Kicking the Dog: The Not-So-Subtle Art of Displacement

This begins a short mini-series on the wide world of defense mechanisms—how you and I […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.18.17

This begins a short mini-series on the wide world of defense mechanisms—how you and I do our very best to cope with the realities of pain.

We all have our defense mechanisms. In psychodynamic terms, these are the ways our egos fend off stressors—situations or circumstances or, you know, very very rarely, people that conjure realities we just can’t handle. Sometimes these stressors waylay us with personal condemnation, sometimes they demolish a sacred belief we hold dear, sometimes they are random, traumatic events. Other times, the stressors aren’t bad: there’s an exciting new career opportunity or it’s a busy time of life, the kind of low-level whirr that leaves you staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. Whatever the stressor, we all have the same inborn psychological tendencies to deal with them—or not deal with them—to varying degrees of success.

Displacement, one of these defense mechanisms, is the act of shifting the stress elsewhere, preferably into an arena where the stakes are lower (as the “kick the dog” idiom goes). It’s also common in marriage. You know the sitcom trope: doltish dad gets a flank attack from mom. Before he knows she’s entered the room, she’s at full-bore on the state of the kitchen counter. The mayonnaise, Ray! The mayonnaise! He later discovers, to his great relief, that her outrage had nothing to do with him at all. It was, in fact, all about this gossipy thing mom-friend Charlene said today at lunch, or about the 20-year-old photo of herself she discovered earlier while she was cleaning, or the trouble their son, Ray Jr., had at school. Dad just happens to be in the way enough to get landed with the payoff punch. Poor, dumb, wide-eyed dad!

Displacement doesn’t have to be so dramatic, nor does it have to include another person. Other times, it is a wide variety of iconic go-tos—running shoes, cigarettes, knitting needles, basement studios, porn. Instead of troubling others with our troubled consciences, we displace our rage, our fear, our impotent stressed-out-ness, into activities that (now that we think about it) occupy a pretty big part of our lives. We moralize them as “healthy outlets”—sometimes we place them under the label “self-care,” as if the activities are intentional ways we have learned to nurture ourselves. The activities themselves, good or bad, may in fact be what we love doing, but that is beside the point. When we are talking about displacement, we are talking about the exorcism of judgment. We may not formally believe in exorcisms in America anymore, but that’s not what our friends would say about us. What is happening in displacement—when we kick the dog, or blame the spouse—is the instinctive need to work something out of us and put it somewhere else.

It could be said that the deeper meaning of this phenomenon has to do with anger at our own powerlessness. Like Willy Loman with his sons, one way we express most clearly that the world has not been fair to us, or that things have been out of our control, is by hoping to derive some semblance of it through surrogates. We push our children to play our sports. Or we live vicariously through the athletes we idolize on TV.

Freud also noticed that displacement happened in the way that people joke. Jokes about flabby stomachs and thinning hair are ways of telling the truth about our dispossession and deflating its importance to us. Sometimes the jokes are delivered with an awkward heaviness. You can tell a lot about a person by their (un)willingness to joke about certain things, and how their jokes are told.

My wife and I live vicariously through murder mysteries and cop shows and for us—now you play the psychotherapist—the darker the show, the better. There’s a decade’s worth available on Netflix and, with the exception of some of the totally hopeless Nordic noirs, we are captivated by murderers until bedtime. It’s not that we don’t like comedies—we do! But we never watch them. Any time we gear up to start a new show, the thought occurs that maybe we’d sleep better if we watched Rick and Morty or John Oliver. But we never do. We opt for blood. What are we working out?

We are currently watching a double dose of The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Foyle’s War, both of which land on the tamer, PBS side of the genre, but provide what we most want in any of these shows: a sense of a clean ending. Each hour, on demand, ratchets up the mystery and methodically gives you your answer. Who needs Freud? The diagnosis is clear.

We have a hard time as a culture saying that something might be both unhealthy and unavoidable, but this is what displacement says. Really, this is what defense mechanisms are evidence of. We can’t help but redirect our negative feelings elsewhere—they are too much to bear. It’s not that there aren’t some forms of displacement are less unhealthy than others; an addiction to jiu jitsu is probably better than a propensity to drink a few too many. But to pay attention to ways we displace rather than the need to displace our pain is an error as old as the Pharisees. It makes a symptom the disease. The real thing to pay attention to is this: that when we experience anger or judgment, we want to purge it. And when we purge it, it always goes somewhere.

The philosopher René Girard said this experience was elemental to human experience, that to channel our guilt/need/anger onto another is simply part of the deal: “Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.” This, Girard believed, was what made Christianity so offensive and so relevant. A man with whom the stakes were high and low all at once, highest to God and lowest to man, a lightning rod of displaced human sin. What would such an invitation, to “cast thy burdens upon the Lord,” to know it always goes into God’s willing and outstretched sacrifice—what would that prompt in a person? And what would it feel like to be free of all the things we so desperately wish to displace?