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Interview: Curt Jaimungal, Director of “Better Left Unsaid”

(Courtesy of Curt Jaimungal)

They reject ideas of the extreme, so that’s why there needs to be a delineation between what’s extreme and what’s not extreme.”

In this interview conducted just before the death of George Floyd and the subsequent civil unrest, Merion West‘s Kevin Turner was joined by Curt Jaimungal, the director of the crowdfunded documentary Better Left Unsaid, which explores the differences between the moderate and extreme left.

During the conversation, Mr. Jaimungal chronicles his intellectual journey from learning about the philosophy that underpins extreme leftist ideology, to discussing his methods for distilling abstract concepts into a visual format that a layperson can both understand and find compelling. For him, the extreme left is an intriguing subject due to its nuanced nature; whereas the extreme right is identifiable by pronounced features like overt racism and ethno-nationalism, the extreme left takes on a more subtle, but no less pernicious, form in the public discourse.

“I’m not going to affirm that point because I haven’t seen the data on it,” Mr. Jaimungal responds to a question, continuing, “I try to be extremely specific about what I say. If I haven’t found a study on it, then I try not to comment on it.”

The rising director’s preference for empirical evidence remains another defining attribute throughout the conversation, which the viewer will also find in the film. When asked what in the film he is most proud of, he cites having true ownership of the ideas presented, as opposed to recycling ideas promulgated by famous figures before him.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Thank you for joining me today, Mr. Jaimungal.

I’m happy to be here, thanks for having me.

Your education and background were not in art or film. What did you study?

Math and physics. 

How did you end up becoming a documentary filmmaker?

I actually categorize myself more as a filmmaker, and somehow I landed as a documentary filmmaker—just by me wanting to know more about the subject and seeing there is a market for it, so I thought I could merge these two. If I can make money from what I’m passionate about—and, hopefully, some of the public is passionate about this as well as myself—then why not?

Tell me about your movie, Better Left Unsaid

What’s extremism on the right—that’s fairly clear cut to most people. They would say it’s overt racism or ethno-nationalism, and, therefore, intellectually it’s not that enticing. I’m more interested in philosophy; as you know, physics and mathematics is my background. So I’m more interested in ideas, and, on the Left, I saw it as extremely philosophically nuanced. And that excites me. 

Do you consider yourself left-leaning?

No. I consider myself apolitical.

What encouraged you to think about these different nuances on the Left?

I was in university when it was starting to get more and more politically correct, and I don’t think I really liked it. I don’t like being told that because I’m brown I need to think in a certain way.

I saw that they are motivated by certain goals. For example, I was with someone who considers herself to be a part of the social justice movement; we saw a dog, and I said this breed of dog is known to be one of the “smarter dog breeds.” And she replied: “No, there’s no such thing.” I remember I was thinking: Why would you oppose that? It’s obvious that some breeds have an intellectual superiority over other breeds. And then I realized, okay, because you can backward reason that if dog breeds can differ in intellect, then perhaps you can think of breeds as analogous to race; then maybe an argument can be made that races have different IQs. And that’s not allowed, so, therefore, dog breeds are not allowed to have differences in intelligence. 

So I wanted to explore and see if whether what they’re saying is true: that we’re just motivated by compassion, and we, on the left, are actually the true possessors of all logic and reason, which is what they used to claim at least. Now they censor that. They think—at least some of them do—that logic and reason are patriarchal. I wanted to see if there is any truth to that.

For those who still have not had the chance to see your film, how to do you characterize it and its message?

This movie, in its current form, is my journey into trying to conceptualize the phenomenon of the extreme left. What is going on? I tackle it politically at first just by cataloging or going through an inventory of major events that have happened in the past few years that are radical left-esque or extreme left-esque. I try not to use the term
“radical left” for various reasons, and we can get into that later.

Either way, I went through certain events that some people would say are extreme left events. So I catalog that. And then later on, I ask the question: “Are they motivated by something that has motivated people in the 1900s?” That is Marxism and communism. So, we go through the historical excursion.

Then, afterwards, I go into what I particularly like, which is the philosophy and psychology: This is why people believe what they believe because we have to get into this. If we’re going to talk about extremism at all, what is extreme?

