Film Review – Better Left Unsaid

Curt Jaimungal and Desh Amila’s new documentary Better Left Unsaid  is a gripping chronicle of the post-modern extreme left’s descent into ideological thought-policing. The documentary is skilfully presented by the captivating Jaimungal and is helpfully divided into chapters.

Amila and Jaimungal trace the decline of civil debate to the introduction of new terminology that began from around 2013 in the English-speaking West. A raft of new rhetorical slogans (“TERFs”, “mansplaining”, “non-binary”, “intersectional”, “white privilege”, “systemic racism”, “diversity”, etc.) came into currency, and along with the lexicon came a new moralizing that prized diversity of ethnicity and race over diversity of viewpoint. According to interviewee Professor Bruce Pardy of Queens University, it is hard to understand what it is the radical left wish to achieve other than an extreme form of collective authoritarian control.

Amila and Jaimungal carefully avoid setting up straw men. At every step, their documentary offers a truthful rendering of the radical left’s positions and arguments, as well as tracing them back to their origins in post-modern thought. Only after honestly explaining the radical left’s stances and assertions do they launch the counterarguments. This is particularly important because the extreme left has conspicuously (and tactically?) avoided entering into the kind of reasoned debates that academics from the liberal left (now re-branded ‘conservatives’) would win. Instead, the far left has pushed its ideology through the use of cancel culture, misleading language, and/or pre-emptive changes in policy or law. This has led many on the liberal left to compare the radical left Critical Social Justice (CSJ) movement to a sort of cultural Marxism; it imposes ideological orthodoxies through the coercive machinations of state bureaucracy and mass propaganda rather than by reasoned persuasion.

Better Left Unsaid claims that CSJ doctrine revolves around social constructionism and rejects essentialism. However, this is erroneous since the radical left actually insists upon gender essentialism, and sexual constructivism. This is one reason why there is such divergence between the trans-affirming left and liberal gender-critical feminists. Furthermore, Critical Race Theory uses non-essentialist language as ‘bait’ and then switches to essentialist claims once the audience is hooked. Despite this blind spot, the film fruitfully points out that a key supporting case study for the transgender movement is a deeply flawed experiment that was performed by John Money on a two-year-old boy named Bruce (later David) Reimer in the late 1960s. Bruce later committed suicide because of the trauma inflicted by Money’s intervention, and yet this botched experiment is somehow supposed to prove gender constructivism.

Like gender, ‘racism’ has also taken on new meaning within the far left’s lexicon. We no longer judge someone a ‘racist’ on the basis of what they say or do, but on the basis of their race. The presumption of innocence has been abolished (for white people). We don’t see an individual; we see his appearance and assess him on that basis, which (oddly) is what ‘racism’ used to mean.

‘Sexism’, too, has gone from being inequality of opportunity to a situation where, if there is any inequality of outcome, sexism is alleged to be the cause. While there is some truth in the CSJ claims, balance is being lost partly because of the way that the reasoned critique of propositions, which was the way things used to work at universities, is being supplanted by moralizing doctrines. The new definitions (e.g. systemic racism, sexism) are broadened to such an extent that one cannot help but fall guilty of them. However, the punishment for these thought crimes is as if you’d transgressed the original (much narrower, empirically measurable) definition. Micro-aggressions and unconscious bias can’t really be measured, but just like original sin, they are still asserted to exist. Moreover, by re-defining the experience of being offended as though it were tantamount to being the victim of a physical assault, you justify violent assault as a legitimate response to mere words.

It helps that Jaimungal and Amila are themselves non-white, because they can meaningfully ask how those on the extreme left who claim to speak on behalf of oppressed minorities respond when members of those very minorities disagree with what is being said in their name. The unfortunate answer is that minorities who dissent from the “tolerant and inclusive community” positions are quickly stigmatized with racial epithets like “house nigger”, “Uncle Tom”, “native informant” or “coconut” (brown on the outside but white on the inside).

In this climate everything and everyone becomes politicized, even if only by not being sufficiently political. All occurrences are viewed through the CSJ lens. Art history isn’t really about art anymore. Art is the means to the end of Social Justice. English isn’t about English anymore. Science isn’t about science. All are social constructions invented by European men to oppress someone. This new ideological framework is one in which presumptive guilt is the starting point, and any inaction vis-à-vis the status quo is a sin of omission.

