What Shia LaBeouf means when he says 'Do you know who I am?'

The most heinous words a celebrity can say are loaded with subtext

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"Do you know who I am?"

It is possibly the most obnoxious thing a celebrity can say. And therefore the funniest. But I would argue it is also the most revealing. A bald-faced expression of desperation and despair. What's really going on when a celebrity spits out these words?

Umbrage has been taken! A celebrity is officially throwing down the I'm-being-irrational card — Hey, peon, I warrant special treatment — and nothing said or done in the immediate aftermath can be taken seriously because the whole thing is just so absurd.

But what are celebrities really saying when they go down this path?

Do you know who I am?

I've been thinking about the deeper meaning behind this question, which was uttered just last week amid the Shia LaBeouf fracas at a performance of "Cabaret" in New York. He was hauled off by police at intermission, and they got an earful: "Do you know who the f--- I am?"

It's been shouted at service industry workers and law enforcement officers alike. You could field a softball team with the number of recent celebrities who have pulled rank with this phrase (Reese Witherspoon, Rihanna, Sam Worthington, Alec Baldwin, Tara Reid, countless professional athletes). LaBeouf is now undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction, but within a day of his arrest Buzzfeed had already posted a listicle: "12 Celebrities Who've Wondered Aloud, 'Don't You Know Who the #$@% I Am?'"

We instantly recoil at this type of posturing, right? America is predicated on small-d democracy. No butting in line just because you can trace your lineage back to some conquering ruler. Except social rank does exist. Certain people live in the VIP section of life, and we all tacitly acknowledge this.

But once someone has the gall to assert this delineation out loud?

"We feel as if they already have all of the perks and privileges of our modern society," said Sanford Goldberg, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. "Do they really need to lord this over us, to rub our noses in the relative obscurity of our lives?"

Do you know who I am?

This is not an unimportant question for a celebrity.

Stardom is a profession all its own. Who you are is a primary factor. The brand is you. That's what you're selling.

But here is the grasping, plaintive cry that I also hear underlying those words: Do I have any value at all if I am not known? Will I dissolve away entirely if you don't recognize me? Maybe. Maybe.

"Consider the embedded question itself," said Goldberg, whose specialty is semantics: "Who am I?"

Hooo boy. None of us is immune to moments of existential angst. But at least we average types are able to "wrestle with the anxieties of the self in the privacy of our homes," Goldberg said. "Perhaps this is a small gift that comes with a life lived without the weight of great reputation and fame."

Do you know who I am?

Well, I know you're a little sad. I know you have decided that putting me down somehow raises you up. That the ground beneath you feels unstable and uncertain in this moment, as you're forced to make a case for your importance.

We all crave social communities with defined parameters: This is who I am in relation to you. But that need becomes outsize and all-consuming when a person is shielded from life's inconveniences. Surrounded by yes-people. Slathered with preferential treatment.

Peel back the layers further, though, and what you'll find is a universal need to be known in the most basic sense. To be acknowledged. To be seen. I am a human being and I have as much right to take up space on this planet as anyone else.

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