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‘I was just …’

On living justly: how we evade responsibility with a sentence qualifier

In our newly minted world a multi-purpose token is gaining strong interpersonal currency. If one has forgotten to return a book, is late for an appointment, has been thoughtless, has bumped into someone, wants to interrupt a speaker—whatever the social transgression—one can simply use the qualifier ‘just’. ‘I have just been too busy to get your book back to you’, ‘I am just having a heck of a day’, ‘I just needed to get across to there’, ‘I just want to ask a quick question’. The insertion of this measure avoids guilt or shame as the haptic subject is now buffered and justified. The sin has been minimised into extinction, gainsaid into oblivion. One can never cause offence if the frontier of awareness is outlined by one’s sensitivities, focus and entitlements.

Of course, in this social practice the other must collude. The person who has suffered discourtesy or disadvantage must move on in order to get along; to do otherwise would court awkwardness and the possibility of confrontation. That is, there is in this complicity a charmed coincidence, a co-terminus of interests. Parallel play, one hand washes the other, hold your nose with one hand and shake the other’s with your other. Such an alignment is possible conditionally, up until either a repetitive asymmetry is established, a circumstance in which one party is regularly advantaged over the other, or this practice increases in its general frequency to the extent that everyday sociality is disrupted, an outcome that can occur if common courtesies around other-orientiedness fail to be generally respected.

Before returning to the matter of micro-social practices it is important to note that, in itself, the little word just has an interesting valance. On the one hand, the rhetorical statement ‘I was just …’ employs just as a diminutive, a discounter that acts to deflate—even evade—personal responsibility. ‘What occurred was a nothing, a trifle, a mere bagatelle’—but there is more going on than this. Like your little black dress, ‘just’ can also be used for a grander purpose. In its more accusative iterations the word carries a riper connotation: ‘How can you say that about me?’ ‘I was just putting it out there, just expressing an opinion!’ In both cases an antidote to accountability appears, which presents great advantages in a milieu where interpersonal responsibility is becoming passé.

Tones of voice are at issue here. Just as Frontline, the beloved and now departed current affairs TV send-up, brilliantly satirised the way the supposedly positive Aussie word ‘mate’ is often used derisively, a disregard, even a sneer, can accompany any instance where ‘just’ is said. As we all know, most communication is conveyed non-verbally, by body language, context and most densely by tone of voice: think how service staff can use the words ‘madam’ and ‘sir’ not only to distance but to damn. In the interactional theatre that is everyday life, a wonderful complication is that ‘just’ has a high caste definition in addition to its minimising, throw-away sense. In its meaning as ‘fair’ and ‘right’, our little term has a deep identification with what is ethical, literally lordly and above reproach. Billy Bragg tagged this high sounding meaning in his pop polemic skewering the legal system: ‘This is a court of law, son, not a court of justice’. Some agents, like New Zealand’s Just Therapy group or Christina Colgate’s book on ethical relationships, Just between You and Me, use this metonymy with playful seriousness.

Between you and me, the term ‘just’ can be used to ward off responsibility, and this can be done with a deprecating, sincere, careless or even denigrating inflection. On the other hand, it can be raised up to convey, and be identified with, what has legitimacy, even majesty. What fascinates—and vexes—is that when ‘just’ is said with ripeness in the first context the meaning approximates the connotations of the latter. Say it out loud with as much melodrama as you can muster: ‘What about me—I just want my fair share!’ There is a fine double entendre in play here, a tango of high dignity and espoused self-deprecation that is hard to unpick or respond to. Such a statement is a rhetorical intervention, a move in the ongoing drama of a relationship.

A small stage is a wonderful theatre for depicting politics. This has long been said about cabaret, but it is equally true for personal relationships. Although the privately inter-personal, the locally social, is not public in the formal sense, it is inevitably a realm which is suffused with, and in part constituted by, lived politics. In each and every relationship ideological practices develop, are naturalised and may come to be contested, but this becomes a complicated issue to deal with once regularities arise. As the communication theorist and sometime anthropologist Gregory Bateson observed, ‘the ripple that lasts longest lasts longer than the ripple that doesn’t last as long’.

