Gad Saad on Joe Rogan Québécois accent

‘Jokes’ about the Québécois accent: a valuable lesson in context

While his comments were clearly offensive, Gad Saad is a shock pundit who specializes in hyperbole and the CAQ must be loving this controversy as it plays into their victimhood culture and distracts from their latest questionable decisions.

Last week, La Presse columnist Marc Cassivi wrote a scathing column targeting author, marketing professor and consumer behaviour researcher Gad Saad because he criticized the Québécois accent during a recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast. 

Saad told Rogan the Québécois accent was “an affront to human dignity.” 

Cassivi’s column incited an avalanche of anger and Saad quickly became the target of online threats and abuse, inevitably followed by a few predictable tweets by politicians who zeroed in on the controversy to vote-pander. 

When one considers all the variables at play, the controversy wasn’t much of a controversy, but there was no other way it could have probably played out in Quebec.

Here is where context — all of it — matters.

‘An affront to human dignity’ 

On its own, Saad’s comment is an insulting thing to say about a native accent, regardless of how one feels about it. Perhaps it does sound harsh to your ears, but to call it an “affront to human dignity” seems a particularly cruel way to describe something that forms an essential part of people’s identity. 

It only seems harsh, however, if you lack context. Those familiar with Saad’s body of work and online presence know he’s prone to hyperbole and that “affront to human dignity” is one of his go-to catchphrases. His wife’s cooking, musicals, the Beatles… they’re all “affronts to human dignity.” He also calls the Beatles “truly revolting.” Mentioning Ronaldo and Messi in the same sentence also makes you a “stain on the human condition” and an “imbecile.” Saad has fashioned himself a free-speech crusader over the years and spends an inordinate amount of time saying anything and everything, trying to cross the line. I’m sure he enjoys it. Riling people up gives him ammunition to claim how “terribly PC we’ve all become” and how “we can’t say anything anymore.” Very often, he crosses the line straight into irrelevancy. If everything is an affront to human dignity then, of course, nothing really is. 

While Saad’s fairly well known south of the border, Canadians aren’t that familiar with him, even though he’s been living and working in Montreal for a while. Those who know his style likely ignored his recent declaration, but if you’re missing context (as I suspect most were), it’s easy to interpret it as a grave insult to all things Quebec. As he later clarified on Twitter, “I did not criticize Quebecers, Quebec culture, Quebec values. There are countless elements of Quebec society that are fantastic. Healthy people do not go hysterical because a francophone (me) has stated that the local accent is less than beautiful.” 

It should also be noted that during that same podcast, Saad, who’s a Lebanese Jew and whose first spoken languages are Arabic and French, also mocked Hebrew as a “violently ugly language.” Like I said, the man is prone to hyperbole. 

The anti-woke crowd laid low 

I’m not here to defend Gad Saad. I’m not even a fan of his because I fundamentally disagree with most of his worldview. If you’ve ever heard Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris talk about “cancel culture” and the “woke mind virus,” then you’ve heard what Saad espouses. To recap: all these folks believe cancel culture is dangerous, political correctness is limiting the free exchange of ideas on university campuses and a quest for more diversity and inclusion is somehow diametrically opposed to meritocracy. 

This little fact explains why Quebec’s own anti-woke columnists didn’t jump on the controversy to berate Saad, but in fact defended him, or stayed uncharacteristically quiet. To attack him would have required explaining why the francophone minority’s outrage (unlike every other minority they’ve previously slammed) was now worthy of consideration. Unsurprisingly, no one yelling for Saad to be fired was accused of being “too woke.”

Podcast host Joe Rogan, by the way, thinks Justin Trudeau is a “fucking dictator” and believes Ron DeSantis would make a good U.S. president. We’re talking less intellectual genius here and more Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. When Jordan Peterson “bravely” refused to use gender-neutral pronouns for transgender people (because the minimal effort required to simply address people as they would like to be addressed was far too taxing on Peterson’s fragile psyche), Saad invited him on his YouTube show. 

Saad has some interesting insights on how evolutionary psychology can impact consumer behaviour, but he doesn’t often engage in good-faith arguments. Like everyone who’s stubbornly “anti-woke,” he routinely goes out of his way to ridicule, mock and discredit people fighting against racism, inequality and transphobia. He’s also been known to support questionable people, including Donald Trump. Only a few months ago, Saad said he would have preferred Trump over Biden “any day of the week and twice on Sunday.” If you consider a man currently busy fighting four criminal charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and only last month found guilty of rape as the better option, I’m going to question your judgment. And I certainly won’t care what you think about an accent. 

Gad Saad issuing a sarcastic apology

Quebecers’ heated reaction  

Removed from all historical context, Quebecers’ angry reaction to Saad’s comment might appear incredibly thin-skinned to some. And it was. But, like I said earlier, context matters. 

