It's Color Street. We're a business." And I Googled it and I was like, "MLM, I knew it." And it's just like a snap-on nails business of some kind. And it was just the most obvious thing in the world. I forget what my question was, but go ahead and speak to that.
[00:55:52] Amanda Montell: No, no. Oh yeah, I'll speak to that. Actually, I had a similar experience like over the summer when COVID restrictions were letting up, one of my friends and I went to a winery in Orange County, which is like one of the headquarters of the MLM industry, the true headquarters is in Utah because MLMs and Mormonism go together like Mac & Cheese. But we were in Orange County, which I guess like a satellite headquarters for the MLM industry. And we were at this winery and yeah, and there were a bunch of like, you know, white women with the same hair extensions and like the wide brim hat and like the skinny jeans with the same ankle boots and the cardigan. And I was like, "What do you think they sell, doTerra or Arbonne?" And we were being silly and making fun of them, which isn't nice. And I don't make fun of them in the book, but you can't begrudge me that just during a direct—
[00:56:41] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:56:41] Amanda Montell: —interview, anyways—
[00:56:42] Jordan Harbinger: No. Fair.
[00:56:42] Amanda Montell: Yes. Ever since the dawn of the modern direct sales industry, MLMs, have always targeted, particularly non-working, like middle-class wives and mothers, but people who are locked out of the dignified labor market to some capacity, and it's pitched as this opportunity to make a full-time living from part-time work without ever having to leave your kids. Really like one of the first and biggest MLMs was Tupperware. And there was this woman named Brownie Wise, her real name who decided that the women who would be interested in buying this Tupperware would not only be a great customer base, but also a great sales force. She was one of the first people to really target them. And that's been the strategy the entire time. But the messaging changes though with the times.
[00:57:29] And so while in the 1940s and '50s, Tupperware was promised to be the best thing that happened to women since they got the vote, you know, the sort of pseudo-feminist message of that time. Now, you hear more of this pseudo-feminist commodified, feminist girl boss, boss babe rhetoric, and now in particular, you'll hear this rhetoric combined with talk of like natural beauty, holistic beauty, essential oils. Of course, since like wellness and conspiratorial thinking have overlapped in such a profound way. But yeah, the Venn diagram of like MLMs and QAnon and anti-vaxxers, I've actually literally made that Venn diagram. It's on my Instagram.
[00:58:07] Jordan Harbinger: What's your Instagram? I know you want to say if you're just being classy and not saying it. Go for it.
[00:58:13] Amanda Montell: No, I didn't mean to take us down this rabbit hole. It is amanda_montell, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, I am in the cult of Instagram. I'm trying to defect, pray for me.
[00:58:24] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, the only place to go is TikTok, which is worse. So maybe you should say—
[00:58:28] Amanda Montell: No, I don't know what to do.
[00:58:31] Jordan Harbinger: What kind of thought-terminating cliches do we see with MLMs? One I see all the time is, "It's not a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes are illegal." As if like no one does illegal things or illegal things aren't allowed to exist, or I would never do anything illegal. And it's like, I mean, it is a pyramid scheme, except for you have a product to cover up the fact that it's a pyramid scheme. The end.
[00:58:52] Amanda Montell: Yeah. No, that is a funny one, because if you take the logic, literally one step further, you'll discover that. Like, just because something is illegal doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Even if you don't know it's illegal or the thing that you're doing is illegal, it doesn't mean that you're not doing it.
[00:59:09] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:59:09] Amanda Montell: It's like when marijuana was illegal, what was I not smoking marijuana? No. Anyway, yes, that's a funny one. Another good one is, you know, "This isn't a pyramid scheme. Corporate jobs are the real pyramid scheme."
