The disingenuous qualifier

The disingenuous qualifier September 2, 2011

I’ve started collecting disingenuous qualifiers.

That’s my term for those little throat-clearing phrases we tend to say that are always followed by the conjunction “but,” after which whatever is said next directly contradicts the preceding phrase.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m collecting these for, I just find them interesting. I think the disingenuous qualifier is a revealing verbal tic. It’s an idiomatic quirk that can tell us something about ourselves, about our perception of others, and about how we wish to be perceived by others.

Some of the disingenuous qualifiers listed below are mostly innocent. They seem to be an attempt to cushion a blow or to brace the listener for what follows by preparing them for something that may be unpleasant, unwelcome or distasteful.

But many of these, I think, are examples of what Francois de La Rochefoucauld meant when he said that “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” They acknowledge and thus, in a way, reinforce certain norms or moral rules, even while violating them. They are an expression of reluctance, however fleeting, to be or to be perceived as being in violation of those norms and thus a kind of recognition of the validity of them.

That can serve as a measure of progress — only partial progress, perhaps, but better than nothing. A society in which people feel obliged to say, “I’m not a racist, but …” before saying something racist is at least slightly less hospitable to racism than one in which statements are freely made without any such qualification, however disingenuous.

Disingenuous qualifiers can also serve to flag the presence of self-deception, alerting ourselves to those traits we possess but are reluctant to acknowledge possessing. If in the course of a week I find myself saying numerous times, “I’m not one to brag, but …,” then that’s a strong indication that, in fact,  I am one to brag and that this may be something it would be best to admit to myself about myself.

Anyway, here’s my initial attempt at compiling some of these. I’m hoping that others will be able to expand this list with suggestions in comments below. I’d be particularly interested to hear from any polyglots about similar idiomatic tics in other languages besides English.

  • I’m not one to brag, but …
  • Not to toot my own horn, but …
  • Not to pat my own back, but …
  • I’m not complaining, but …
  • I don’t want to trouble you, but …
  • No offense, but …
  • Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but …
  • Far be it from me to criticize, but …
  • Not to be pedantic, but …
  • I’m not being picky, but …
  • It’s not my place to say, but …
  • I don’t want to cause trouble, but …
  • I’m not one for gossip, but …
  • I hate to say this, but …
  • I would never say anything bad about Chris, but …
  • I’m sure Pat is a nice person, but …
  • I have nothing against Kim, but …
  • I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but …
  • I don’t want to sound shallow, but …
  • I never read those tabloids, but …
  • I would never watch Jersey Shore myself, but …
  • I’m not an ideologue, but …
  • I’m not a racist, but …
  • I’m not homophobic, but …
  • I’m not sexist, but …
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  • It’s as I pointed out to aunursa: The most common use of the “sin/sinner” thing is when snotty Christian straightsplainers are being patronizing to QUILTBAG people.

    I do so humbly beg your pardon for being EVER SO SLIGHTLY allergic to that phrase.

  • Anonymous

    I understand that you were not directly referencing the QUILTBAG population, but .. given how overwhelmingly that phrase is used in that context, it’s difficult to raise it without at least acknowledging that abuse.

    In my view, on a wider discussion of the phrase, it still fails to have internal consistency. You can quite easily love a person and disapprove of something they do, or love them and dislike what they do – but … HATE is a exceedingly strong word.

    Just because many say silly things like “I hate iced-coffee” does not mean they actually hate it. If they did, they’d be out campaigning to ban it everywhere, attacking innocent passersby with snatch-grab-throw-in-bin ambushes and so on …

    Even if not taken to such extreme, hate is well beyond not liking something. It is an intense emotional response – by almost every definition – and I contend that a person cannot hate a sin, without that hatred tarnishing the bearer of that sin.

    Maybe I’m wrong but I’d need convincing :)

    The origins of the term are quite interesting: they come from St. Augustine, specifically his letter 211 (c. 424) where the phrase “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” is found.

    That roughly translates to “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.”

    And the difference there is an important distinction that almost everyone using the modern version misses. St. Augustine spoke broadly, in the form of two distinct clauses that were not directly connected. He does not mention loving sinners – just the broad (and somewhat sexist now) collective of mankind! Then he uses another collective, ‘sins’ – hmmm.

