A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 21st, 2015 by William

I Know You Are, but What Am I?

“I Know You Are, but What Am I?” is a classic retort spoken by Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) in the 1985 film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Although most people credit Pee-Wee for this line, it has been around for a while. It first appears in the 1974 article “Philosophies of Communication: Implications for Everyday Experience” by Lee Thayer.

The phrase is an assertion that an insult made by someone toward another is really only true of the person making the initial insult. Of course the second part of the question then serves as a taunt (as we see in the movie) for the insulter to come up with a new insult. And as we see in the movie the back and can forth go on and on.

In the beginning of the movie Pee-Wee is just minding his own business when the local bully, Francis, comes by and tells Pee-Wee that he wants to buy his bike. Pee-Wee’s not having it and tells Francis his awesome bike’s not for sale. Francis then tells Pee-Wee he must be crazy. Pee-Wee responds to Francis’s accusation that he’s crazy by saying “I know you are but what am I?” Francis keeps the insults coming by responding with “You’re a nerd!” and “You’re an idiot!” All of which Pee-Wee responds with, “I know you are but what am I?” After this back and forth goes on for a while, Pee-Wee rides off happy on his bike. Francis then angrily points his finger at Pee-Wee and shouts, “You’ll be sorry, Pee-wee Herman!!” Of course if you’re familiar with the film you know that later Pee-Wee’s bike gets stolen and Francis becomes the prime suspect. The rest of the movie chronicles Pee-Wee’s adventure to find his bike.

You don’t really hear the phrase, “I know you are but what am I?” in adult circles–certainly not literally. However, I call this phrase to your attention because I’m reminded of it every time I see back and forth political discussions (term used loosely) on Facebook. While no one ever literally uses this phrase, most Facebook discussions, that are political in nature, follow the “I know you are, but what am I” insult/taunt format. In my last post, “I Feel I’m on a Life Support Machine and Everyone Keeps Pulling the Plug to Charge Their Phones,” I offered up what I think to be a new societal problem in that we, as a society, have become actively aggressive toward one another in the interest of pressing our own needs and, more so, our beliefs onto others. And this aggressiveness is manifesting itself on our social media platforms like Facebook. And nowhere does it show more than in political discussions.

The dialog between Francis and Pee-Wee is almost like a Facebook dialog between two people of differing political persuasions. The first person posts something defaming or mocking toward another’s political beliefs–just like Francis telling Pee-Wee he must be crazy. Someone else responds virtually as Pee-Wee did with “I know you are but what am I?” The first person then responds like Francis keeping the insults coming by responding with “You’re a nerd!” or “You’re an idiot!” and so on. While the words may be different the intent is the same.

I understand the powerful urge to convert those with whom we disagree. The desire to win and keep score is a powerful drive. Each of us has an inner lawyer, ready day or night to make a defense for our beliefs and try to convince the jury to see our side of any argument. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business reminds us, “There are two ways to get at the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their observations, and test them. Lawyers begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.” Most of us as it turns out are absolutely outstanding lawyers yet believe that we are open minded scientists.

That’s OK–to an extent–its human nature. But what I see happening today is we seem to go out of our way to post things on social media that can be downright insulting to anyone other than those that share our views. We insult each other under the narcissistic guise that our beliefs are the only ones that matter and everyone who disagrees must be an idiot.

The posts that usually kick-off these disrespectful discussions take the form of the sharing of a cartoon, or some biased news article, that presents something negative about someone, something, or some group that has different beliefs than we have. These posts either make fun of the other side of an argument or support our own belief or position on an issue. For example we share a post that supports global warming knowing full well we have friends that don’t necessarily buy into that theory.

In a world where everyone gets offended by the least little thing it’s no wonder these discussions quickly escalate. This is because, when insulted, we all feel the overpowering need to respond to prove the other person wrong. They then respond again and we’re off on our own Big Adventure. Our initial response to someone making one of these posts is as if we just said: “I know you are, but what am I?” This is no different than the response by Pee Wee to Francis having told him he’s an idiot.

Of course when we engage in these back and forth discussions there’s an added benefit if we can get others to side with us, i.e., to “like” our comments or posts. However, keep in mind this is just the gathering of agreement by people who already agree with us. We relish getting these “likes” because we’re little better than a gang trying to bully others. The sad fact is that many times we maliciously post inflammatory information just to get a rise out of those who disagree with us. We do it despite the fact that no one has ever converted their beliefs because of the silly shit biased posts on Facebook.

