DeFrates column: Hard to justify four letters of pure scorn
I enjoy a good swear, occasionally, relishing the judicious application of a four-letter word. Badly stubbed toes, short green lights on a Monday morning and coffee spilled on a white shirt often call for something a little more potent than “darnit.”
I don’t take personal offense to the traditional four-letter words in almost any context, short of a direct attack on someone, and I often wonder who arbitrarily decided that they were so bad.
There is, however, one four-letter word I am actively trying to root out of my language. It is a word I listen for each day when speaking to my husband and sons, and wince whenever it escapes my lips. It is a word I have tried to banish from my opinion pieces and political commentaries because the damage it can do to an argument or an individual is staggering.
The word is “just.”
I am not talking about the tidy definitions of “just right” or “just fine,” the one that refers to the passing of time “just now,” or even “just” as in right and good.
I want to examine the vague, amorphous and copious application of “just” in the context of argument and discussion. It is a word that has snuck, unexamined, into our most intimate disagreements and our most public debates. Its impact on both can be devastating.
The “J” word, as we call it in our house. It seems at first so innocuous, it’s “just” a part of our everyday language, right? It’s “just” a word we find ourselves using regularly in conversation with loved ones and in arguments with strangers.
My husband and I first recognized the subversive effect of the J word a few months after the birth of our first son, about three years ago. As in many relationships, after the baby arrived and the newness wore off, things got a lot more complicated. As a couple, we started to have more and more serious discussions on less and less sleep. We would be doing fine, debating some meaningless discrepancy of parenting until that word made its appearance, “Why don’t you just listen?”
And then suddenly it felt like the gloves were off. It took a while to figure out, to recognize the trend, but once we identified it, it was glaringly obvious.
The word “just” is four letters of pure scorn that can sink a “discussion” into a brawl in nothing flat.
This is because after a “just,” everything is suddenly judged as somehow less than worthy.“Why don’t you just listen?” “Just” implies that whatever the other person has done or is doing is either infantile or intentional. “Can’t you just stop?” implies that someone has never considered stopping, and that if they would “just try,” it would be easy. Therefore, they must be either an idiot or doing it on purpose. It belittles the other person so swiftly, so completely, that they often don’t even realize why they are suddenly on the defensive.
The J word is equally devastating when applied to arguments which would otherwise be civil and productive. In a time when it is even more crucial to listen closely to each other, and to make ourselves heard, nothing shuts down an audience faster than asking them, “Why don’t you just get it?”
Listen to some of these examples, ripped from the headlines of social media:
“They just don’t understand,” or “They’re just ignorant.”
With the J word in there, one is led to assume that they will never understand and should be dismissed from any further thought. Listen to it without a “just:” “They don’t understand.” Within that statement is a sense of urgency. If they don’t understand, we need to find a way to make them. Change is implied as possible.
“They’re just complaining.”
This is another popular response to the opposition and instantly dismisses any validity of the complaints. No need for further investigation. No need to spend any time trying to empathize.
“Why won’t they just listen?”
I have found myself saying this, despite the fact that it belittles everything about “their” intelligence and intention. They are listening, everyone is, but it would be worth more of my time to find out what they are listening to than to dismiss them for not hearing what I am.
“That’s just locker room talk.”
Another dangerous one. “Just” diminishes the issue so quickly, before the argument can even be made, making it sound as though nothing here is worth discussing further.
“I was just wondering,” or “I just wanted to say …”
These are people who seem to feel the need to apologize for thinking before they even share their opinions. They are belittling their own responses and questions in a time when we need to hear all voices.
Finally, “I’m just sayin’.”
The dreaded clincher. This one is worse than the meaningless space-filler people seem to think it is. The implication is usually, “What I said is true, even though I can’t tell you why, and if you argue with me for any reason then I will tell you to chill out because, ‘I’m just sayin’.” By ending what is often a baseless opinion with these words, the speaker is allowed to dismiss any criticism or argument as an over-reaction. They got to speak the words publicly, put ideas into the world, but can deny any potential consequence of them because they were “just sayin’.”
Words matter, and “just” is, all too often, the escape of the intellectually cowardly. Spending time to eliminate our “justs” forces us to confront both our own personal bias as well as the weight of what we are saying.
Lindsay DeFrates lives in Carbondale and writes, rafts and raises boys.
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Last week’s column was about Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., a respected gastroenterologist who wrote “Fiber Fueled,” which came out in 2020. Today’s column is the first in a series of columns based on this book.