Since I’m all about spicing up my writing routine, I’ve decided to institute a new column here on Queerly Different, entitled “words I hate,” in which I will argue that some words are consistently misused or are used in such a way that they obfuscate meaningful and critical dialogue and discussion. As an initial caveat, I will just point out that I am not suggesting that people should start censoring themselves, only that we should be more deliberate and nuanced in the way that we think about the language with which we express ourselves.
Today’s word is “just.” And I mean this not in the sense of something that is right or ethical, but instead the word that many use to dismiss something, e.g. “it’s just a TV show” or “it’s just a movie.” As a scholar and critical consumer of media, and one who loves to talk about these things in meaningful ways, I sometimes (I won’t say often), find myself confronted by those who just want to sit back and be entertained, who safely ensconce themselves in the false idea that any text is “just” anything.
When someone says that what they are watching is “just a movie,” they typically follow it up with some variant of “don’t read too much into it,” or “you’re reading into the text.” Beneath the surface of the word “just” lies a worldview that suggests that what is immediately perceptible is all there is, that there can be (and perhaps should be) no act of interpretation on the part of the observer. Of course, in my view, such a perspective is demonstrably and logically false, as we are always interpreting the world in some way, even if we are doing so at the level of affect or our bodies. There is no transparent set of meanings that we can somehow absorb through osmosis (despite what many literalists might like to suggest about such texts as, for example, the Bible).
The word “just” often emerges as a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any sort of discussion that might be troubling or in some way uncomfortable. And the trouble with the word “just” is that it is so seductively easy to evoke, and yet it is also tremendously effective at what it is intended to accomplish. How do you respond to someone’s strident assertion that they “just want to read” or “just want to sit back and not think”? Why do academics have to be such killjoys, anyway, bothering our pleasures with all of this talk of interpretation and ideology and whatnot? Why can’t they just let us be who we are?
As with any word, I think we would have a richer, more nuanced and truly democratic society if we would think about ourselves more rhetorically and become more aware of how we engage with the world around us. And you know what? I know that’s not easy, and that frankly that scares a lot of people. But do you want to know something else? Sometimes it’s good to be scared.