[00:59:21] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:59:22] Amanda Montell: And they'll like draw a pyramid and there'll be like employees, managers, CEO. That's a pyramid scheme. And it's like, that's just a buzz phrase. That's literally just a thought-terminating cliche. Because if you look up the math which is fairly easy to do in terms of all the math there is out there, you'll quickly find that if all of the promises that they've vehemently made about recruiting 10 people a month, and then those 10 people recruit 10 people a month. Then at the end of a year, you very well could be a millionaire as you were promised, but there would be over a trillion people in your downline. So like no, corporate jobs are problematic in many other ways, but they're not pyramids.
[01:00:05] Jordan Harbinger: Right. It's like in that case, everything with a hierarchy is a pyramid. So the military? That's a pyramid scheme. General on top, private on the bottom, riddle me that one, Jordan, right? Like it just doesn't make any sense when you break it into other examples that have hierarchies. Also the whole idea behind that they use the term like J-O-B, right? pejoratively. And they'll say, "Oh yeah, she's got a J-O-B." It's like, "Oh, you want to get away from that—" slash be totally dependent on this multilevel marketing thing for income. And it also sets up us-versus-them thinking where it's like, "Oh, all your friends who have J-O-B's. They're not in the cool kids club, they're still doing wage slave stuff." And I literally hear people say, use those terms, wage slave, they have a J-O-B. It's like pejorative, it's bad to have that. And it's like, "Well, wait a minute. So if I become totally dependent on the infrastructure that this MLM sets up, then you get a measure of approval from everyone else. Like you have to go all in."
[01:01:00] Amanda Montell: Yeah.
[01:01:00] Jordan Harbinger: Well, cool. Now you're screwed.
[01:01:02] Amanda Montell: Yeah, J-O-B. This is this term that Amway in particular will use. They'll say with disdain that anybody who works for an employer versus an upline has a J-O-B or a jack of a boss. And what they're selling is not an entrepreneurial opportunity. It's hope like this is the business of hope. And the promise is that this is not just a way to make money. This is a superior way of being in the world, like being involved with this company, which hacks, what? like soap, whatever it is. And the products are always garbage and don't fulfill a true market need and don't abide by any of the rules of economics. Now, by being involved with this company, "You'll not just become a millionaire in a year, but you'll become a better mother. You'll become a better member of your family. You might even serve God." A lot of these companies are religiously affiliated whether with Christianity or Mormonism. "You'll become a better American." I mean, they really do preach some measure of the prosperity gospel or, you know, the rhetoric that monetary blessings and heavenly blessings are inherently connected. And so when the stakes are not just money, but you're standing with God, that's when you know that this is not just your average scam, it's more cultish than that.
[01:02:14] Jordan Harbinger: Can we tell if our language is being taken over by, I don't know, work or cults, or whatever, like how do we figure out if these terms start to invade our vocabulary? Is it as simple as just paying more attention to what we say and do?
[01:02:27] Amanda Montell: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think having self-awareness is important. I think if a form of language cues, you to have a strong, emotional reaction will also cue in you to stop asking questions. If it makes you feel superior to everyone else in the world, just for the ability to speak it or use it, if it encourages you to talk like everyone else, just for the sake of it, to disengage from those on the outside, that's a form of language worth challenging. Obviously, like we crave this community, the sense of spirituality, but just to have that, like skeptical twinkle in the back of your brain, that tells you that there's some element of make-believe here.
[01:03:09] And at the end of the day, you should be able to strip off that group's linguistic uniform and return to an identity that is more complex than the ideology of just that group, just that guru, that's the best that we can do. And I've learned this lesson myself, like just throughout the process of writing this book. I have unfollowed with a lowercase F some certain influencers who were having too cultish in impact on the way that I think. Of course, now in the age of social media, you can follow something without following it.
[01:03:42] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:03:42] Amanda Montell: But yeah, just to not be so wary that you find yourself paranoid, but to be aware enough that you can keep yourself safe.
