I don’t know.
Though we hear it very often, it’s an infuriating turn of phrase, and a choice one in political circles, recently made wildly popular by our president (see President Obama’s ‘I don’t know’ strategy — and its limits, by Chris Cillizza.) Somehow, our culture has accepted this phrase, although I’m sure plenty of people are fighting against it. I don’t allow my children to say it, and they hardly permit it from me. It seems we demand accountability from each other. Heck, I don’t even allow other people’s children to say it within earshot, encouraging them to find other ways of expressing either their lack of knowledge, or, more importantly, their willingness to learn more.
Why do I find this phrase so repulsive?
I don’t know is tantamount to surrender. I don’t know is an admission of incompetence, an acceptance of inability, an assertion of ineptitude – stupidity, even. And, I don’t know equals I don’t care. If you don’t know, find out. If it’s important enough to comment on your status of knowledge, then you ought to care enough to improve your knowledge.
I don’t know equals abdication, a refusal, I don’t want to know. I don’t wanna know is really surrender – don’t attack me because I’m blameless because I don’t know. It worked really well in Germany in the 1930s and 40s – I don’t know about any concentration camps – until it didn’t anymore.
Our society accepts the phrase because that seems easier than addressing the core issues. Many politicians have used the I don’t know strategy, including our current one. He clearly uses I don’t know in the extreme, as a tool to avoid culpability. He didn’t know about the NSA spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He didn’t know about any gun running in Fast and Furious. He didn’t know about the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups’ tax-exempt status applications. “I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG, eh, report had been leaked through, press, uh, to the press.” He didn’t know about how bad the Obamacare website was before its launch, going so far as to allow his Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reiterate his non-knowledgeable status before the launch on October 1, 2013. (Here’s a fascinating compilation of many of his assertions of his lack of knowledge.) To add credibility, the administration often will assert how angry or upset Obama is by his lack of knowledge, forgetting, momentarily, that I don’t know is self-imposed. He is the most powerful man in the world. Knowledge is power. He has all the knowledge available to him. Instead, he opts against knowledge, if we are to take him at his word.
He understands that I don’t know is a get out of jail free card, keeping him safe from the responsibility that comes with knowledge. That may be why those surrounding him admit to knowing of a pending scandal, but insist they didn’t tell him. To the administration, being considered a bad manager is preferable to being seen as an accomplice in defrauding the American public. But that’s where they are wrong. Plausible deniability does not equal absolution of sin.
I don’t know is an insult, a shrug, a dismissal. It is, ultimately, disrespectful of both your audience and yourself. I don’t know is really the archetypal expression of irresponsibility. It is the passive-aggressive battle cry of the liberal progressive. (That, and you don’t know!)
In what might be the most interesting part of all of this, the media has been complicit in lending the I don’t know strategy authority. In a CNN report on Anderson Cooper 360, titled, “Did Obama Know About the Secret Wait List?” Cooper illustrates this participation, while simultaneously taking the administration to task in the sub-title of the report “Keeping Them Honest.” Over one thousand servicemen may have died waiting for medical care, while the president was busy not knowing about the troubles at the VA, issues he had specifically campaigned on in 2007. He didn’t know they were that bad. I don’t know is deadly, sometimes. It is up to the living to answer “Why not?” and “You should have known,” to hold them accountable, not to lend credibility to a tired old one-size-fits-all phrase. I don’t know is unacceptable. It’s not an excuse; it’s a cop-out, and should not be tolerated from those who are sworn to serve.
Because I should only expect to get as good as I give, I’m resolving now to banish the phrase from my life.
To cure an addiction, it’s best to replace it with a new habit. I’m replacing I don’t know with I know: I know, let me take a stab at it or I know, I will look up the answer or I know, I’m going to find out. I don’t know is a refusal. It’s an end-of-the-line declaration. It’s a halt. But, instead of saying, I don’t know, say: I will further the discussion, I will find the solution, I will make the necessary analysis to find the truth.
Say I know.
I don’t know is a denial – more specifically, a denial of knowledge in general.
Enough! Let’s go find the truth, seek the answers, press for accountability. I don’t know is an acceptance of impotence, but you have at your fingertips the ability to know.
Never again succumb to I don’t know.
So, that’s my New Year’s Resolution: not say or accept the words, I don’t know.
I’ve really come to understand that I don’t know is a white flag. And I refuse to waive the white flag. How about you?