“I’m not a/an X, but…”

For a while, I’ve been thinking about sentences of the form “I’m not a [label,] but [statement.]”  After some quick searches on LexisNexis and Google, I think I can assign these sentences to two major categories: those which are a way of saying “Please don’t dismiss me after you hear this statement,” and those which are a way of saying “Please don’t dismiss me before you hear this statement.”

1. “Please don’t dismiss me after you hear this statement” sentences seem to break into two major sub-categories.  First, those where the form is “I’m not a [person who is hostile to group X,] but [idea that might be unhelpful to members of group X.]”  Second, those where the form is “I’m not a [person who stands to benefit from policy Y,] but [endorses policy Y.]”

Examples of the form “I’m not a [person who is hostile to group X,] but [idea that might be unhelpful to members of group X]” are not abundant in the results of the simple searches I have done, perhaps because the form has become such a cliché.  So, a Google search for “I’m not a racist, but” draws up many more examples of people denouncing sentences of the form “I’m not a racist, but [associates self with racist idea]” than actual examples of that form.  Among these results are a number of sites devoted to an award-winning book called I’m Not a Racist, But…  Perhaps the form is more common in spoken language than online.  It’s easy to come up with jokes about sentences of this form, jokes making it obvious that the person disclaiming the label is precisely the person for whom the label was invented.  So, this was the top result in my latest Google search for “I’m not an anti-semite, but.”   These jokes in turn have become so familiar that they can themselves be joked about, sometimes in jokes like this where the label does not suggest hostility at all.

The fact that a label shows up between “I’m not a” and “but” can suggest that the speaker believes that s/he would be dismissed if s/he accepted it.  By association with sentences like those above, this might in turn suggest that the label names some form of hostility.  So, “I’m not a feminist, but [endorses basic principle of feminism]” is a form of sentence that annoys people who regard “feminist” as a label to be worn with pride, not least because it may suggest that feminism represents a form of group hostility.

Examples of the form “I’m not a [person who stands to benefit from policy Y,] but [endorses policy Y]” are a bit trickier to find, but do not seem uncommon.  So, the top result for “I’m not rich, but” is this statement opposing taxes on the rich.

2. “Please don’t dismiss me before you hear this statement” seems to be, if anything, the more common meaning for this locution in online text.  Here the meaning seems to be “I’m not a [person qualified to give an expert opinion about this topic,] but [statement which calls for the support of an expert’s opinion.]  The top result for an overall Google search in the form “i’m not a *, but” is at the moment “I’m not a Buddhist, but…,” a list of books about Buddhism on Amazon.com.  Not being a Buddhist, the person is not someone we would typically regard as a guide to Buddhism.  S/He acknowledges this, and asks to be heard in spite of it.  And I suppose we’ve all heard sentences that begin with “I’m not a scientist, but…”

Most Americans have heard the line “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”  This was the opening of a widely-ridiculed advertisement that ran on US television in 1986.  As I recall, it was on quite frequently for a good many weeks.  I never found out what they were trying to sell, as the rest of the commercial was always drowned out by the sound of my laughter.  Perhaps what makes that line so very preposterous is that it calls attention to the speech act.  The actor seemed to be saying “I’m not a [person qualified to give an expert opinion about this topic,] but [you obviously don’t care about that, since you’re watching this ad.]”

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