Just: A Four-Letter Word to Use Cautiously

In our guesswork about what’s signal vs. noise, the word “just” stops debate.

Posted Nov 20, 2018

“I’m just curious.”
“You’re just trying to hurt me.”
“I’m just trying to be nice.”
“They’re just greedy.”
“We’re just trying to make the world a better place.”
“Fighting just makes things worse.”
“Kindness just makes people walk all over you.”

The word “just” doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a power term, especially when we ignore it, which we do. Unlike other powerful four-letter words it doesn’t pop out at you. It should. “Just” is very strong language.

“Just” is a command to ignore all other possibilities. We use it to direct, even commandeer people’s attention, to get them to focus where we want. It’s an attempt to treat life’s subjective, guesswork interpretation as cold hard fact. It’s fake objectivity, as though you’re just calling a spade a spade rather than voicing an opinion. It’s a gambit to stop debate, to get people to adopt your opinion and be done with it.

The word “just” means, "in absolute fact, this is signal; the rest is noise,” when actually we’re all just guessing. Only the future gives us anything like a conclusion to the debate over what’s signal and what’s noise. Sometimes what seemed like a signal (X is the writing on the wall) turns out to be insignificant (“I was too distracted by X.”). Sometimes what seemed like noise (who cares about X?) turns out to be signal (“If only I had attended to X”). What’s really signal and what’s really noise is a matter of interpretation, guesswork, prediction, not fact.

Reality is not simply revealed to any of us. We're all interpreting, not just witnessing but weighing, deciding what's relevant so we can ignore the rest. We can’t attend to everything. Interpretation is fallible triage. We ignore what we guess we need not or cannot afford to attend to. We attend to what we guess we had better attend to. Attention is finite. Our allocation matters.

Doubt and debate are the sound of competing interpretations, cognitive dissonance, uncertainty about what's the relevant signal and what's ignorable noise. The word “just” is a bid to declare resolution, to resolve to what's exclusively relevant. "Stop debating competing interpretations. Settle on this interpretation. It's just this."

The word "just" is the friend of decisiveness and the enemy of curiosity. There will be times when you want to keep doubting. With the word “just,” someone will coax you to snap out of it, to switch from deciding to decided – decided their way. The word “just” aims to put your foot down whether you’re ready or not. It’s a hard line, a firm constraint, a prevention, barring alternative interpretations.

And there will also be times when you too will use the word “just,” to end debate and doubt. Because we all have to at some point. Open-mindedness isn’t an absolute always-virtue but a sometimes virtue. At some point, we have to stop doubting and debating and get to work. Otherwise, we’ll dither forever. We establish our givens, our foundational assumptions and build on them. Still, foundational assumptions are tricky things. Like house foundations, they’re hidden, load-bearing and exorbitant to repair, especially when you’ve built a lot atop them.

Look around you. You see people building story upon load-bearing story atop some shaky foundation assumption, unable and unwilling to rethink it because it’s hidden, load-bearing and costly to change. You pity such people, throwing good effort after bad when they really should change their foundational assumptions. That’s how open-mindedness gets its false reputation as an eternal virtue. But for all we know, we’re in the same situation, building on faulty, hidden foundational assumptions.

That's reason to traffic in the word "just" with care, caution and wariness. It's a power word, probably the most powerful four-letter word in English. In a knife fight between interpretations, the word "just" is the knife wielded, an attempt to cut reality with a decisive stroke.

To challenge a declared “just,” look for exceptions to it. “Fighting just makes things worse.” Really? Can you think of even a single example of fighting making things better? If so, then “just” doesn’t apply.

“Kindness just makes people walk all over you.” Really? Can you think of even a single example of kindness not making people walk all over you? If so, then “just” doesn’t apply. “I’m just trying to be nice.” Really? Who is ever that single-minded? Even if being nice is someone’s goal, they might be willing to compromise it now and then to meet some other goal.

Those who wield the word “just” with unfettered authority are know-it-alls. Everything that they deem to be relevant is all that is relevant. Everything else is irrelevant. They’re the ones who get to decide what’s signal vs. noise. Completely self-protecting and self-projecting, they’re in lockdown mode – adopt their self-serving interpretation or you’re the enemy of truth. Such people design their lives for total freedom from learning. They are the “learnt out,” burnt out on doubt and learning, often through some load-bearing epiphany that they decided should be their last forever, absolute faith in what they once learned, singing “I once was lost but now I’m blind.”

Pay attention to that little muscular-word. You probably hear and say “just” many times a day.  Say it wisely.

Grant me the decisiveness to declare “just” when the signal is clear, the indecisiveness to doubt the word “just” when the signal is unclear and the wisdom to know the difference.