It seems we're constantly awash in rhetorical disclaimers like "I'm not a racist BUT. . ." or "I'm not a feminist BUT. . ." You know, those sleight-of-hand prefaces for ducking and doging around whatever listeners might think, for better or for worse, cutting them off at the pass, so to speak. "I'm not a racist, but . . . " is a clever end run around "speaker as racist" and meant to delude the listener, and perhaps even the speaker herself, into thinking that the statement that follows actually isn't actually racist at all. (Let's see, it sounds racist, but it's not racist because she said it's not racist, and I'm not racist because I said I'm not, even if it sounds as if I am.) The phrase itself, "I'm not a racist, but . . ." begins with a premise that can only lead one place.
Put another way, have you ever heard someone say, "I'm not a racist, but I think all people are equal"? No, that second clause would have to begin with "because." The "but" sets up the contradiction, cautioning (reassuring?) the listener (and maybe the speaker, as well) that both the speaker's intention and conclusion are not racist, even when what follows is likely to be a biased assertion. This is what I call the "I'm not a bad person speech act," and can be employed usefully in any number of "anti-ist" claims: "I'm not a sexist, but . . ." or "I'm not a homophobe, but . . .." to grease the way for the biased statement that follows.
The prebuttal, "I'm not a feminist, but . . . .," is another one I hear frequently from my women students, apparently fearful of being connected to hairy-legged, bra-burning man-haters. Yet the phrase is often followed by a statement like "I think men and women should be paid equally for the same work." How about that for a neat distillation of the core principles of feminism while refusing to wear the label? So why the deflection? Why the refusal to affiliate with a position that so clearly mirrors the assertion? So I ask members of the class, what do you think a feminist is? There's usually a long silence, and then the replies run the full gamut: "someone who thinks women are superior to men," "a lesbian" (yes, I know), "a radical," to the definition by some knowing gender studies student who says "feminism starts with the principle that women and men are equals." I let that sink in before asking if anyone finds fault with that but no one ever does, though someone might add, "I could get behind feminism so long as I can still get married and have kids." So what is it they think "feminism" is? What does a "feminist" look like? Sure, there's a complicated history, a tangle of contradictions, and some not-so-nice moments that require full disclosure and examination, but the starting premise is fairly basic and from there can spring questions, discussions, and arguments that enrich the tapestry of what "feminism" can and might mean. My question is, have we so over-burdened these terms that they mostly now carry the weight of reductive misinterpretations and distortions?
"I'm not a feminist, but . . ."
In truth, feminists never burned their bras. You're getting confused with those guys with the draft cards.
"I'm not a tree-hugger, but . . . damn, where did all the trees go?"
"I'm not a liberal, but . . . I sure like the idea of freedom."
"I'm not being P.C., but . . . I'm glad my disabled sister's not a 'moron' anymore."
Add your own favorite here ______________________.
"I'm no animal rights activist, but . . ."
Today, in an email exchange with members of the Indiana Bar Association's new Animal Law Committee, an attorney was quick to write a variation on this speech act, in order to distance himself from a "do no harm toward animals" observation he made that could easily fit into the wide orbit of what constitutes basic animal rights principles. In case we didn't get it, he added that his notions of animal rights extended only to his beloved pet dog. Okay, so an "animal rights activist" must be something really bad, like a terrorist (See Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act).
In response to my asking what this writer thought "animal rights" signifies, another committee member sent around a power-point chart she'd created for a presentation to dog breeders elucidating points she believed to distinguish between animal rights activists and animal welfare advocates in order to establish why she's not one of those infernal animal rights activists. Under "animal rights" she listed "believes pet owning is immoral" (huh?) and "animals should not be harmed in any way for any reason" (huh again?). Note that she cited no sources for these assertions nor did she distinguish among the broad range of views that fall under and overlap within these headings.
Under "animal welfare" she also bullet-pointed: "Believe[sic] animals should be treated humanely but are not the equal [sic] of people," the implication being that of course those she would call animal rightists believe animals are the same as people. Since she gave no sources, it's unclear whom she's been reading, but such a generalized, loosey-goosey claim that animals and people are equals is not a tenet of any serious animal welfare or animal rights philosophies I'm aware of, unless of course she is confusing ideas like "equal consideration of interests," which would recognize that human animals and nonhuman animals have some shared interests (being free of harm and suffering, for example) and others that are entirely different (animals would have no interest in voting or marrying). Point is, what happened to nuances?
