How to Give Jerks a Hard Time Without Becoming One

Obverse Psychology is the tie-breaking alternative to bickering.

Posted Jul 30, 2018

Your increasingly bratty eight-year-old has found a trick that he loves to use on you. Whatever you say, he just says, “I know you are but what am I?”

You’ve tried everything and can’t break through it. When you accuse him of automatic 180-degree finger-pointing, he says another, “I know you are but what am I?” And he’s right. You are finger pointing.

Your nice or inattentive partner is sick of hearing you bicker and tells you both to stop: It’s futile. "You’re both wrong, never mind who is more wrong."

You don’t need to have a child or spouse to experience such stalemates. Adults sometimes lean into only slightly less subtle versions of “I know you are but what am I?” These days there are right-wing TV and radio brats using nothing but variations on it and a whole cult of followers using it online and in political discourse. Forty years ago, left-wing hippy spiritual brats got high with versions of it. Seventy years ago, the Soviet government did too. Eight hundred years ago the Catholic church did also.

And closer to home, you’ve got bosses, colleagues, relatives or friends who act like hypocritical know-it-alls because they’ve discovered ways to make “I know you are but what am I?” sound just a little more grown up which makes you defensive and leaves nice or inattentive onlookers saying “You’re both hypocrites. A pox on both your houses for bickering.”

“I know you are but what am I?” is a way to claim victory in all arguments – a way to fake infallibility, invincibility, and unassailability. Accusing people of it makes you sound like your using the same bratty technique in what could be called an “infallibility war,” a war to decide who is right about everything and who is wrong about everything.

You’ve no doubt experienced such infallibility war stalemates, two sides finger-pointing their way to an impasse.\Such wars don’t decide anything. They cause observers to walk away in disgust even when there are important real-world decisions to make:

Stalinist: Anti-Stalinists are hypocrites.

Anti-Stalinist: No, Stalinists are hypocrites.
Onlooker: I won’t bother picking sides here. You’re both hypocrites for finger-pointing.\That’s a dangerous outcome to avoid if we want onlookers to remain attentive to threats.

“Obverse Psychology” is a way to escape such stalemates with dignity, honesty, and truth intact. Obverse means the flip-side. Tails is the obverse of heads which is the obverse of tails. Obverse psychology points the finger at the two sides of coins we all flip in everyday decision-making.

Hypocrites accuse people of doing bad things that they would never do, even though they do them. The accusations make us defensive, claiming that we don’t do them either, when, in fact, we do.

Such denials lead to infallibility-war stalemates. For example:

X: You’re a name caller.

Y: I’m not a name caller! You are!

X: Ha! You just called me a name-caller. See? You’re a hypocrite.

Z: Sheesh, you guys! Cut it out!

Using obverse psychology you avoid falling into a stalemate:

X: You’re a name caller!

Y: Of course I’m a name-caller! Like you, like everyone. The question is whether I’m name calling appropriately.

Name calling is just a way to discredit someone’s credibility. If there were a moral law against it you couldn’t call Stalin a hypocrite, which he was. We call people wonderful, great, etc. too –also name-calling. Discounting and elevating are two sides of the same coin. Such two-sided coins earn you useful variations on the serenity prayer, for example: Grant me the skepticism to discredit the bad, the trust to elevate the good and the wisdom to know the difference.

Obverse psychology’s attendance to the two-sidedness is the antidote to the hypocrisy of single standards. We think of double standards as the source of hypocrisy but single standards can be just as bad or worse. To take a simple example, maybe you think that hate is never good and always bad. You’ve got a single standard about it.

Try with all your might, you’ll never be able to live by that single standard. Why? Because love and hate are obverse sides of the same coin. You can’t love something without hating its opposite. You can’t love truth, justice, peace, and equality without hating lying, injustice, war, and inequality. You can’t even love love without hating hate. Pretending that you’ve got a single-standard way to avoid all hate encourages hypocrisy.