Jaimungal is aware that, if interpreted uncharitably, his documentary could itself be declared illegal under the current British Colombia Human Rights Code [RSBC 1996]. Many comparisons have been made between the CSJ ideology and religion. Both promote a notion of ‘original sin’; both have banned sources of evidence that conflict with what adherents already believe; both have censored dissident doctrines and excommunicated irreverent speakers; both claim to promote ideals that sound unambiguously good. However, a big difference is that the Social Justice ‘religion’ is being imposed on non-believers, whereas most left-thinking people do not accept that religions can demand that others agree with them. The question is no longer ‘did racism take place?’. Rather, it is, ‘how did racism manifest in that situation?’ As with theology, the proposition is put forth a priori as an axiom. The presumption of innocence is demolished in the claim that not to act against racism is to actively support it. The logic, says Jaimungal, is that by doing nothing you are simultaneously doing everything. Similarly, the Christian concept of grace entails that the salvific ‘price’ has been paid for your sin with the blood of Christ, meaning you owe it to God to confess the faith.

Many on the extreme left see the West as peerless in its misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and even genocidal tendencies. ‘Compared to what?’, asks Jaimungal. If one claims to care about certain minority rights as a matter of principle, then where is the outrage against those Islamic and/or African states where honour killing and child marriage are the norm, where slavery is still legal but homosexuality is not? The lack of interest in the rights of the same minority groups championed by the far left in the USA and Britain (when the perpetrator is not ‘the West’) betrays a certain disingenuousness.

Jaimungal helpfully traces the roots of the extreme left movement to post-modernism, as well as explaining modernism so that viewers understand what post-modernism was a reaction against. Post-modernism arose in the later 20th century as both an attack on and a continuation of modernism. Thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard were diverse in their ideas but they are united by a common scepticism towards grand narratives. They espoused both epistemological and moral relativism. For them, no ‘fact’ can be disentangled from relationships of power, from politics. Truth isn’t outside of power, it is produced under the control of a few great political and economic apparatuses. But Jurgen Habermas has accused Foucault of a ‘performative contradiction’. As Jaimungal explains, “you can’t make a truth claim denying the existence of truth.” He continues by saying that Truth(1) is an ontological claim about what is the case, whereas Truth(2) is a social construction. But Truth(2) takes Truth(1) as a presupposition.

The new Social Justice movement that has risen to ascendency in US and British academia followed in the wake of post-modernism and can be seen as its legacy. It is characterised by the ideas of academics such as Judith Butler, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Edward Said, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Their contribution has been to associate all ideas with race, gender or sexuality and to mine all ideas and texts in order to find the power structure(s) motivating them. They dismiss statistics, objective evidence and even scientific method, with Sandra Harding even calling Newton’s Principia “a rape manual”.

In Chapter 3 Jaimungal presents a recapitulation of what happened in the last century under the aegis of communism. This is intended as a warning because mass carnage took place under the auspices of equity. The worrying thing is that, while widespread violence has not yet started to take place under the auspices of ‘social justice’, the preambulatory rhetoric sustaining it bears an uncanny resemblance to pre-tyranny language, and there have been a few outbreaks of actual fisticuffs from the group calling itself, with no irony, “Antifa”. For this reason, Jaimungal is looking not just at what happened — in Lenin’s Russia, in Mao’s China, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese collective land reform campaign, in Nazi Germany, during the Rwandan genocide, and to Tamils in Sri Lanka – but also how and why these horrors happened. What he reveals is that over and over again atrocities were committed in the name of equality, individuals were abolished in favour of classes of people (who either had power or didn’t have power) and collective guilt, free speech was abolished, and anyone who didn’t mobilize in the ‘correct’ way was seen not as a passive non-combatant but as positively traitorous.

In response to the well-worn rebuttal that these movements were not ‘true’ Marxism/Communism but a false veneer put on by charismatic interlopers who corrupted the pure doctrine, Jaimungal says this is rich coming from the same people who insist that one can self-identify as any gender and that they must be believed simply on the (infallible?) basis of their self-pronouncement. Jaimungal questions why the same logic does not apply to self-described ‘Marxists’ and ‘Communists’.

Another rebuttal he fields states that the meddling West interfered with these experiments in Communist self-government. One might ask how we can disambiguate what was ‘pure’ Marxism/Communism from doctored versions thereof? To answer this, Jaimungal uses Causal Networks and Reichenbach’s Common Cause Principle to show that the ‘package of ideas’ that typifies the new left’s ‘cultural Marxism’ correlates highly with Communism. Thus, while admitting that the methodology could be flawed, or the sample size too small, the tentative conclusion from the evidence is that the West’s meddling is a less likely causal factor than the actual similarities between CSJ’s ‘cultural Marxism’ and Communism.

