Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The occasional if; too many buts.

But. What does it mean? Why do we use it? What purpose does it serve us? Dictionaries will give us a variety of synonyms: although, however, nevertheless, on the other hand, yet…

But…in practical terms, what does it do in the context of a sentence?

In basic terms, the word “but” when used as a conjunction, negates everything in the sentence that came before it.

For example, “I really like you, but you have bad breath”. What do you, the listener, remember? You remember that you had bad breath. Or “I’m sorry, but you’re fired.” Do you remember that your boss is sorry, or that you’re now unemployed?

It’s a classic way of making yourself feel better while still saying what you feel you have to say, even though it’s not what you believe.

Footballer Andrew Johns made the following apology after being busted for something thuggish that footballers do (I’ve lost track)…you’ll get the drift:

"For me personally, it’s put my family through enormous anguish and
embarrassment, and has once again, and for that I can’t say ‘sorry’
enough. But the police did investigate the situation at the time, the
allegation, and there were no charges laid. But there has been a lot
of pain and embarrassment to a lot of people."

Count the buts: Yep, two of them. Break it down, and he’s what this apology sounds like, in order of importance:

1. Pain and embarrassment that I got busted. Please pity me.
2. The cops said I’m innocent.
3. More embarrassment: I’d better apologise.

Remember Troy Buswell, WA politician and notorious chair-sniffer and adulterer? He’s had some experience with apologies, and he uses the “I’m sorry, but…” technique.

Wendy Francis, former Queensland Family First candidate was responsible for tweeting some homophobic garbage comparing gay marriage with child abuse. Her apology, which we posted on her website, said

“I treat every person with personal respect. But we all have the right
to stand firmly on principles.”

What message do we take away from that? It sounds as though Ms Francis treats every person with personal respect only after she has measured them against her rigid set of principles…none of which addresses the original tweet.

So common is the but-infested syntax that even the PM herself has uses it to excess. In just one radio interview during the 2010 election campaign, the PM butted nine times, but none of those times were during an apology. When someone says “I am flat out but I’m feeling good, full of energy,” it doesn’t have quite the same impact on the meaning of the sentence.

(See how I did that again, with the ‘but’? It’s a great trick if you are aware of it.)

Today, Scott Morrison “apologised” for his stance on Federal Government funding of travel expenses of Christmas Island asylum seekers to travel to Sydney to attend the funerals of those killed in December’s boat tragedy.

I’m not convinced though.

This morning, Morrison told 2GB “the timing of my comments over the last 24 hours was insensitive and was inappropriate.” Did you catch what he didn’t say? He didn’t say his comments were insensitive, just that the timing was insensitive.

It gets worse. He confirmed it.

“I know probably more than anyone how strongly people feel about this
issue, how angry they get about the costs that are involved, and I
share that anger and I want to see that changed, but there is a time
and place.”

So there’s the word. But. What is Mr Morrison really saying there? Only the words after the b-word matter. He’s saying that he still believes what he said was right; it’s just become politically inconvenient and he wishes it hadn’t.

I don’t believe Mr Morrison is sorry for what he said. He believes that what he said is right and justified. His leader, Tony Abbott, has congratulated him for manning up and apologising. I suppose it’s a step up for Tony, from the silent shake-and-bake from last week, but it’s a very shallow step.

And Joe Hockey? He’s put his bicycle into reverse too. He’s now saying that Morrison questioning why funerals weren’t held on Christmas Island was an appropriate question. Perhaps it was…but (Oops, I did it again.) Morrison was only concerned about the location in terms of how it related to costs, and what it could get him in political terms.

And in the end, what did it get Morrison and the Libs? Another great pain in the butt.

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