    When the same general phrase is turned away from the generic/collective, toward the individual manifestation – it loses it’s neutrality.

    “With love for mankind and hatred of sins” … is a world apart from … “Love the sinner, hate the sin”

    In one, the trailing clause does not taint the leading. In the other, even if people are not actively hating the sinner, the taint is almost inevitable :)

  • And the difference there is an important distinction that almost everyone using the modern version misses. St. Augustine spoke broadly, in the form of two distinct clauses that were not directly connected. He does not mention loving sinners – just the broad (and somewhat sexist now) collective of mankind!

    Speaking as a fairly orthodox Christian, I believe the Venn diagram of “sinners” vs “humankind” looks like a single circle, with the exception of one itinerant carpenter and rabbi.

    Beyond that I think that Augustine’s quote (and the modern version) are important in that they draw a distinction between the sinner and the sin. Bill Clinton committed adultery– but he’s not *just* an adulterer. John Newton was a slaver, but he was not *just* a slaver. C.S. Lewis, in _The Great Divorce_ wrote of one character that the question was whether she was a grumbler or just a grumble; at its best the phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin” is a reminder that all of us are flawed but none of us consists solely of his or her flaws.

    That said, it’s like the “I hate to tell you this” — sometimes it’s true, more often it’s because the speaker knows he or she is being an ass and is preemptively absolving him/herself.

  • I hesitated to use examples because I worry people will think I’m making comparisons between these people and QUILTBAG people when I’m not. Mainly because I’d have to use things everyone agrees are wrong and most of those are quite rightly crimes and as you note the phrase has been so abused that it’s hard to seperate the two. The ones that aren’t all tend to be more contraversial.

    But sins that are rightly crimes give the best examples. It’s fair to say most people rightly hate cold blooded murder, and I don’t think it’s too strong a word. It would be irrational not to hate murder. But murderers are still human, still come under the injunction to love my neighbour – so I oppose the death penalty and passionately support a humane prison system that exists to protect society from people who endanger it and to rehabilitate them if possible – not one that exists for vengeance. When Jesus told us we should visit the imprisoned he never mentioned that they had to be innocent or only guilty of minor crimes.

    This is why I say the principle is sound even when the phrase is misused and loaded. Augustine’s generic may become uncomfortably difficult in the specific, but that doesn’t absolve me from trying to live up to it.

  • TooBlueForMyOwnGood

    How about “I don’t want to give offense but……” & “I don’t mean to be offensive but… Both can be seen as derivations of “Don’t take offense”. I bring them up because my mother had two responses I’d like to share.  For the first she would often just say as they get past “but” “Then Don’t!”  For the second she’d often wait till they had their say and respond with “It’s a shame you didn’t succeed”.  

  • Anonymous

    Or – just use the Augustine original form. The end result/action is the same and it avoids any chance of confusion? :)

    But yes, you can apply the modern form, being mindful of the issues – I just think the former is easier.

  • One I see a lot online is “I’m honestly curious,” which is invariably followed by lots of vicious insults phrased as questions. That way the questioner has set themselves up as the victim when people react poorly. “Why are you so mad? I was just asking questions!”

  • One I see a lot online is “I’m honestly curious,” which is invariably followed by lots of vicious insults phrased as questions. That way the questioner has set themselves up as the victim when people react poorly. “Why are you so mad? I was just asking questions!”

  • I think it’s because they don’t understand that the questions are being phrased insensitively (or if they do, they want to avoid being called out).

    It’s like the difference between “I’m honestly curious, how do you know you like guys?” versus “I’m honestly curious, how can you like buttsex IT’S SO GROSS LOLOLOLOLOL.”

  • “I say this as your friend” and “No offense, but …” – I’m not sure I agree that this is always disingenuous. Sometimes you have to communicate an unpleasant truth. You know that you are close to saying something that will offend, but you signal that you want the listener to pay attention to the message and not to make a knee-jerk reaction.