Francophones’ history within Canada after the British won has triggered a defence mechanism that has not only endured, but is ever ready to come out fighting the minute anyone is seen mocking or bashing francophones. Any type of ridicule immediately transports many French speakers back to the Durham Report and its full-of-contempt conclusion that the “inferior” French Canadian nation could be absorbed and assimilated into the English one. The insecurity stems from a long history of targeted erasure of the French language. These are easy buttons to push.

And it’s not just the past. There isn’t a day that goes by where I won’t see comments from some Canadians (and often right here in Quebec and occasionally even by francophones themselves) about the Québécois accent and how basic, parochial and redneck it sounds. 

Not from me. I love the Québécois accent and can quickly detect it anywhere in the world. Last year, while taking a train in Sorrento, Italy I heard, “Arrete de chialer!” a few seats behind us and immediately knew Quebecers were on board. Two French women were seated next to me and after the 10th “du coup,” I wanted to throw myself out the window. While some find the Parisian accent refined and cosmopolitan, I find it cold and formal. Québécois French sounds warm and casual. Most importantly, it sounds like home to me. 

But even if I didn’t care for the accent, I would never go out of my way to say so. I’m too in love with languages and the way they’re coloured and shaped by their environment. I love the uniqueness of dialects, accents and vocabulary. An accent is more than how people sound phonetically when they speak. It’s their linguistic heritage. It’s the sound of their mothers and fathers, their grandparents. It’s seeped into their most cherished memories of what matters to them and what they work hard to hold on to. It’s what brands them as unique to a particular part of this world, shaped by centuries of interactions and colloquialisms passed down. You couldn’t find the Québécois accent anywhere else in the world and absolutely no one should be made to feel ashamed of it. It deserves to exist proudly as it has evolved and been shaped by history in its North American environment. 

It’s why, despite being quite vocal about the CAQ’s questionable language legislation and government-enacted policies that I find ineffective and sometimes even harmful, you’ll never find me mocking Québécois French. Ever. 

Linguistic insecurity used as a political tool

Many francophone Quebecers have been conditioned by certain pundits to believe that every anglophone and allophone in Quebec hates the French language and mocks the Québécois accent. They routinely seek out and showcase online comments that confirm that belief, and, sadly, it’s not always difficult to do. But forgotten in people’s confirmation bias is a daily reality that’s inconsistent with their beliefs. There are thousands and thousands of us who willingly and proudly defend and speak the French language. Who speak (or at least try to) with the very same accent. 

But no one focuses on us because we don’t serve a purpose. Because linguistic insecurity is not only a very real thing in Quebec, but also, often, a tool in the political game of manufacturing distress, anxiety and anger. The solution, unsurprisingly, is always presented as “going our own way.” 

While vigilance is always required to protect a minority language that has to contend with the power of English, French has more allies than some might realize. Yes, Canada is still a very Anglocentric country, but the federal government and its Official Languages Act (along with $1.4-billion over five years allocated towards that goal) have made it clear that it wants to protect French and increase francophone immigration across the country. The fight to safeguard French goes on, and it’s far from the “targeted erasure” some would like to convince you of. 

I have immense respect for the linguistic battles Franco-Ontarians waged against Regulation 17, as well as the battles Franco-Manitobans, Franco-Ontarians and Acadians in New Brunswick fought. Those within Quebec who like to disparage the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms fail to recognize the support that very charter has offered francophone minorities time and time again fighting for their language rights across the country — the same way it’s now offering support to Quebec’s English-speaking minority fighting egregious elements of Bills 96 and 40.

Distractions benefit the government

When I saw provincial ministers also chime in on Saad’s opinion of the Quebec accent, I groaned. Linguistic insecurity in Quebec is so profound, it’s often used as a low-effort government weapon with which to garner easy support and present politicians as ready to “defend the nation.” 

Most importantly, controversies like these are a welcome distraction for the government. If Quebecers are busy being angry at one individual with absolutely no power who shared a silly opinion on a silly podcast where people routinely go to share COVID vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories, they won’t notice the questionable government decisions happening under their noses. 

Recent news that the CAQ failed to distribute and diverted significant federal aid totalling $940-million intended for post-secondary students, or that it introduced Bill 31, which threatens the few measures tenants have to fight abusive rent hikes, or that Quebec’s new seniors’ homes are sitting empty because we’re lacking staff, didn’t create one 10th of the outrage or concern reserved for Saad. 

The public’s reaction towards decisions that may profoundly affect them is crickets, but a dumb joke about the Quebec accent makes us lose our collective minds. The current government must be overjoyed. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.