[01:03:52] Jordan Harbinger: So I wanted to highlight how it's not always harmful, right? Because I can learn new things and new terms for things and not be in a cult of that thing. And it's important to know the difference, right? It's different if you are using a new term or something that might even be like in groups language versus "I'm unable to function now because I can't talk outside of the Moonie cult," or, "I only use Scientology words now, and I can't even really form a coherent thought with a normal person." Then you're starting to run into problems if your entire pattern of thinking is taken over by that.
[01:04:25] Amanda Montell: We've been seeing this really sort of troubling, bastardizing of science language recently online and a lot of new-age terminology for decades has always used phrases like frequency and vibration. I mean, those are technically physics terms to talk about spirituality but science has already like under threat these days. And so when you have so many of these influencers who really even like we'll work the definition of the word research, like research to a lot of people online does not mean reviewing like peer-reviewed studies and doing their due diligence, which granted like is hard.
[01:05:01] We can't all be expected to do a PhD level worth of research every time we want to learn something new. But when you suggest that research is just going down a confirmation bias rabbit hole on Reddit or YouTube, providing fantasy explanations to things in the world that feel unexplainable, that is a problem. And that's what I see influencers doing. And the problem with these people being influencers and not sort of like in-person doctor quacks is that there's nothing to hold them accountable. I mean, you don't need any credentials to practice as an influencer, which is troubling.
[01:05:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I'm looking at my influencer degree over there and I think I might've got scammed. And it's just shocking that people believe this, but I guess, you know, when you take voice of God, throw a PhD on there that doesn't exist, and then act like you know what you're doing and start selling seminars. And then you add in like, "Look how many YouTube views I've gotten." It's like, well, of course, this guy must know what he's talking about even if it's complete nonsense. And that's where this stuff gets even more dangerous because these are people who are offering essentially medical advice. Like, look, if you get ripped off in an MLM, it sucks, but it probably won't ruin your physical health, long-term. This on the other hand—
[01:06:11] Amanda Montell: Oh my god, I don't know though, because in LuLaRoe, the leggings MLM, like they were getting gastric surgery for weight loss so that they could better—
[01:06:20] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, true.
[01:06:21] Amanda Montell: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot at stake, but I think you're right. You know, with these sort of like doctor death types. They're not influencers who are selling you maybe an ineffectual eye cream, or like a poorly made shirt. Like they're selling you your soul back to you. And I'm particularly concerned with those who claim to be mental health authorities, because completely pair of socially, having never met the people that they're influencing, they're able to convince them to go off their medication. And, you know, it makes sense that we're gravitating toward people like this during a time when we have so little trust in the healthcare system when there is so much panic surrounding our health and wellness when accessing mental health care is more difficult and more expensive than ever. It really makes sense that this is like the perfect breeding ground for these pernicious figures to take advantage.
[01:07:07] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, you mentioned in your book that, I'm going to butcher this, but like low education folks often will believe in ghosts and other superstitions and higher educated folks are actually more likely to believe new-age nonsense. And I think as Michael Shermer, episode 492 of this show, said something along the lines of smart people are better at defending beliefs that they've come to for non-smart reasons.
[01:07:29] Amanda Montell: Yes. I love that quote and it's true, you know, again, I think out of self-protection or superciliousness or whatever we tell ourselves, like, "Oh, only idiots would believe X, Y, and Z."
[01:07:40] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:07:40] Amanda Montell: And while studies have found that, you know, there is a correlation between your level of education, your literacy with the scientific method, and the type of not smart belief you might hold, we all believe irrational things. I mean, who comes to any decision in life by making a big pros and cons list or consulting a bunch of textbooks. Like that's just simply not how human beings make decisions. Like we have limited time on earth. We take these mental shortcuts. We make decisions based on experiences, based on irrational things. And that's okay, that is human. But in this like ever complicating and ever cultish world, we just need to think a little bit more slowly as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman might say, but I really like this. The fact that I learned while researching the book that when given personality tests, some of our smartest minds in recent history, like the astronomer Carl Sagan will score off the charts in both conscientiousness and open-mindedness.
