How Cultish Language Shuts Down Conversation in DEIB

With the back of her hand, Alida holds a red, black, white, and gold necklace blessed by a Santero and honoring the West African orisha Eleggua.
Photo by Tembo Tones

am obsessed with cults.

This is the part where you ask: Well, how obsessed are you, Alida?

I listened to two different podcasts about NXIVM while I watched both docuseries about it — The Vow on HBO and Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult on STARZ. I feverishly read every news story about the ongoing trials and sentencing of various high-profile leaders and members. During the peak of my NXIVM phase, I spent anywhere from three to four hours a day immersing myself in every detail of NXIVM’s organizational structure, membership, funding, and more obscure or occult beliefs.

And NXIVM was just a new link in a long-existing chain for me. I have read dozens if not hundreds of exposés on Scientology, Bikram yoga, Shambhala Buddhism, and how multi-level marketing companies use the language of prosperity gospel to “convert” recruits.

I recognize this isn’t unique to me. Americans, in particular, love learning about, engaging with, and denouncing cults. Since the 1960s, when various counterculture movements sought out to reimagine a different way of life, cults have been part of our culture beyond the religious movements they were first associated with, encompassing everything from startups and fitness brands to doomsday communes.

The relationship between cults and culture is where my fascination stems from. Look at the etymologies of the words (as Amanda Motell does better than I will here in her excellent linguistic analysis of American cults, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism), and you can see that they are invariably connected.

Cults and Culture

“Cult,” in fact, is the root word of “culture.” Originally meaning a system of worship, the word “cult” evolved to mean devoted attention to a particular person or thing. When we talk about culture, especially organizational culture, we often mean devoted attention to the company we participate in.

It used to be my motto that I existed to make the world more beautiful by helping people be kinder, smarter, and better to each other on teams (pretty cultish, am I right?). This came from an intense interest in group dynamics. The extremes of belief, devotion, mores and expected behaviors in cults can help us understand everyday phenomena, which are happening in the same ways, just as smaller, perhaps less identifiable ways.

It’s worth noting that cults aren’t always sinister. Like most critical elements of human systems, they exist on a spectrum. The “cult following” behind movies like Office Space and Rocky Horror Picture Show can create a sense of community, support, and self-identification that benefits the “cult followers.” Soul Cycle can be the difference between feeling restless and movement-starved to energized and motivated to be in your physical body. Even the cultish behavior of some startups range from harmless (devotion to a cute animal mascot) to harmful (WeWork’s punishing hours and pressure to falsify numbers, Fyre Festival’s blind devotion to leaders with bad intentions, and even worse enactments of them).

In the world of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), the place I see the dark side of cultishness most starkly is how seemingly innocuous, “common sense” language can be used to silence even minor forms of dissent and disagreement. When I see hashtags like #NotAllMen and #AllLivesMatter, I do not see counterarguments, but instead, thought-terminating clichés.

Thought-Terminating Clichés

A red stop sign is attached to a black street pole with a city view showing in the background.
A red stop sign is attached to a black street pole with a city view showing in the background.
Photo by John Matychuk on Unsplash

The term “thought-terminating cliché” gained popularity in the 1960s. The psychiatrist and psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton referred to the term in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, which explored the psychology of mind control, especially in the political context of Communist China. The simple idea behind though-terminating clichés, sometimes called semantic stop-signs or thought-stoppers, is that they are a kind of language used to suppress dissent and end discussion.

In her framing of thought-terminating clichés, writer and linguistic theorist Amanda Montell likens them to verbal sedatives. They cause the person on the receiving end to slow or suspend their critical thinking, usually in a context where the consequence of continuing to push forward would lead to painful social rejection.

Common examples of thought-terminating clichés are: “Here we go again,” “It is what it is,” “Boys will be boys,” and “Maybe take that offline.” Context matters in these situations, of course, but ultimately, they all share traits in common. When used as thought-terminating clichés, they counter an argument with a block — whether it’s suggesting that engaging in the discussion will be part of a pointless cycle that you are initiating to implying that the situation cannot be changed and therefore cannot be discussed to stopping the conversation altogether under the bad faith auspices that you have to think on your own.

Let’s consider a thought-terminating cliché in a workplace DEIB context.

For example, say you are on a hiring team with a colleague, evaluating candidates. Your colleague suggests taking a qualified candidate out of the running, suggesting that she won’t be able to meet the role’s stringent travel requirements as a single mom. You know that this candidate has never brought up not being able to travel, and when you ask for an example, your colleague cannot provide one. Knowing that you are witnessing bias and potential discrimination based on caregiver status and potentially gender identity, you challenge your colleague and name the bias. Your colleague replies, “Here we go again.”

Now, you start using thought-terminating clichés on yourself. By using a broad cliché as their means of counterargument, they may stop your thought by suggesting that you are in a redundant or cyclical argument with no end that is pointless. Instead of questioning themselves, you are questioning yourself. Are you just making something out of nothing? Are you making mountains out of molehills? Being too negative?