  • HakwerHurricane

    “The proper way to punctuate the sentence “It’s none of my business, but” is to place the period after the ‘but’.  Do not use excessive force providing the busybody a period.  Killing him is only a momentary pleasure and will get you talked about.” – Robert Heinlein

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It is an odd little social quirk isn’t it? Making such a demonstrably false statement about oneself. I have a couple of alternatives, but I’m not sure they’re much better. I’ll sometimes preface a statement with “At the risk of being rude/pedantic/whathaveyou…”. But of course I know I’m not risking anything; I fully intend to do just what I say. I also sometimes use “If you’ll forgive me for being rude/pedantic/whathaveyou…”. But, again, I’m not really interested in whether or not I will be forgiven for anything. But, at least I’m not directly contradicting myself about myself.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It is an odd little social quirk isn’t it? Making such a demonstrably false statement about oneself. I have a couple of alternatives, but I’m not sure they’re much better. I’ll sometimes preface a statement with “At the risk of being rude/pedantic/whathaveyou…”. But of course I know I’m not risking anything; I fully intend to do just what I say. I also sometimes use “If you’ll forgive me for being rude/pedantic/whathaveyou…”. But, again, I’m not really interested in whether or not I will be forgiven for anything. But, at least I’m not directly contradicting myself about myself.

  • Anonymous

    Hah. It used to be a joke in high school that the phrase “I’m not trying to be racist, but…” was ALWAYS followed by racism. The honors team (also known as the kids-whose-WASP-parents-pushed-them-so-they-cheated-on-assessment-tests-and-got-into-the-Gifted-team) had three or four racial minority kids, and the high-school was something like 48% black, 40% white; most kids I knew tended to see racial tension as something to be joked about. The clearest days were two– one, where my friend who was biracial, my friend who was Ghanaian, myself, and maybe two others argued against fifteen white kids and our teacher after someone said “Why shouldn’t the honors team get more privileges? We’re, like, the cream of the crop.” The barely-veiled racism and poor-blaming was so harsh that one of my friends left the class nearly in tears.

    The next was less serious, more “…Did she really just say that?” when a girl said, right in front of the afore-mentioned minority girls, “If I was black and wasn’t afraid to get in a fight, I would so jump her.” I don’t think it ever occurred to her why we weren’t fond of her. (I’m white, but I take shit like that seriously.)

    Then, after I graduated, this happened.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    One I see a lot online is “I’m honestly curious,” which is invariably followed by lots of vicious insults phrased as questions. That way the questioner has set themselves up as the victim when people react poorly. “Why are you so mad? I was just asking questions!”

    A particular favourite of the Internet Atheists (TM) who come by here every couple of months to say “Fred, you seem like an intelligent and decent guy, so I’m genuinely curious about why you claim to be a member of this obviously moronic and evil religion.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    “I’m honestly curious, how do you know you like guys?”

    I’m a bit weirded out about that being a question people actually ask. Do they expect physiological descriptions? Another example of the shit I don’t have to put up with, as a straight person.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, gay guys get that so often and it’s terrible. Gay girls get to put up with the always lovely: “So … err … heh … you two are ‘together’ … right? … Feel like like some 3-way action? C’mon, I can tell you like to party …” *leer*

    /me headdesk

    I mean for crying out loud – there are only so many times you can say, in a very slow and deliberately loud voice … “What part of lesbian are you having difficulty understanding?!!” – only so many times before you just rage to do violence …

  • In the American South, where I live, they like to append “Bless his/her heart” to the end of a particularly vindictive statement, in order to whitewash it. Example: “She’s the dirtiest, whoring bitch I’ve ever laid eyes on… bless her heart.” (well, maybe not quite that extreme, but you get the picture. It’s ridiculously prevalent, and nowhere more so than evangelicalism.

  • Izzy

    Ew, yes.

    I’ve gotten it from Internet Atheists–Internet Fundies seem to generally assume I’m going to Hell anyhow and leave me alone*–the Cult of Nice, and those guys who just rilly rilly want to *understand* why people write fanfic or slash. (I don’t actually *do* either of the last, for the most part, but those guys still bug.)

    I go with the PG-13 Apple Jacks answer: “We just do. Go fuck yourself.”

    *I’ve also never had any of the Amway-er religions try to convert me. Maybe I put out some kind of field.

  • A particular favourite of the Internet Atheists (TM) who come by here
    every couple of months to say “Fred, you seem like an intelligent and
    decent guy, so I’m genuinely curious about why you claim to be a member
    of this obviously moronic and evil religion.”

