Gad Saad on Cancel Culture, Idea Pathogens and the Future of Discourse

Gad Saad's escape from Lebanon as an 11-year-old set the stage for a life that would eventually combine psychology, politics and scathing Twitter takedowns of his critics. A Canadian Lebanese evolutionary psychologist, professor, host of the YouTube show The Saad Truth and the author of a new book called The Parasitic Mind, Saad's main mission is to combat what he calls "idea pathogens," or omnipresent wokeness, by another name. Known to his fans affectionately as "the Gadfather," and often battling his critics on Twitter with a blend of satire and data, Saad first became interested in the work he's doing when he saw topics becoming taboo in his professional home in science.

He has since become something of a cultural icon in the world of the anti-woke, often receiving emails from people who feel they've been silenced in their lives, whether in the lab, the classroom or elsewhere.

Newsweek spoke with Saad about his new book, whether cancel culture really exists, the challenges posed by big tech and more in a recent Zoom interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Newsweek: Your background is really interesting. How does it influence your work?

Gad Saad: I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. We were part of the last group of Lebanese Jews who had steadfastly refused to leave Lebanon. But when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975—the Lebanese civil war is the standard by which all butchery is measured against—it became impossible to remain in Lebanon. So we were there for the first year of the civil war, and then luckily we were able to escape to Canada.

The most direct way it [shapes my work] is that it allowed me to see what happens to a society that is instantiating a perfect ethos of identity politics. In Lebanon, everything is defined by identity politics. In this case, it was your religious heritage. There's an internal card in Lebanon, which basically is like an internal passport that states, very prominently, your religion. And if you were Jewish, they didn't even write "Jewish," they wrote "Israelite." So it even creates greater animus against you, even though you've got nothing to do with Israel and you're Lebanese. So I saw what identity politics does to a society, and to now see it lauded as a wonderful way to organize society 45 years after I left Lebanon is quite disheartening.

There's a debate now about who is allowed to speak about what. Your background allows you, in a way, to speak to our current moment. But do you agree with the idea that you need to have experienced something in order to have an opinion on it?

No. People can analyze the Holocaust, even though they didn't go through it. Oncologists study cancer even though they've never suffered from it. On some matters, of course, your lived experience adds one data point to the total narrative. I think in my case, the fact that I do hold the highest hand in victimology poker, or the gold medal in oppression Olympics, makes it more difficult for the enemies of reason to use the woke calculus against me. And so I use that against them, in a somewhat sardonic way, but in a very effective way, because they don't actually listen to the veracity of your arguments. Instead, whoever has the greater victimhood wins, and the reality is it's going to be very tough for most people to defeat me. And so they end up losing using their grotesque calculus. And so in that sense, I am pleased to have had my lived experience because it allows me to defeat the idiots.

Gad Saad
Gad Saad’s escape from Lebanon as an 11-year-old set the stage for a life that would eventually combine psychology, politics and scathing Twitter takedowns of his critics.

On the whole, what are you trying to accomplish?

I'm trying to avoid that which has been tried in previous societies and failed. I'm trying to make people understand the anomalous reality that the West was able to create. I say "anomalous" because, in the history of human civilization, it's a complete outlier that we've had the types of societies that we're able to create in the West. This is not the default value. So to have found the magic recipe where freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and the scientific method and all the other wonderful things that the West has offered us, are allowed to flourish, and to now see it being thrown away under the cloak of the progressive robe is very galling to me. It upsets me, it angers me. I become righteously, I think, indignant. So I'm trying to offer people, if I may use the terms, a vaccine against the brain parasites that have absolutely infected the minds of Westerners.

Was there a specific moment that you decided to get into this? What was the thing that pushed you over the edge?

I guess it started in my scientific work. In my scientific work, I apply evolutionary psychology and the behavioral sciences in general, and in consumer behavior in particular. And for most social scientists, the idea that we would use biology to explain human behavior is really heretical. "Surely, Doctor Saad, you're not saying that the same mechanisms that explain the behavior of my dog and the zebra and the mosquito explain consumer behavior. That's grotesque, Doctor Saad." Of course that's silly, because we don't somehow exist outside of our biology. We don't exist in a supra plane, where our biological heritage ceased to matter or exist. And so I started seeing these tensions to view some ideas as heretical in my scientific world. "Don't discuss sex differences—that's sexist." "The fact that Arianna Grande bench presses less than the center for the Dallas Cowboys is only because her parents taught her to play gently with dolls and taught Bubba to really play aggressively with his blue truck." Surely you don't think there might be any hormonal physiological, anatomical, behavioral, differences across the two sexes. And so at first, I was bewildered by this. So it started by being something that was being fought only within the hallways of academia and the fancy peer-reviewed journals. But then the idea pathogens escaped and started infecting every nook and cranny of society. And so then I took my fight from the typical environment, which I fought in academia, and I started going public. And as my platform grew, my voice grew, and I took on more and more sacred cows.