The thing is, you weren’t. You wanted to engage in an honest discussion about hiring bias and discrimination in a situation that, by all accounts — minimizing hiring bias, giving a candidate a fair shot, not losing out on an opportunity to bring on a talented new team member, and even protecting the company legally — wasn’t pointless, cyclical, or necessarily in keeping with an implied suggestion that you “stir up trouble” with no purpose other than to do so.

How Cultish Language Shows Up in DEIB at Work

I am here to say this happens all the time.

Many of the participants in my “Unpacking Hidden Bias” workshops will recognize the following real-life example.

I shadowed a teamwide check-in where folks were prompted to share how they were feeling at the height of the COVID lockdown. A person on the team I hadn’t interacted with said that being a person with a disability during COVID-19 had carried a unique weight. Another person I also didn’t know responded by saying, “We’re all struggling. This is a human problem. We’re all affected by this.”

In the workshop, we break out into small groups and discuss how to respond. Before we do, I ask folks to take a moment to check in with themselves and ask how they would respond if they were on the receiving end of that comment and if they were in the room when it was happening. I encourage them to come up with their most honest answer, even if they think there is a “right” one. When I poll folks, about half tend to admit that they would feel stumped and not say anything.

That is what happens to many of us when faced with a verbal sedative.

While I generally don’t talk about thought-terminating clichés when we work through other options for showing up as an ally for the person being shut down in the situation, simply the steps of coming to action are part of training to spot and respond to them.

I genuinely believe there are multiple right answers in this situation. I also know what I said and did and how both relate to reopening a conversation shut down by cultish language.

  1. I started by taking a breath and asking what was happening. We were just about to start a conversation about disability, and then suddenly, the topic was shut down. Why? What led to this shift?
  2. As I collected my thoughts, I recognized the coded language of “This is a human problem,” which lives in my DEIB textbooks on microaggressions in multiple examples and also rings alarm bells for me as a thought-terminating cliché. It sounds right at face value, but it doesn’t address what the first speaker shared.
  3. I stepped into the discussion, and I said: “If I might jump in for a moment. I heard [REDACTED] say that COVID-19 has been uniquely hard for folks with disabilities, and they noted their own experience. First, thank you for your vulnerability and candor. Also, I would love for us to dig into that a little more, especially because the word ‘unique’ resonates with me. I also want to validate the experience of [REDACTED] and ask if you might be open to sharing the specific impact COVID-19 has had on you.”
  4. I facilitated a tense and quiet conversation, but a conversation on the subject at hand. In the process, I learned that the person who said “This is a human problem” both didn’t want to carry the weight of their colleagues’ experiences and felt at risk of being held accountable in some way as someone without a disability, but also was feeling neglected, underserved, and mistreated personally.

I don’t share this information because I want to justify their behavior. Instead, I want to call out that while there are mastermind cult leaders who use thought-terminating clichés intentionally to manipulate and control, many of us — myself included — can use them without noticing.

What to Do When Faced with Thought-Terminating Clichés

I believe the best way to respond to a thought-terminating cliché, whether your own or someone else’s, is to pause and ask whether your statement is a response to what they’ve said that invites dialogue or a stop sign indicating that the subject must be dropped. If the cliché has already come into use, you have options.

In the example above, my response was to reopen the conversation and positively advocate for the person who was shut down by affirming and validating the original thought. I tried to create a sense of mutuality by inviting the thought terminator to share a deeper perspective.

I want to clarify that part of being able to intervene in this way came from feeling safe in my position as a practitioner and authority figure in the room. I also have the implicit understanding that being a person with a disability during COVID-19 is a unique experience because it’s an experience I was having and still have today, so I was more sensitive to the thought-terminating cliché.

But what do you do if it’s you that’s shutting down the thought and conversation?

I caught myself in a thought-terminating cliché the other day. I was in a one-on-one meeting with my direct report. They were expressing frustration with a client. A note, dear reader — any negativity towards a client can bring out my cultish impulses. Specifically, we have a cultural dedication as a team to optimism. I find myself bristling at any perceived threat to that value if I am not careful and self-aware. My response to my direct report was, “Well, it is what it is.” This comment added nothing to the conversation and demonstrated my desire to disengage.

The good news is that my growing awareness of cultish language helped me realize about thirty seconds later what I had done. I said: “Hey, I know I’m the one who changed the subject, but I want to go back to what you were saying about the client. I want to apologize. ‘It is what it is’ is dismissive at best and disingenuous at worst because I can do something about it. Can we take a step back to why you’re frustrated so I can dig into potential solutions to the situation with you?”

Parting Words

You might not always be able to solve the situation. That might be why you shut the conversation down. But you can backtrack, apologize, acknowledge the other person’s point of view, and then let them finish their original thought.

We can stem the tide of negative cultishness in our workplaces, especially when it comes to DEIB, by remembering a few simple tenets — “start with why” and “always learn.”

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M O R E → Promising Young Woman

Teaching Love. Scaling Empathy. Founder & CEO of Ethos Talent. Executive Director of Embolden & Co. Program Director for 1871’s WIC Accelerator.