In every established relationship it comes to pass that costs and benefits—whether they are material, symbolic or emotional—will tend to be unequally distributed even as this is often difficult for the participants to perceive. Patterns can more readily be seen by outsiders, but are often opaque to insiders. These patterns concern what will be recognised and what will be ignored; what is seen to have value, and to what degree; whose preferences and dislikes, which discourses and whose reality, will prevail. That said, if you are getting the raw end of the stick you are more likely to notice this arrangement than those who are privileged: a steady tailwind is less palpable than a headwind against the face and chest. Unless an inequity is naturalised, or is misattributed to nature, injustice stings. In such patternings the interpersonal illustrates the political more clearly than does the personal.

Yet it is always hard to get to grips with the relational, in which there is always a spaghetti junction of moments present. Righteousness and coerciveness jostle; a concern for fairness is present, as is the operation of force, albeit one that is frequently disavowed. There is the pragmatic and the naive, the ideal and the self-serving, the spontaneous and the overly determined. Blackmail can be interpenetrated by goodwill while good intentions can be trumped by the paradoxical effects their enactment triggers. Alignments are welcome, but seem hard to predict or to guarantee. Negotiation between parties is always possible but this requires certain attitudes and skills, and some luck, if it is not to make things worse.

Being able to focus on personal accountability and interpersonal fairness, and not only to one’s sensitivities and personal entitlement, is one precondition. Another is to be emotionally literate, as Suzie Orbach and Daniel Goleman have so richly discussed. A pattern of avoiding difficult differences is unhelpful. Such a preference tends to be based on the assumption such exchanges will be too awkward, or that such interactions are fantasised as inevitably conflictual. This aversion not only supports the status quo, but it embeds dissatisfactions, making them all the more likely to be acted out.

Many years ago I worked with a bunch of cockney men in pre-trendy Soho. We were paid daily in cash and unless the seedy toff who ran things turned up, an event that had the locals habitually grab their forelocks and change their register, the atmosphere was like a feisty caricature of old London town. One day, and for all to hear, John, one man in the group, called out to another in a clear and pleasant voice, saying, ‘Georgie, where’s that fiver you owe me? It’s past Thursday and you’ve not said a word’.

The indebted man stopped what he was doing. Without apparent embarrassment he recounted to John that it had been a bad week. Financial difficulties had unexpectedly arisen, which he detailed: a relative had hit him up for a favour; he’d been caught out in the scam he’d been running to milk his local council; his other job wasn’t paying as well as usual. More relaxed than put upon, he ran on for a considerable period. I was a visitor from abroad and assumed this soliloquy would be followed by an embarrassed ‘Oh, that’s no good—can you manage to get it to me by next payday?’ kind of response. Keeping his tone light and avoiding eye contact, John then said, ‘Georgie, my old uncle, don’t piss on my shoes and tell me it’s raining’. There was no menace in the delivery, but his message was clear. A boundary had been crossed and redress had to be organised. More, an expectation had been reinforced that the credibility of one’s word had to be preserved. Georgie said nothing, just gestured a kind of ‘all right’ and went back to work. John’s turn of phrase was striking, but there was no sense an escalation was brewing.

I was not party to what went on later, how these two resolved the debt, but to all appearances their relationship remained affectionate. As we all did, they continued to drink together after work, joked while at work and seemed not at all out of sorts with each other. Apparently they had reached an understanding, done the talking, and were then able to do the walking. It did not seem there were undercurrents; it did not seem like either was stewing about what the other had done. Too crude and blokey for many, their way seems a whole lot better than any conjoint assertion that ‘I was just … (but now I am licensed to be a prick)’.

Mark Furlong lectures in social work at La Trobe University.