16 May 2007


When I was growing up, my family had an extremely gentle tomcat whose patience with children was simply amazing. He would let us dress him up and put him into our doll-sized toy baby carriage; he would let us wear him around our necks like a live fur stole; he would let us tickle him by touching just the tips of his guard hairs - his coat would shiver, and we would hug him and kiss the top of his head and laugh and laugh.

When he had finally had enough, he would escape with as much dignity as he could preserve, never showing a single tooth or baring a single claw. And as soon as he was out of our reach, he would begin to groom his fur, much more rapidly and intensely than usual.

As a father cat, his patience with kittens was similarly amazing. And again, when he finally had enough, he would betake himself elsewhere, and groom furiously.

I didn't understand it then, but I'm glad I was paying attention, because now I know that our sweet good cat was modeling a very important coping mechanism: constructive displacement.

Displacement is usually subconscious and not always constructive. It is often used by people when they cannot deal directly with some source of stress or distress; if it seems dangerous, or simply too difficult, to address a problem at its source, a substitute target is found and attention is redirected.

My cat's displacement was constructive because he was avoiding expressing his annoyance at his human and feline kittens, and instead directed his nervous energy into intensive grooming. This is a soothing behavior, and hygienic, and since none of the 'cubs' were allowed to play with him any longer than he was willing to be played with [we were sternly instructed to let him go when he wanted to leave], it never became compulsive.

Not all displacement is as benign. Consider the young girl expelled from middle school for giving Midol to a friend who was suffering cramps; or her contemporaries similarly expelled for taking Advil, aspirin, Aleve...

What is happening there? How can supposedly rational adults prattle about 'zero tolerance' when the discipline being imposed is absurd on its face at the moment it is being imposed?

Simple: displacement.

These adults feel powerless to deal with the real threats that drive 'zero tolerance' policies. Crack dealers are nasty people. They carry guns. They will use them with little or no provocation. It is dangerous to stand up to them, as opposed to talking about standing up to them. How much easier and more comfortable it is to announce a 'zero tolerance' policy regarding drugs in school, and then act out against a Dean's List student for taking an aspirin! This is someone who is clearly not armed or dangerous, someone younger, vulnerable, relatively powerless. They are also likely to be so shocked by the overreaction that they won't resist the punishment.

It doesn't matter that the child with an aspirin is a ridiculous target for enforcement action. What matters, all that matters, is that Something Was Done; the Law was Laid Down; and By God, We Showed Them, Didn't We.

James Joyce, in his short story Counterparts [from Dubliners], describes the cascading effect of another form of displacement, starting with the abuse of an employee by his boss, and ending with that employee battering his son in an alcoholic rage. Standing up to the boss is not to be thought of; there are, after all, real and immediate consequences to speaking truth to power, especially to abusive and vindictive power that is free to act unchecked. So the rage is displaced onto a helpless target...

It is sad to contemplate just how often children are targets for displaced adult frustration and rage.

Joyce's example also illustrates how displacement leads to scapegoating. This is not merely the provenance of domestic hell; under the right circumstances a gang, a clique, an office, a school, an entire nation may displace their collective rage onto a selected helpless target - the awkward girl at school, the chubby fellow at work, the members of a rival gang, or students at a rival school; people of a different race, or an entire religious tradition. This displacement may be solemnly ritualized, as in the making of a sacrifice, or Homecoming Weekend; or it may be totally spontaneous. It may be overt and even defiant, like turf wars between gangs, or hidden, as in the scapegoating of a new child by his middle school class - when the teachers aren't around.

Never underestimate the power of displacement. It doesn't have to be rational.

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