There has been gathering momentum among those who wish to question what is rapidly becoming the contemporary orthodoxy: the Critical Social Justice movement. First people began to notice that something was very wrong, then they dashed off enraged tweets and finally they began to produce articles, blogs and podcasts. Now, each utterance seems to galvanise the next, creating a wave of backlash against what appear to be nonsensical and destructive views.It is still not easy, however, to add to the chorus of voices without risking cancellation or being labelled a fascist. It takes bravery.
The new documentary Better Left Unsaid charts the social justice movement’s descent into censorship and cancel culture. Its objective, according to the filmmakers, is to explore “the ideological line between the extreme left and the moderate left”—but it does far more than that. Curt Jaimungal and Desh Amila’s film takes a long, uncompromising look at the social justice movement, highlighting its faulty logic and tracking its philosophical origins. Given that the film covers so much ground, the fact that it comes in at only around 90 minutes is impressive—and what is more it is enjoyable. Jaimungal and Amila utilise archive footage, motion graphics and a dynamic presentation style to create an engaging narrative on a topic that might otherwise confuse or bore audiences. This film will inform audiences and potentially change minds. At the very least, it offers a valuable alternative point of view.
The film is broken up into chapters. It begins by outlining the emergence of the social justice narrative in the university context and then goes on to examine the movement’s flawed logic and chart its real-world impacts, drawing on experts, scientific experiments and archival footage. Jaimungal is an excellent presenter, effectively combining show and tell to make his case. The section on the postmodern turn and its direct influence on movements like trans rights and Black Lives Matter is particularly rigorous, providing a full outline of the social justice movement’s genesis and offering a more nuanced analysis than the usual oversimplified left versus right dichotomy. The film outlines postmodernism’s epistemological confusion and argues that, if we cannot clearly perceive a problem, we cannot even begin to consider a solution.
And it is solutions that the film seeks—ways to prevent the worse possible outcomes of woke ideology, which it presents in its final chapter as similar to the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution and other atrocities, inspired by both left and right-wing ideologies. Jaimungal is convinced that similar tragedies are possible if the current political polarisation continues. I believe that this is a reasonable position—that postmodern excesses on campus might eventually lead to gulags and mass murder or—at best—Orwellian censorship (we have already seen evidence of this). It is one of the film’s strengths that it coherently shows how woke ideology could lead to these extreme consequences—though, by dwelling at such length on the historical atrocities that have occurred under the banners of equality and revolution, the filmmakers risk being accused of hyperbole. But Jaimungal may well be right and, if so, it would be foolish to avoid examining these risks for the sake of appearing moderate. The film’s conclusion is especially strong. Jaimungal argues that the popularity of extreme political perspectives is rooted in the human search for meaning, a yearning expressed in what he calls myth and I would call religion.
The extent to which documentary films are capable of making valid truth claims has long been debated. Many have argued that documentaries are always biased and that the filmmakers’ prior assumptions determine the conclusions they reach. This view owes much to the postmodern concepts of the grand narrative and positionality, popular in film studies departments. Jaimungal’s at times didactic approach goes some way to deflect this accusation. As a narrator, Jaimungal is transparent about his own views. The documentary is reflexive, without poetry or ambiguity to conceal the filmmakers’ meaning. Better Left Unsaid raises questions and proposes ideas rather than simply recounting events. This seems appropriate to the subject at hand. It uses archive footage, statistics and voiceover commentary as a starting point for discussion.
Perhaps the film might have been more elegant if presented in essay form, as an exposition, relying more on archive and interview footage than on an engaging presenter-led style—but this is not a film designed for the ivory tower. Hopefully, it will reach a very wide audience. That the film contains so much rich material and links such complex and seemingly unconnected themes, is a credit to the production. More and perhaps better films on this subject will follow—some may make use of Jaimungal and Amila’s interview footage, which they plan to make freely available. But meanwhile this film is an admirable contribution to the backlash against a dangerous mindset and deserves our support.