This should go without saying, but since it doesn’t, it won’t.
Maryville, Mo., sprang into the news this fall with the Kansas City Star’s report of what sounds like a bewildering failure to prosecute the alleged rape of an incoherently intoxicated 14-year-old girl, especially given the amassed evidence. First came public shock, then came indignation, and now a special prosecutor is looking into the case. Which means, for an alarmingly large number of people, that it is safe to move along to grandstanding.
So, yes, someone actually started a sentence this way — criminal defense attorney Joseph DiBenedetto, talking on FOX about the Maryville case. “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped,” he says. “But.”
If you are starting a sentence with “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped,” the only safe way to get out of that sentence is to stick a period right there, put down the microphone and walk away. Keep walking. Walk until you reach the ocean. Stare into the waves. Think deeply about your life. Feel remorse. Feel something. Turn around. If you still don’t realize how wrong this is, ask a stranger for her shoes and walk a mile in them. Walk two miles. Do whatever you need to do to realize that news stories contain real people.
You could also say, “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped, because no one should ever say that, because no one deserves that. Period.”
The same goes for other obvious Sentence Traps. I don’t know why people keep straying into them. They are clearly marked. I’m not racist, but. I’m not sexist, but. I’m not against gay people, but. I’m not saying that we should eat the Irish children, but. I don’t actually think we should euthanize anybody, but. Obviously I am not in support of victim-blaming, but. I’m not advocating that we all kneel on this pentagram and concede that maybe Hitler made some valid points, but —
The buts have it, every time.
“I’m not saying X” is another way of announcing “I am about to say X.” You are even warning yourself. If you are a mammoth, this sentence is a gaping tar pit, clearly flagged as such.
The reason this sentence trap is so dangerous, with the alluring “but” beckoning you through the mist, is that in most of the more egregious cases, it highlights the gap between what you actually think and what you know you are allowed to say. You know that it is wrong to blame the victim, but what you are about to say will blame the victim. You know that it is wrong to be a racist, so you have to acknowledge that you are not a racist before you say that racist thing. This is the same kind of logic that allows us to shove old ladies out of our way to catch taxis in the rain but still think of ourselves as nice people. We know in our heart of hearts, wherever that is, that we are not racist, sexist, victim-blaming losers. If what we are saying sounds like the words of a racist, sexist, victim-blaming loser — well, no matter. We know it’s not like that. That is not who we are. What I’m saying is not what I’m saying.
And this kind of awkward verbal dance happens most often in the wake of events like this. After all, it’s grandstanding season. It’s our opportunity to gather ’round and see who can spin the most Sweeping Conclusions About The Mayville Case or the Steubenville Case or the Trayvon Martin Case and do so with The Least Knowledge Possible.
“What you’ve done, Joseph, is taken an alleged victim of rape and turned her into a liar and a crime committer,” Shepard Smith notes. “That’s a far jump from a 1,000 miles away.”
You’re a Good Person, Just Making a Point. You have generalizations to make. In the process, people stop being people and become incidents. Whole towns become incidents. They become symbols, examples, cases in point. You don’t talk about them the way you would talk about anyone you realized was a person. They sort into archetypes, depending on what your previous notions were: Drunk Girl Who Was “Asking For It” and Jock Princes Who Get Away With Anything In These Small Towns. What can’t you say about them?
This. This is one thing. This should go without saying.