Nevertheless, his aim is to argue that this kind of politics could happen again in the modern West. We are not sufficiently vigilant of how fragile our civil liberties are. What we’re seeing is a sustained assault on the main ‘arteries’ (e.g. checks and balances) that protect our freedoms, such as free expression, the presumption of innocence, bodily integrity and informed consent.

Jaimungal does not limit his critique to the non-Western regimes under communism. He states that the West has clearly done some horrendous acts, such as the coups d’état in Iran and Chile and Projects MK Ultra and Mockingbird in the United States, among others. Given what we know about our own governments, Jaimungal asks why we would doubt that modern Western states would commit deleterious actions against their own people. This is an especially good question in light of how the presumption of innocence is being abolished in public school curricula in the United States where first-graders are forced to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities, and then to rank themselves according to their “power and privilege”. A curriculum teaches that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism” and white teachers are told in training sessions that they are guilty of “spirit murdering” black children. Or take Harvard-Westlake, a private school in Los Angeles, where a new plan to become an “anti-racist institution”—unveiled this July, in a 20-page document— forces kids to fixate on race.

The filmmakers provide a blueprint of the dangerous ‘package’ of ideas that are the prelude to violence and group persecution. There are four ‘stages’ or steps to the ideological process: (1) a lens claim, (2) an evidentiary clam, (3) separation claim, (4) the call to action. Tellingly, the documentary excerpts a directive issued from Communist Party HQ in 1943 to all communists in the United States. It reads:

When certain obstructionists become too irritating, label them – after a suitable build-up — as fascists, or Nazi or anti-Semitic and use the prestige of anti-fascist intolerance organizations to discredit them. In the public mind, constantly associate those who oppose us with those names which already have a bad smell. The association will, after enough repetition, become fact in the public mind.

One of the most important points made by this documentary is that we’ve lost perspective. The purposeful use of charged words and images has seized our attention and led us astray. Harry Frankfurt called it “bullshit” in his eponymous book. We’re losing sight of truth and getting caught up in salient rhetoric, emotional appeals, and persuasive associations to the extent that we now equate a lower-middle class person not having a CEO position with actual slavery and we equate the temporary sting of an offensive remark with GBH. These distortions and exaggerations get amplified with repetition.

Jaimungal concludes by reminding us of the danger involved in viewing the world as more dangerous than it actually is. Trust is a cardinal resource in a functioning society that both the extreme left and the extreme right are squandering. Both extremes have abandoned the West’s key tenets: (1) the sanctity of the individual, (2) the notion that conscious lies lead to serious injustice, (3) moral agency and responsibility, and (4) freedom of speech. As for the second of these, the radical left demolishes any sense that dishonesty corrupts, since post-modernism says that there is no truth. Without truth, there is no lying.

©2021 by T.M Murray. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. So, you watched the film with selective blindness?
    You seem to have only noticed the critique of CSJ — which is broad, convincing and on the spot — and none at all of the critique of the extreme right ideologies that pervade the discourse on the right, with the very same silencing effects, which are no less damaging as we need reasonable conservatives as well as reasonable progressives in order to build a better society.
    I, as a classical liberal with left-of centre economic opinions and as an intellectual, am personally more concerned about the spread of irrational illiberalism in the left at large and in the institutions of learning specifically, but I recognise that it does not help to exclusively talk of that, because we miss the peculiar quality of this social disease: the appeal of totalitarian doctrines on every side of the political spectrum.

    And we must fight the attitude that enables totalitarian thought, wherever it presents itself.

  2. When an attempt to “balance” becomes more important than focus on the real threat to the ‘arteries’ that protect civil society and basic human rights, then it is justified to highlight the greater threat. This does NOT mean that the far right does not hold dangerous beliefs. What it means is that the far right (despite its flaws) is at present a far less institutionalised, and hence less powerful and insidious, lobby. Indeed the far left is so culturally powerful that far right ideas are quickly squashed. (Now be predictable and go and find a single, vivid exception and use the “appeal to vividness fallacy to discredit what I’m writing.) The fact that Far Left ideology is being enforced from top-down institutions and multi-national corporations makes it a greater and more powerful present danger. The author never suggested that the far right holds acceptable ideas.

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