No Buts About It

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are problematic. So is the word many of its critics keep using.

Over the past two years, I’ve become obsessed with buts. One T. The conjunction. Buts have always been around, but lately they are too visible, to commonplace. In the two days since the Charlie Hebdo killings, I’ve tried to kick this sentiment in the but:

“It’s terrible that 12 people were killed, BUT Charlie Hebdo was a bigoted magazine.”

Only in a problematic world can that sentence be grammatically correct.

In elementary school, we learn the acronym FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. Conjunctions serve to join two things, such as peanut butter AND jelly.

  • I like neither peanut butter NOR jelly.
  • David likes peanuts BUT not peanut butter.
  • Don’t give Sally peanuts, FOR she has lots of food allergies.
  • I’m not allergic to peanuts, YET eating Reese’s candy gives me hives, SO there must be something else in them that triggers me.

These sentences make sense, because the concepts or ideas on either side of the conjunctions are equivalent, related, or comparable. Consider what happens when conjunctions connect unrelated ideas:

  • I want either peanut butter OR a 1971 Plymouth Duster.
  • You like peanuts, SO you’ll probably like 1971 Plymouth Dusters.
  • You like peanuts, BUT not 1971 Plymouth Dusters.

Unless we’re in a surreal, Dadaist world, we can’t compare peanuts and cars. These concepts are unrelated. An inelegant yet useful “backronym” for but is “Behold, My underlying Truth.” Very often, the concept or clause following the conjunction “but” contains the writer’s real intent.

  • I love pizza, BUT not with anchovies. (My dislike of pepperoni trumps my love of pizza.)
  • I hate to call you at 1AM, BUT this is urgent. (My need to call you trumps your desire to sleep.)
  • Mrs. Dalton is a strict disciplinarian, but her children are model citizens. (The public behavior of the Dalton children trumps possible qualms about Mrs. Dalton’s parenting style.)

Ugly buts attempt to join two asymmetrical things into a related whole.

  • I know I shouldn’t hit my children, BUT I’ve had a very stressful day.
  • Mussolini killed thousands of innocent people, BUT he made the trains run on time.
  • Rape is never okay, BUT that college student chose to drink alcohol at the party.
  • It’s terrible that 12 people were killed, BUT Charlie Hebdo was a bigoted magazine.

Every one of those buts is indecent for the same reason: each hints at equivalence where none exists. More specifically, each puts a violent act (child abuse, genocide, rape, or mass murder) on a plane with a non-violent act (experiencing stress, reforming transit, drinking alcohol, or publishing garbage). Dictators can’t use infrastructure reform to justify genocide. College deans can’t use consensual drinking as a counterweight to non-consensual sex. And we shouldn’t set “bigoted cartoons” and “automatic gunfire” on the same continuum.

We don’t need a conjunction between these thoughts, we need a [brick wall], rhetorically speaking.

  • I like peanuts. [brick wall] I drive a 1971 Plymouth Duster. (I see no logical reason to connect these thoughts.)
  • Police choked a man to death. [brick wall] The man had sternly told the police to leave him alone. (I see no logical reason to connect these thoughts.)
  • Charlie Hebdo published insensitive and spiteful cartoons. [brick wall] Gunmen shot and killed many of the staff members. (I see no logical reason to connect these thoughts.)

Charlie Hebdo can be a racist, Islamophobic magazine AND a bastion of free speech. You can be an ally of oppressed minorities AND an ally of free expression. You can decline to repost the cartoons BUT refuse to rationalize the violent deaths of the cartoonists. You can decry offensive artwork YET defend offensive artists.

You can write and say anything you wish; that’s the whole point. If you use the construction “It’s terrible that 12 people were killed, BUT Charlie Hebdo was a bigoted magazine,” please know that you are talking out of your but.

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