Parasitic Mind Gad Saad

Do you think that, in the West, America's rightful embrace of civil rights, and anything that looks like civil rights, has led people to take on a lot of these ideologies?

In The Parasitic Mind, I have an entire chapter on thinking vs. feeling. It's a false dichotomy, which is why I refer to it as a form of epistemological dichotomania. To always try to create two mutually exclusive realities. We are either thinking animals or feeling animals. Well that's perfectly incorrect: We are both. What matters, as I explain, is when do you activate the right system? For example, when I'm walking down a dark alley and I see four young men who look suspicious and are loitering around, I'm going to get an affective-based response: My heart will start racing; my blood pressure will go up; I might start perspiring. That affective response makes perfect evolutionary sense. On the other hand, if I'm trying to solve a calculus problem, all of the affective response in the world is not going to help me solve that calculus problem. I need to trigger my cognitive system, my thinking system. A fully grown mature adult recognizes that the world is made up of cost benefits, it's made up of trade-offs, opportunity costs, competing interests. That's what happens when you grow into adulthood. People have this very kind of infantile view.… The maladaptive empathetically progressive, really view the world through only a feelings lens.

The term cancel culture gets thrown around all the time. What do you think of the criticism that cancel culture is overblown and it's not real, and there's nothing to fight against?

It's insane to argue that. I have a chapter called Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome.The metaphor is now well understood as, there's no way you're going to accept reality. When there have been 36,000-plus terror attacks in nearly 70 countries since 9/11, and nearly every single one of those terrorists will state exactly why they are committing the act, and they will quote the exact passage from their religion about why they're committing the act. The super progressive and smart Westerners who analyze the situation say, "No no no, it's not because of what they said. It's because of beard bullying. It's because of climate change, it's because of lack of solar panels. It's because they weren't exposed sufficiently to art; if they'd only been enriched by art, they would've known better. It's because of lone-wolfism. They're alienated. So that's what ostrich parasitic syndrome is. Don't believe your lying eyes. How many more examples does one need of cancel culture before you think it's real? I recently spoke at the Jewish Public Library—so if you want to appreciate the singularity point of wokeness, here it is: The Lebanese Jew who escaped execution in the Middle East is trying to be deplatformed by progressive Jews from speaking at the Jewish Public Library. I mean, we've hit the singularity point. It's impenetrable to reach such people. There is no amount of evidence I can offer you that can convince you that this is serious. I receive innumerable emails where people testify to me—because I've become sort of the grand confessor—where people write to me from all over the world, saying well here's my situation, professor Saad.

Here's a typical one: "My adviser just found out that I said something complimentary about Donald Trump. Now he's removed my name from a paper I've been working on for a very long time and it looks like I'm going to be kicked out of the lab." That wasn't from Yemen, that wasn't from North Korea, that wasn't from Communist China. So how many people need to be deplatformed before you actually take it seriously?. I think it's a very serious problem, because it has normalized the reflex of people saying, "I don't like what you might say, cancel him." Even if not a single person were actually canceled, the fact that people are emboldened to view this as a viable strategy, therein lies the problem. Twenty years ago, you didn't have that reflex, because the zeitgeist was: We live in a free society. Today we don't have that zeitgeist. so it's a profoundly serious problem, it's a terminal illness.

In your book you say, "The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible." So when you point to someone as a racist or a homophobe, you shut down the conversation because it's impossible to prove you are not one of those things. What is your advice for people who are looking to engage in tough subjects but are continuously getting shut down by those accusations?

Using satire effectively is a very very powerful way to stay ahead of those possible accusations, because what you're basically doing is using satire in a very trenchant way. In the way a surgeon's scalpel cuts through warm butter, it cuts through the nonsense. For example, sometimes when I receive a compliment on my book, I'll look at the person on Twitter and if they are white, I'll retweet it and say, "It looks like you are a white person, I'm trying to decolonize my Twitter feed for the purposes of equity and systemic racism. Only accepting compliments from noble people of color." How come I can't be canceled? Because I have literally replicated the exact structure of the argument. By the way, that's why satirists are the first to be executed in regimes. We don't go after the guys with the big muscles when we are dictators, because the guys with the big muscles are easy to control. But the guys with the sharp tongue and the big brain—those are the ones you have to get rid of.

It's hard to offer complete advice that is applicable to every person. But the general advice is you need to activate your inner honey badger. The honey badger is a a very small animal, and yet it can withstand an approach by six adult lions. It means be fierce in the commitment to defend your first principles. I will stand in a ring with anybody to defend an idea that I know I can defend. When I don't know enough about a subject, I will tell you frankly I don't know enough so i'm uncomfortable making a pronouncement. What people have to do is develop the intestinal fortitude and the cerebral fortitude to have the ability to defend the principle of presumption of innocence. I don't emote louder than you, I don't get hysterical, I don't cancel you. I say, "Let me convince you with a preponderance of data."