[01:08:41] So Carl Sagan was a person who was open-minded enough that in the 1970s, when extraterrestrial life was considered like a totally wacky conspiratorial idea, he thought, "No, I can acknowledge that. That might be possible," but he was not so open-minded that he would consider that UFO's had already landed and were like controlling our behavior. So I think having that balance is really important because being too skeptical, being too paranoid can stymie progress and can also, I don't know, cause you to die alone.
[01:09:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Well, you just nailed the ending, I think stuck the landing because I was going to ask you how we balance a healthy skepticism without becoming a total misanthrope who doesn't trust anyone, even when we should really be open to new ways of thinking. And I was going to use a Carl Sagan quote, which is, "How do we be open-minded but not so open-minded that our brain falls out," but there we go. You beat me to the punch.
[01:09:37] Amanda Montell: Yeah. There's no perfect answer. It is a sort of like day-to-day tango, but this is the ride that we're on this earth. Like no one has the answers to everything. We can just do our best to negotiate, like head and heart day-to-day.
[01:09:53] Jordan Harbinger: Amanda Montell, thank you so much.
[01:09:55] Amanda Montell: Thank you for having me.
[01:09:57] Jordan Harbinger: I've got some thoughts on this episode, but before I get into that, here's what you should check out next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:10:03] Matthew Schrier: Boom. This silver Jeep Cherokee just cuts across from the oncoming lane and forces us to a stop. The doors popped open and they got out. The guy in the front seat, cloaked head to toe in black, he had an AK in his hand. Dude in the back seat, just this puck face guy, sweater with a chrome pistol in his hand, they jumped out and I knew exactly what was going on.
[01:10:22] I was just like in shock. Dude in the black came over, opened the cab door. Picks me out, leads me up to the Cherokee, puts me in the back seat. He gets in after me. I looked at him. He reaches up. He pulls the ski cap I was wearing. It's cold in Syria, it's December, this is new year's Eve. He pulls it over my eyes and leads me forward and presses the barrel of the rifle to my head. And we took off a couple of seconds later.
[01:10:45] I just still didn't know who had me. So you know, the way to figure out who has me was I asked for a cigarette because like pretty much everyone in the Free Syrian Army smokes and anyone in the gang will smoke. And when they told me I can't smoke, that's when I knew I was really deep trouble with the Al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda.
[01:11:00] And they bring me up to hall into the boiler. And that's where they torture people. There's kids everywhere. There's a guy hanging from a pipe by handcuffs. They sit me down with my knees, bent up to my chin and they forced a car tire around your knees. And they take an iron rod and they slide it over the tire but under your knees and the crook, and that locks it into place. And then they flip you over on your stomach. So you're cuffed and your feet are in the air and you can't move and they take this thick cable and that's what they use. They start wailing on the bottom your feet.
[01:11:37] Let me tell you something. It freaking hurts. And I got 115. That was the beginning of our punishment.
[01:11:51] What are you out of your mind? We're trying to escape from a terrorist prison here. We have more to worry about getting your arm jammed between a rock and a hard place for 127 hours. And he's like, "Well, I never saw that movie." And I was just like, "Ahhhh!"
[01:12:03] Jordan Harbinger: To hear about how Matthew survived captivity and escaped being held hostage by Al-Qaeda in Syria, check out episode 217 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:12:14] As we covered in the show, secular cults now are just so much easier to find because of the Internet. So for better or for worse, it is much easier to find our group now, even if our group is a bunch of, I don't know, controlling, damaged weirdos, so have added folks.
[01:12:29] Now, QAnon is an interesting phenomenon. We didn't really touch on this too much, but QAnon, as we've done shows about this before with Steven Hassan and other cult experts. They change code words a lot. And part of that, part of changing the language is to confuse moderation and social media companies. But it also results in a weird phenomenon, kind of like cult-ception where there's cults within cults because the language keeps changing. And one crew is using these words and one crew was using different words.