There is something that has been attributed to Stalin: “In order to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.” Is that okay? Well, you say it’s not okay. But some people might say it’s totally fine. In fact, we do that all the time with the choices we make like driving a car, which is obviously producing what is called negative externalities in the economic sense. So some trade-offs are made. So what’s considered extreme? And, in order to analyze that, we need to get to the philosophical underpinning, and that’s super tricky. I try to distill that down as best I can.

But to answer your question, the documentary is pretty much three parts. The first one is recent history. You can think of it in terms of ostensive definitions. These are the ones where you don’t make an explicit definition. An explicit definition would be to say that red is the ray of light that has a certain frequency. Like maybe it consists of 300 nano-meters, then that’s called red. That’s an explicit definition.

An ostensive definition is one where you can’t put your finger on it, so instead you point and you say well, “This has that quality, and the other also have the quality.” So, for example, what is a cup? You can point to a cup and then you can point to other iterations of a cup, and then you’ll say the word. A bucket is not a cup, but it could be considered to be a cup, but that’s an ostensive definition. I try to do an ostensive definition of the extreme left because that’s the best I could do. Then, I pull out an explicit definitions from the ostensive.

And that’s part one, correct?

That’s part one. And that also bleeds into the entirety—and into part two and part three. Part two is the history: What have extreme left governments looked like or extreme ideas looked like? And are they similar to the extreme right ideas? I guess we actually do explore the extreme right too; I am also concerned about the extreme right.

And then, in the last chapter, we talk about what undergirds them both? And what does evolutionary psychology say: Why are we so predisposed to thinking like this? And what does theology have to say about it? So that philosophical discussion is part three. 

Tell me why did you decide to call them the “extreme left” instead of just “the Left”? 

The reason is that there are what are called public preferences, and then there are private preferences. This is an economic term. It just means what you state as being your position versus what you actually hold inside—how you behave. So some people may say “Well, I believe that whatever radical leftist, extreme leftist position you may come up with, I believe that.” As in: “I believe it is okay for kids to have hormones placed in them when they’re around five, six, seven, or eight years old.” They may say that out loud, but, then, when it comes to voting, they may vote otherwise. 

That’s why I wanted to speak to people on what I consider to be “the reasonable left.” And many professors are on what I would call the reasonable left, including some of the ones that I interviewed in the film, like Michael Shermer, for example. They reject ideas of the extreme, so that’s why there needs to be a delineation between what’s extreme and what’s not extreme. Your point is if someone is identified as being Left, then they are likely to possess ideas and beliefs that are in concordance with the extreme left. Now, that may be true. That’s your point. Now, I’m not going to affirm that point because I haven’t seen the data on it. And you have to keep in mind that my background is in math and physics, so I try to be extremely specific about what I say. If I haven’t found a study on it, then I try not to comment on it.

Yes, but I remember part of your movie—I think you are talking to Bruce Pardy, and he is trying to open this view for you that the Left might not say we are looking for equality of outcome; they might not call it that, but what they are doing is actually seeking that precisely. 

It might be. Again, what you’re saying is: “Let’s have a set of all people who identify as being Left, and then let’s also have a set of all people that have extreme left beliefs.” What you’re saying is that there’s a large overlap, and it’s only increasing. I don’t disagree with the increasing part; I just don’t know how much of an overlap it is. Even the public preferences are different than private preferences, and many of the people I interviewed or I speak with on an off-the-record consider themselves to be on the Left.

Like Sam Harris considers himself to be on the Left, but he is against the extreme left. Michael Shermer too, along with David Sloan Wilson. So I am hesitant to say that the Left, as Bruce Pardy claims, “has gone nuts.” I would not make that claim because I have not seen the numbers; I do not know the numbers. It might actually be the case, but I’m not going to make a claim unless I am sure of the data. 

The United Nations tweeted “What you say matters,” regarding gender neutral language. It exhorted the citizens of the globe not to say “mankind” but, rather, “humankind,” and so on. When the UN tells us how to speak, do you think it is fair to call that organization as having characteristics of the extreme left?

What you cited was an example of political correctness, and not all political correctness is rooted in the extreme left. I take four axioms to be self-evident. One of them is the oppression narrative. Just to be clear, what motivates political correctness may be that philosophy, and I do make that argument. But it is possible to have a politically correct view and not be part of the extreme left.