It's also interesting to point out that she paired the word "activist" with the phrase "animal rights" and the word "advocate" with "animal welfare." Apparently "advocates" are okay, but "activists" aren't? Can't someone be an animal rights advocate, and another be an animal welfare activist? (Please remember, these are lawyers.)
Any of these labels requires much more unboxing than can be done here, but in general they have been dismissed as "buzzwords," or simple shorthands that can be easily relegated to the "P.C." dump pile. Perhaps in a deeply right-wing era of the Limbaugh-coined "femi-nazi," or the FBI's fear-mongering of "animal and eco terrorists," or the continuing rage directed toward what some politicos like to call the "illegal alien" or the "welfare queen" (code for brown and black people), the "I'm not a _____, but . . ." rhetoric is designed to place the speaker beyond reproach. It's a desperate attempt to stake out a "safe middle ground." The basic assumption on the part of the speaker is that the listener will ignore the discrepancy so often inherent between the prebuttal (frequently an abstraction) and the claim that follows. That discrepancy is so fraught with tension and signifiers that any curious speaker is going to want to ask, "What on earth do you mean you're not a _____?"
Aside from the serious misrepresentations and gaps in knowledge inherent in prebuttals, the simple, yet layered, rhetorical moves to set up and knock down strawmen allow us to position ourselves in a way to make our assertions presumably more palatable, less scary. We hide behind such easy phraseology in order to advance beliefs or thoughts we fear may be met with disapproval or which we ourselves may disapprove of. It doesn't require we think things through at all, or recognize our claims from what they are. Are we afraid of taking stands? Are we afraid of exposing our real thoughts? Are we afraid to discover our true views might align with a position we have tried to reject or that we know so little about? Is it possible one actually believes in a piece of a philosophy that actually is racist or homophobic, or which might in that moment run parallel with animal rights or environmental concerns or feminism?
What is it the young woman who resists being read as a "feminist" fears? Why does someone worry about being thought of as "racist"? What's the discomfort with advocating for nonhuman animals?
In the prebuttal, "I am not a racist," what exactly is the speaker asserting? What is a "racist"? Perhaps the speaker counts on the listener to conjure up an image of the obvious---maybe someone with swatiska tattoos and a white sheet on his head, or a Hollywood version of a beer-swilling good ole boy in a camouflage cap. But racism is not located in any one kind of person, nor is it always readily visible. It is systemic and institutionalized, individually internalized by blacks and whites alike, and embedded in our collective histories.
Yes, this is a very recent photo, and not something from "the distant past." Easy to condemn, right?
Whatever the imagined referent, the speaker seems to be saying, it's certainly not me, it's that other guy, the one in the white sheet, which is why when I say it seems as if a lot of minorities don't care about education, I'm not being racist, I'm just making an observation.
"I'm not a feminist, but . . . this is what a feminist looks like."
"I'm not a racist, but . . . I can't think of any" good the NAACP ever did. Civil rights leaders in
general, just 'bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine'." (Clarence Thomas quote)
"I'm not an animal rights person, but . . . "
These variations on procatalepsis make for handy-dandy rhetorical tools, for getting away with saying something without any of the consequences or responsibilities for saying it. The "I'm not a ____, but" construction moves us just an eensy dance step away from the real thing. But the fact is, there it is----the real thing-----staring us squarely in the face, and saying, take a good, long look. We know something's wrong. We want to understand. We want to say something. But where do we start?
Yeah, it's scary to leave the comfortable shadows of a status quo. And what about the discomfort in discovering our worldviews are often shaped through a glass darkly, and there's something more out there that can shake us at our very foundation? Is it being asked to face a bright reflecting mirror of our own systems of power and injustices, some of which may be benefitting us, and which we're afraid to lose? Is it the shock of suddenly realizing we aren't who we thought we were? If we exit from the parabolic Cave, might we finally look at the fire and not be blinded? And could we even turn our eyes to the sun?
- Alyce Miller
- Bloomington, IN, United States
- Writer: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Attorney: part-time pro-bono lawyer for animal rights law and family law. Professor: literature, creative writing, special topics course (assumed identities, critical race studies, animals and ethics, etc.) at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.