    Yup. I especially “love” how their assumption is not “how are you religious” but “c’mon, you and I both know you don’t really believe this stuff.”

    I’ve several times gotten the “You’re clearly dedicated to feminist and egalitarian principles, so I’m honestly curious how you reconcile this with your religion.” Because it’s obviously silly to think that I might be dedicated to those principles because of my religious beliefs, not in spite of them.

  • “…no pun intended.”

    “…pun very much intended, thank you very much.”

  • The thing that annoys me as well, is when I point out that I like men and women, some people act as though I can just ignore the “liking men” part of things (>_<)

    It usually takes walking such folks through their physiological reactions to attractive women (whoever their attraction might be to) and explaining that surprise, I feel those reactions to men, too to kind of make people understand being bisexual isn’t like, just ~me being cool~ or somesuch.

  • The thing that annoys me as well, is when I point out that I like men and women, some people act as though I can just ignore the “liking men” part of things (>_<)

    It usually takes walking such folks through their physiological reactions to attractive women (whoever their attraction might be to) and explaining that surprise, I feel those reactions to men, too to kind of make people understand being bisexual isn’t like, just ~me being cool~ or somesuch.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah. I think it’s even worse when gay people go on with the whole “There is not such thing as Bi – just confused gay people”

    Amazing where you can find privilege eh? Tragic too.

  • Anonymous

    “The proper way to punctuate the sentence “It’s none of my business,
    but” is to place the period after the ‘but’….” – Robert Heinlein

    To which the correct response is, “Don’t call me ‘Butt.’ Surely!”

  • To which the correct response is, “Don’t call me ‘Butt.’ Surely!”

    I’ll stop calling you Butt when you stop calling me Shirley.

  • Saint_Otal

    There are only two times when these make sense to use. Either if the qualifier is a matter of fact, and is used to emphasize the following statement rather than to protect yourself from criticism. The other time is when you follow the statement with an explanation of why that doesn’t make you racist/sexist/a Jersey Shore fan.
    For the first one:

    I’m not usually attracted to girls, but I am attracted to [person I know]

    For the second:
    I’m not homophobic, in fact, I’m gay, I just don’t like Dan Savage. I think he’s hurting more than he’s helping, and that the goal of activism is to convince the unconvinced or misled, not throw petty insults on the misleader.

  • Muenchner Kindl

    I agree that some depend very much on the circumstances.

    I don’t want to trouble you, but …

    This has to me a legitimate use: when you would like something, like a cup of coffee while visiting somebody else, and you don’t know how much trouble it is. If it’s just a matter of getting a cup and pouring from already made-coffee, then please, one cup for me; but if you have to haul out the grinder for the coffee beans, chuck wood to heat the oven to heat the water, then a glass of water would also be fine, thanks.

    No offense, but …I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but …

    This I can see from people (like me) who don’t have social ease. I don’t want to sound rude, but I just can’t manage to phrase what I say in a nice way like some other people can. (And some people don’t get subtle hints, too).

    If sincere, starting “I don’t want to be rude,” and meaning “I’m your friend, and therefore, I don’t want to hurt you viciously like a jerk, but say this to your face so you can change it, because other people are simply laughing behind your back” is not disingenious.

    If a casual aquaintance, however, uses it to deflect nasty spite disguised as helpful criticism, then it is disingenious.

  • Anonymous

    I think it was Peg Bracken who said that people who begin a statement with “Now, I’m one of those people who always say just what they think” never seem to think anything very nice.  They think things like “Let’s face it, that so-called ‘best friend’ of yours is a trollop.”  And then they say it.

  • Alex

    This reminds me of one of Robert A. Heinlein’s aphorisms (published as “Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long” in Time Enough For Love):

    The correct way to punctuate a sentence that starts: “Of course it is none of my business but–” is to place a period after the word “but.” Don’t use excessive force in supplying such moron with a period. Cutting his throat is only a momentary pleasure and is bound to get you talked about.

  • LOL! My dear departed mom had a snake phobia and also had to put up with me as a 10 year old saying “I don’t want to scare you, but look at this pretty photo of a snake. Isn’t it beautiful?” As she screamed to my delight.