The fact that we do not call those who are mentally challenged as “retarded.” And it’s not just because they’ve been oppressed, and so the extreme left has forced us to use different terminology. It’s just that we changed what’s considered to be socially acceptable, and part of that is political correctness, but not all political correctness to me is an example of the extreme left.

Though, I do find that the majority of it is motivated by this philosophy of the extreme left. So we have to make a distinction between the tributaries and the source.

Have you had a chance to screen your movie to some people on the Left or extreme left?

Yes.

How did it go?

I was pleasantly surprised that many of them said, “This is a film that needs to be seen.” They object to what I haven’t said but insinuated, or thought I was insinuating. So, for example, someone thought that I just said that black people have no excuse because Jews have been historically oppressed, but they make more money. And I didn’t say that. All I said was we can’t pin the current status on the grounds solely on discrimination, racial discrimination in this case. That’s actually a completely different claim. But when I screen this, extreme left people—and by the way, they would identify as being pro-social justice or extreme or radical left themselves—they objected not so much to what I said and more to what they perceive me to be “speaking to.” They claim that this is giving a platform and a justification to white supremacists, something like that.

But they all—as a whole—do enjoy the film and recommend it. And I was extremely surprised by that. And also I was tremendously impressed by the civility with which they asked their questions. 

As soon as I watched the movie, I assumednaively maybethat the first thing they would do is to call for blocking your movie and to stop the screening of it.

Hey, maybe that’ll happen—we’ll see! I’ve only been able to screen to a few people, maybe 200 or 300, or so. Who knows what happens when it reaches thousands. 

I am just curious what will happen when your movie is released, given the boycotts that overtook the film The Rise of Jordan Peterson.

It’s not clear what will happen when it goes into the public domain and what people will take away from it. Whether they’ll boycott it, or if they’ll venerate it—I don’t know.

Is there a timetable for when you expect the film to be released?

I believe two months from now. We’re working on the distribution strategy. One possible avenue is that we might split the film into four. So it’s a four-part miniseries and self-distributing, so people pay a single fee of $10 for all parts. Usually, it’s $5 for one movie, but since it’s four parts, maybe it’ll be $10 for all four. We’re not sure. We’re working out the model as well as how we’re going to market it, and I want to minimize the amount of effort it takes because it was an extraordinary amount of work on my part; to fraction it down to four part requires much more work.

And I’d rather people just be able to see it. It’s something that we’re working on behind the scenes.

How long is the movie right now?

It’s about an hour and 59 minutes.

And you want to break it into four parts, instead of cutting any of the footage?

I would like to just release it in the two hours, but the people I’m working with are thinking also about the marketability of it. It seems like it’s extremely niche right now, so that if you’re academic—or if you’re an intellectual familiar with these ideas—you’re going to love, love, love, love, the film.

But if you’re just a member of the public who doesn’t know much about it, or never heard the term postmodernism, it is too abstract—or it can be—and not everyone likes that. But I do have to make an authoritative decision, and also it’s an artistic decision, and I like it the way it is. But it’s a balancing act between me as the director and how it’s going to be marketed. It’s tricky. 

When you watch the movie yourself, what are you most proud of? And, conversely, what gives you second thoughts?

What I like is that my mathematical training and my specific way of assessing the situation is different from Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, or Sam Harris. There are overlaps, but you can see it as a Curt Jaimungal film. I’m happy and proud that I was able to do that, even though sometimes it was heavy and abstract and conceptually hard to grasp. I am proud I was able to formulate my own ideas and stick to them. But that was extremely, extremely difficult because most of the people in this scene are copying Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris and parroting their talking points. And I can tell that they haven’t thought them through themselves—and that they have not critiqued their own ideas. And I’m happy that to some extent, I’ve done that.

And I was able to put in the film my own unique perspective of what I think and then, hopefully, also I’m able to contribute something to this space. I tried my best to get people who are on the extreme left to be interviewed. That is a tall order. I wish I was able to include more of them. One criticism I’ve received from people on the extreme left is that I have interviewed white people on issues that have nothing to do with them. But really? Does white privilege really have nothing to do with white people?

They do make the concession that “Hey, you are a brown person so kudos to you for doing that, for being the protagonist.” I also get that I should include more people of color. I am totally down to re-cut the film to include more talking points from people of color, or from those on the extreme left, but it has proven very difficult to get them in front of the camera.

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