Sadly, this behavior is driven by an underlying self-doubt. The fact is we all have a self-doubt about whether our beliefs are really the best and fear subconsciously that we’re making a mistake in our belief. Having others reinforce what we believe in quiets this doubt and further embolden us to post more inflammatory junk. This behavior isn’t new–it’s been around long before the Internet or social media. It’s captured in an old saying that describes this behavior perfectly; “if you want to build the biggest house in your neighborhood, there’s two ways to do it. Roll your sleeves up and build the biggest house, or tear everyone else’s house down.”

Increasingly so this on-line incivility is further fueled by how divisive our culture has become–especially in the political arena because it seems that every issue facing our society has become a political flash point. Sadly, that divisiveness seems to be getting worse by the day. In politics the candidates that we seem to idolize, both left and right, are focused on tearing down the other guy, either in the opposing party, or as we see in primary season each other within their own party. Rhetoric is spewed versus telling us what they really stand for or what they’ll do once in office. Ironically, when either side does tell us what they will do once in office, they are pounced on and ridiculed as not knowing what they’re talking about, or (my favorite) that they don’t give enough detail thus aren’t credible. It’s just like what most of us have endured at work. We’re told that our good idea “will never work,” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work.”

What a beautiful and peaceful world this would be if the candidates spoke only about their own personal beliefs and what they’ll do in office and then we, the electorate, can just listen to what each candidate has to say, process that through our own private belief filters and then make a decision on who we’ll vote for? Then let the chips fall where they may. Alas that will never happen unless we stop gutter snipping at everyone we disagree with?

When reflecting on the latest school shooting in Oregon, one of my friends noted that she believed the real underlying causes for this epidemic lies in our outright stressful society that we’ve created. We are a society that has developed unrealistic expectations about our future, thus we develop an inability to cope with disappointment. This has spawned the entitlement mentality we see today. And part of that entitlement mentality is the expectation that we’ll always get our own way whether in our personal life or in how and where we think the country should go.

A good example is the practice of every child getting an award just for participating. It teaches kids that no matter their effort or skills they will be rewarded. Couple this with the fact that they’re taught that they need not have accountability or responsibility for their actions. Everything negative that happens to them, or that they do, is society’s fault, not theirs. All this contributes to the recipe for the exact environment we see today, both politically as a nation and how we individually behave on social media.

Another thing that makes all the gutter-snipping so pitiful is a direct result of the internet’s ability to provide us with any article, study, opinion or data that supports our view. The problem is that most people take these as the gospel (oops a religious reference) and then “share” them on their Facebook page for all their friends to see. The Internet can provide us with a full arsenal of false yet sophisticated data proving that our beliefs are the only true ones and that anyone who disagrees with us must be intellectually or morally bankrupt. The sad thing is this is really a diversionary tactic to deflect our own self-doubt onto all our challengers.

Few people will ever take the time to check the sources and the underlying data behind these (often humorous I’ll admit) posts before they feel the overpowering need to “share” them. In most cases all these articles prove is that if someone wants to make a point they can dredge up any story or fudge any numbers to support their belief. We think we get away with it because our arguments are credible to enough people. They make attacking each other look like fun and they attract many joiners. Unfortunately, it’s turning social media into little better than a rhetorical goon squad.

A child who uses the “I know you are, but what am I?” argument thinks he’s winning regardless of whether his challenger really does. Thinking we’re winning is why we engage in this childish behavior. It makes us feel good. However, “I know you are but what am I?” is not a credible approach to adult arguments yet it’s the perfect way to describe what’s happening when we gutter snipe at each other on Facebook.

If we really want to look credible in our need to convince others to our way of thinking we should try to make our arguments credible by citing facts not rhetoric. This is done through the use of critical thinking. Rhetoric is a great political tool but when you really want to change minds its best to present an argument based on critical thinking as would a scientist. As a society we have lost our ability to think critically. We are a society that does what makes us feel good, not necessarily what’s in our collective best interest. I’ll wager that if all the people who are overly, sometimes militantly, staunch in their beliefs would really take the time to look at both sides of an issue, including the cause and effect of their beliefs, they just might find they have to call into question many of their beliefs. Who am I kidding–that will never happen. Sadly, today most issues are believed only because they have a Democrat or Republican following.

In the end, I’m reminded by what H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), American essayist and philologist once said, “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

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