[01:12:55] Of course, with QAnon the plot is completely tired and goes back to cults since the dawn of time. Most people who believe in stuff like QAnon are, of course, ignorant of history. Surprise, surprise. And a lot of Q lore is lifted from old books and OG conspiracy theories, like the blood libel and a lot of thought-terminating cliches, like Amanda mentioned, are also very common in QAnon circles, right? You go after somebody or somebody goes after you more likely, and they go, "Do your research," or, "Trust the plan," or, "All the regular mainstream media is propaganda," because they can't answer your arguments and they won't answer your arguments. So it really encourages a bunch of confirmation bias. This is the same cult-like nonsense that happens in any other cult. Q thinks they're different. They're not.
[01:13:37] Also most cults, again, Q included, they use vague language to also help aid confirmation bias. This is called the Barnum effect. Our minds essentially fill in blanks with what we want to hear or see, or with personal examples. And this is one reason why people think psychics work because you'll get this vague statement and you'll say, "Huh? I did recently part ways with somebody important to me," and you're filling in the blanks. They didn't guess it. They said something random and vague and you're finding meaning in it. We are meaning machines, pattern-recognizing machines as humans.
[01:14:08] Now, in this episode, I didn't want to spend too much time on Scientology. I've done a bunch of shows on cults before one specifically on Scientology with Leah Remini. We'll link to that in the show notes, the episode is 485 and you could always go to jordanharbinger.com/485 if you want to get into that. Scientology is also really great with the language, right? They tell you that it's going to help you in Hollywood. In fact, it might actually help you in Hollywood. They name people who are outsiders, suppressive persons, right? They want to isolate you from others who have criticized Scientology especially.
[01:14:38] Amanda also mentioned the exercise of word clearing in Scientology. We touched on it. It's in the book. This is where you redefine just about every word in the English language. It keeps you from questioning anything in the future because it takes so much time. It's exhausting. It is expensive. Of course, Scientology is very expensive. It ends up not being worth it. It's humiliating, not to mention confusing by design. So what this causes you to do is not educate yourself on the meaning of the words. What it causes you to do is not to question anything that you're reading or learning, which is kind of brilliant in its own devious way.
[01:15:10] I also didn't want to spend too much time on multilevel marketing scams specifically because I'm doing an episode on them as well with Robert Fitzpatrick. We can of course see the cult overlap in our discussion here, especially with respect to the use of language. I really enjoy learning about cults. Of course, I enjoyed this episode as well.
[01:15:26] Links to all things Amanda Montell will be in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com. Please use our website links if you buy books from any guest on the show. It does help support this program. Transcripts are in the show notes. There's a video of this interview going up on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on Twitter and Instagram or connect with me on LinkedIn. I love talking with you anywhere and everywhere.
[01:15:49] Speaking of connecting, I'm teaching you how to do just that in our Six-Minute Networking course, the course is free. jordanharbinger.com/course is where you can find it. I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty and create relationships before you need them. Most of the guests you hear on the show subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[01:16:09] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's into language or, you know, into cults, share this episode with them. I hope you find something great in every episode of the show. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show. So you can live what you listen and we'll see you next time.
[01:16:44] This episode is sponsored in part by My First Million podcast. If you're the type of person who is always thinking about new business ideas or wondering what's the next side hustle I could spin up, check out the podcast, My First Million. The hosts, Sam Parr and Shaan Puri have each built eight-figure businesses and sold them to HubSpot and Amazon. Each week they brainstorm business ideas you can start tomorrow. These can be side hustles that make you a few grand a month or big billion-dollar ideas. A recent one I enjoyed was about the economics of book publishing with Ryan Holiday. Ryan has been on the show before he's written a ton of bestsellers, the guy's a powerhouse. Another episode was about a broke gym owner who went to a hundred million dollars in net worth. The stories are great. They're not sort of get rich quick they're actual business profiles. They also chat with founders, celebrities, and billionaires, and get them to open up about business ideas that they've never shared before. Search for My First Million, that's My First Million on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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