Midwest Voices

The perils of 'I’m Not, But ' talk, especially when it turns to Maryville teen sex case

Kelly Luck
Kelly Luck The Kansas City Star

Sometimes life gives us little warning signs. Nothing huge, you understand, just little signals dropped in our way to let us know it might be a good idea to stop and consider whether we want to modify our present course of action. The hissing skunk raising its tail. The mother bear rearing up and growling. The guy coming toward you with no pants and an inflatable doll in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. You know, warning signs.

By the same token, there are little signals that go with the language as well, like the stony look on people’s faces about a third of the way into that


story of yours, or that particular way your spouse says “fine” which means you are in vast amounts of trouble. Or any number of little phrases, like “I can explain ” or following up a compliment with “for a (fill-in-the-blank),” insidious little things that can slip right out of your mouth and land you in a world of hurt.

Take one of the worst offenders: the dreaded “I’m not, but ” Three simple words, an automatic early-warning system for incoming awfulness. Usually employed as a pre-emptive non-disclaimer disclaimer, this is roughly translated as “I’m about to say something really awful about someone or something while simultaneously insisting that’s totally not what I’m saying at all, and if you interpret it as such then clearly it’s your own fault.” Like at family gatherings, for example, when That One Uncle says something like “I’m not racist, but ” and you just


, don’t you, that there’s no way that sentence is going to end well.

Or say you’re Joseph DiBenedetto, a criminal defense attorney invited onto Fox News to comment on the Maryville rape case. Suppose, in the course of discussion, you hear the words “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped, but” escape your lips. That’s your signal to stop. Just stop. Do not pass Go, do not say “What did she expect to happen after sneaking out?” Do not suggest that probably nothing happened anyway and that it’s all just the girl’s way to get out of trouble for going out at night. She didn’t get raped but she totally deserved it? Really? Please, Mr. DiBenedetto, if you’re going to be awful, at least be consistent.

It was at this point that Fox News host Shepard Smith, who had spent a few minutes in stunned silence, stepped in. “What you’ve done, Joseph, is taken an alleged victim of rape and turned her into a liar and a crime committer,” he said. “That’s a far jump.” Now, when when you’re on Fox News, who have invited you over


to defend a possible rapist, and even they think you’ve taken things too far, that’s about DEFCON 1 of putting your foot in your mouth.

So that was about 10 days ago. So far there’s been no hint of apology or contrition from the New York-based attorney. But then, it’s hard to expect that there would be. A mindset that comes out with “I’m not saying this thing I’m saying, but ” is not a mindset that is given to sober reflection and seeing the other person’s point of view. At best, you might get a curt “I’m sorry if you were offended,” which has the advantage of sounding like an apology while actually blaming the other person for being upset.

But no doubt life will go on for Mr. DiBenedetto: one of our most cherished freedoms is the right to be able to make an ass of oneself in public, and some folks never miss out on their patriotic duty to do so. In the meantime, a young girl and her family have been chased out of a small town, their lives turned upside down and the girl herself thrust into the international spotlight because — once again — we are reminded that when sexual assault goes to court it is generally the victim that is really on trial, and if her assailant was popular, or influential, or higher up the socioeconomic ladder, then justice becomes a distant dream, too much to hope for.

And as for Mr. DiBenedetto? Well, no doubt we shall hear from him again. Someone like that clearly has a lot of things to say, and is not shy about saying them. So we shall keep an ear out, waiting for the next time he steps out into the limelight, ready to excuse villainy or cast innuendos on innocents like some weaselly heap of sludge in a suit.

Mind you, I’m not saying he


, but