Here’s a debate that could have ended in an infallibility-war stalemate but doesn’t because Y uses obverse psychology:

X: Name callers like you are weak-minded.

Y: That’s hypocritical since “name callers” and “weak-minded” are name-calling.

X: See, you just deflected with “I know you are but what am I?” You’re a hypocrite.

Y: I am indeed a hypocrite and name-caller, as are you, as is everyone. I embrace both moves as part of my repertoire.

X: So you think it’s fine to do bad things because everybody does them?

Y: Hardly. I think there are times when name calling is the worst move and times when it’s the best move and everything in between. Name-calling is being honest about our opinions, which can take many forms. Not name-calling is being tactful which can take many forms. They’re two sides of the same coin. Honesty and tact both have their place. I try to get better at guessing when to flip to which side.

X: You’re so judgmental!

Y: It’s judgmental to call people judgmental, but yes, I’m definitely judgmental. I try to judge attentively. Judging and not judging are two sides of a coin too.

X: Yeah, but you think you’re the ultimate judge.

Y: No, consequences are the ultimate judge. By trial and error, I try to get better at anticipating the consequences, so I can, for example, name-call be hypocritical and judge where it helps more than it hurts.

X: You’re so arrogant!

Y: Claiming you know who is arrogant is arrogant, and yes I am arrogant. There are times when I’ll try to get the upper hand just like you, like everyone.

X: So you think you’re strong-minded?

Y: I do think it’s more strong-minded to try to figure out when it’s best to use which move for the moment, the wisdom of questing to know the differences that make a difference.  I think it’s weak-minded to play police protecting the world against moves you use like everyone else. Just because you don’t like people calling you names, doesn’t mean you don’t use them. Your contempt for a move when its used against you doesn’t make you exempt from using it on others.

X. See? You hate hypocrisy.

Y: Of course. Like you like everyone. And I also like hypocrisy like you, like everyone. The question is: in which contexts? For example, I like the hypocrisy of lying to goon squads about the whereabouts of their escaped victims, but I don’t like goon squads lying about torturing their victims. Apparently hypocrisy has its place. The question is: which places? That’s what I try to figure out by trial and error.

X: There you go again: Deflecting. “I know you are but what am I?” is all I get from you.

Y: If deflecting were always wrong, we’d have to follow people’s leads everywhere. We’re talking about lots of things here, right? We haven’t brought them all to resolution. We each follow out different threads. If I let you police me as though you never deflect, then you get to lead me around by the nose. I embrace deflecting as another necessary, sometimes-useful move. I try to figure out where it is and isn’t useful.

X: For manipulating people to get what you want?

Y: Yes, for manipulating well and for getting what I want within the tension of me and we – my selfish motivations and what’s good for everyone.  Again, just like you, just like everyone. We all use all the moves. You are no exception even though you police as though you are.  The real question is which moves to use where not who uses them and who doesn’t. Pretending that we don’t use the moves that we declare universally bad just stunts our growth on the real question: When to use which moves?


You’ve heard that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s not the original quote which is better – more honest and accurate:

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That framing applies to lots of supposedly universal vices which are actually virtues in their proper place.

Hypocrisy tends to corrupt. Absolute hypocrisy corrupts absolutely. Absolute hypocrisy is the automatic deflection of all challenges with variations on “I know you are but what am I?” It corrupts absolutely. It’s that simple trick that makes people jerks and makes tribes cults.

Don’t get sucked into it. When someone challenges you to an infallibility war, a battle to decide who’s right and who’s wrong about everything, don’t take the bait. Don’t get defensive or you’ll end up another hypocrite deflecting all challenges.

Instead use obverse psychology, calling attention to the many serenity prayer-like quests we’re all on. Here’s a list of just some of the serenity prayer variations we’re all dealing with in our trial-and-error effort to figure out what side of the coin is most helpful in which contexts.