Do you believe that there is a silent majority against cancel culture that thinks these ideas are absurd. And if you do, do you think they'll be a backlash soon that's larger than anything we've seen so far?

It depends what the population is that you're looking at. In academia, the majority are the proliferators of the idea pathogens. The rate of Democrat professors to Republican professors in American universities is astoundingly lopsided. But if we say that the population is the entire U.S., not the intelligentsia, then it is absolutely the case that the silent majority is not made up of the blue-haired people.

But I analogize it in this way: When you look at the 9/11 terror attacks, it didn't take 19 million people to bring down the twin towers, it didn't take 190 million people to bring down the twin towers, it took 19 terrorists. But then there were a whole bunch of other people who supported their cause. It's a similar dynamic in academia. There are very very few ultra-rabid blue-haired people on campus, but there are enough of them to keep the rest of us in check. In a sense, that's why Donald Trump was so problematic to the blue-haired people, because he really did represent a possibility for a catalyst for this cataclysmic change. The silent majority, if we mean the entire U.S. population despises this stuff—but I also think that most of them don't do anything for all of the reasons I enunciate in Chapter 8. They diffuse the responsibility onto others: "I don't want to lose my job, I don't want to lose friends on Facebook, I wanna still be invited to the cool kids party in Malibu."

Oftentimes people ask me what is it that fundamentally drives me. I think it comes from a very exacting code of personal conduct. At the end of the night when I put my head on my pillow and I'm about to go to sleep, the only way for me to avoid insomnia is to know that I've done all that I could, however big or however small, to contribute to the battle of ideas, to the defense of truth and liberty and freedom and true classical liberal values. My two fundamental life ideas are truth and freedom, and that's what drives all of my actions. If the silent majority were able to somehow access that courage, to speak out, I genuinely think that it could solve this problem in a couple of years. It won't take generations. If we don't, it will be a very very slow, laborious, train ride to hell.

You propose in your book, as part of the solution to the battle of ideas, that social media companies be regulated as utilities. Do you think we'll see that happen?

Not as long as the media companies are able to play both sides of the political aisle with unbelievable political donations. The diabolical brilliance of all the social media companies is that they understand human nature and so they go to the Republicans, who might be the source from where some of these bills might be coming from, and they say, "Here's $5 million for your next campaign. Are you still against us?" I worry that because of that, because of people's myopic selfishness and instrumentality the social media companies will always win. But I suspect that if it gets bad enough, people will wake up out of their stupors, although you would think that shutting out the sitting president of the U.S. might have been a moment by which people take notice but apparently not, so we have to wait and see.

In the months since you wrote your book, the idea of "intent vs. impact" has gained more attention in the public discussion—that it doesn't matter what you were intending it just matters how people took it. What do you think of this idea of intent vs. impact and what the impact of that will be on society?

Let's take, for example, forbidden knowledge in academia. The idea of forbidden knowledge is that there might be downstream ill consequences to you doing research in this topic, therefore stay away from it. That's a grotesquely bad idea. If we follow that principle, then there's this little field called physics that we should have never pursued because of atomic bombs. We have the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. It didn't come because we understood feminist dance therapy, it happened because physicists did that. Those physicists could or could not have known the consequences of having studied physics. But we did not tell them that there could be a future whereby you'd use the production of weapons as a consequence of you being physicists. That's not my problem as a scientist. I follow truth wherever it takes me, and it's someone else's job to worry about the consequences. For most things, we need to be careful about the dichotomy you're talking about. In the criminal justice system, we do recognize that depending upon what your intent was, what we charge you with. the dichotomy you mentioned has become fuzzy and confused, and that's what causes a lot of the problems I discuss in the book.

What are you most concerned about in the near future and what are you most hopeful about?

I am most concerned that the pandemic of these ideas pathogens is going to continue unchallenged. I often end my video clips with: "Slowly, we inch." I updated this to "Quickly, we gallop." What I refer to here with that imagery is that we are either slowly inching or quickly galloping toward the abyss of lunacy. Once you fall off the abyss, that's it, gravity is taking over. What worries me is that our response will not come quickly enough for us to defeat the new idea pathogens that are afoot, so that in the future to defeat those ideas it won't come peacefully to defeat those ideas, it will come violently.

On the flip side of that, I think it can quickly be overturned—if the silent majority truly wake up in unity and say, "I've had enough. I don't want to be talked down to in this way, I don't want to not recognize what biology means. I don't want my children to be taught that they are bad because they are white or they are any color. I've had enough." It's going to be difficult, but if the zeitgeist changes so that people are emboldened to speak out, that's what gives me hope.