Every of the two psychology textbooks I’ve read described the idea of Displacement with this sentence. “The boss yells at the worker, the worker yells at his wife, the wife yells at her son, the son kicks the cat.” It gets the point across, but boy is it bleak. I wish there was a less depressing example.
In the Malcolm in the Middle episode “Cliques”, the gifted student class (the “Krelboynes”) are forced to take regular classes after causing a chemical explosion that destroys their classroom. The nerds are used to habitual bullying, and worry about fitting in with the kids who pick on them. Their fears prove unfounded as they quickly assimilate into various subcultures — goths, jocks, wannabe hiphop posers, etc. Each Krelboyne kid, no longer stuck at the bottom of the schoolyard pecking order, plots to advance. They all begin scheming to place their particular clique at the top of the hierarchy.
Tensions quickly escalate as webs of alliances and betrayals form. Violence is brewing. Soon the entire school is ready to wage war.
Malcolm, ever the cynical outsider mistfit, steps in, and implores the students from the rooftop -
“Stop! This has gone too far! Look what you’ve been reduced to! We all used to hate the school equally. We hated the teachers, we hated the administration, we hated the building. But now you’re taking that perfectly good hate, and turning it against each other. And why? Because people dress differently or talk differently? You’re just making school even worse!….. We need to focus on what makes us the same. Because if we hate each other, who’s going to hate school?
Malcolm sidesteps a common trope of sitcom conflict resolution. He doesn’t condemn his peers for creating factions or fighting — he is frustrated that they aren’t creating the right factions. They’re fighting the wrong people. Everyone “isn’t so different after all”, but the anger at that sticking point isn’t immoral, it is displaced. Malcolm doesn’t want to dissolve the brewing violence, he wants to redirect it upwards.
Calling for collective action against authoritarian power backfires on Malcolm. The crowd may know, on some level, that the institution they live in is the true source of their problems. But their lunch recess frustration needs an immediate outlet. They are out for blood.
When every clique realizes a wimpy Krelboyne dork is not only in their midst, but the source of the current stalemate, each gets ejected from their group. The gangs do band together — against the reunited Krelboynes. In a moment of panic, as the crowd circles, ex-jock Dabney points to Malcolm and shouts “he’s our leader!”
Malcolm’s face says it all. It’s a real “et tu, Brute” moment.
Malcolm was not part of the escalation. He didn’t wreck the classroom. The only clique he (half-heartedly) tried to join was two boys debating which girls were fuego or not.
Malcolm is innocent, but unaffiliated — no one is allied with him. So Dabney scapegoats him in an act of desperation, just to get the heat of the crowd off his own back. He may not be as aware of the dynamics of school power as Malcolm, but he knows how to abuse them. Malcolm tries to direct violence up the chain of power, Dabney reverses this violence back to its natural course — down the social chain. Anger is displaced to the person who cannot fight back. The son kicks the cat.
Dabney’s efforts backfire much like Malcolm’s did — the whole gang, including Malcolm, gets pants’d, and waddles away humiliated.
I admit this scene has its limits as a metaphor for social judgement during Covid. Malcolm didn’t cause the chemical explosion, but his friend did. It’s a non-lethal accident that kicks off a chain of events, not a 13 month slow motion train wreck pandemic natural disaster slash breakdown of every institution and enveloping fog that affects and clouds everything. Apples and oranges? Maybe.
But this scene came to mind as I watched a storm of outrage break out on St. Patrick’s Day. My hometown has a big seedy student club. It was open for business on St. Patrick’s Day. People lined up outside. A video of this queue was posted online. Many, many people I know reacted harshly. Friends called these patrons stupid. Irresponsible. Selfish and oblivious. The whole reason this pandemic is still ongoing.
<Sidenote that will come up later>
I genuinely mean this without any ill will towards anyone, but I can’t approach this topic without noting that these accusations are massively hypocritical coming from *specific* people. Some of these “ugh these stupid patio drinkers are going to kill us all”ers have participated in activities that the Canadian media would have an absolute field day with, if any cases were ever traced to them. Private parties, out of province travel type stuff. It is not my place to call those activities immoral, maybe I don’t have the full story… but I can’t help but notice a strong, positive correlation between “loud public accusations of unsafe-Covid-stuff”, and “private personal indulgence in unsafe-Covid-stuff”.
A politician re-opens restaurants. Civilians go to them. Who is to blame for an increase in cases the next month? Who do you blame? In my experience, people find it difficult to emotionally engage with politicians that way. Politicians, like school administrators, don’t feel like individuals. Their power is just the way things are. When our provincial leader points the finger at young folks partyin’, it’s easy to agree and join in without question. It is much, much easier to channel that anger downwards, and “If Bar, Drink Beer” students make a perfect scapegoat. It’s easier to kick the cat than your boss.
In my head, the Ontario analogue to Boss > Man > Wife > Son > Cat chain of social power went something like, Politicians > Media > General Public > “Young kids” > People who get caught on camera attending a patio. Doug making this comment feels like expediting the entire process. Your boss waltzes into your home and kicks your cat for you. Is he being efficient with his blame? Or, like Dabney, hiding an accusation within a statement? When he says “You bring it home to your loved ones” I can’t help but hear “He’s our leader!” Translation: “Blame them, not me!” Please kick the cat!
Am I on crazy pills over here? Why am I so defensive of these patio drinkers? Up until today I hated that bar and the people who went there! Is it because I work at a restaurant, and have watched approximately 99% of the general public completely disregard every single safety measure we’ve introduced over the past year? Do you distinguish Safe Patio Drinkers from Unsafe Patio Drinkers, a demographic split that perfectly coincides with age?
Has there been an extremely selective application of “Covid rules?” I think so. Even the most preachy amongst us understand Ontario is a land of nonsense rules right now. Remember that side note? Here we are. It’s hard to know which rules people will get judged for breaking, because so many are so pointless. Did you know you’re not allowed to go out to eat with anyone outside your immediate household? No restaurant would ever ID you or ask, and you can lie, but you’re not allowed. Most people I know have broken that rule.
Have you answered NO to all the symptom screening questions before you entered somewhere? Did you notice one of those symptoms is “Fatigue”? If you felt fatigued, during winter in Canada during a plague, then you have lied about having a Covid symptom in public. Most people I know have broken that rule. But nudging people to select options without thinking is bad UI! And whoever cooked up this required screening thing should feel bad! It’s clearly not working!
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, is what I’m saying. As of press time, drinking on a patio is fully legal in Ontario. Any judgement you pass on someone who goes to a patio should equally apply to the people who opened those patios up. But that would mean admitting the wide gulf between Safe and Legal in Ontario, which could get complicated. You might end up sticking your neck out, might mean getting mad at some powerful institutions. Maybe even challenging authority. And the anger stewing from this pandemic needs an outlet now. “He’s our leader”. The son kicks the cat.
Here’s a UfT epidemiologist giving a big thumbs up to pausing the AstraZeneca rollout over fear of blood clots. The comments are overwhelmingly supportive. Canada is currently limiting who will receive our shipments of this vaccine. This is a colossal mistake that will cause many deaths and much more sickness. More death and destruction than any patio-goer could cause. Here is a great breakdown of the entire blood clot issue. It is not true. Even if it did cause blood clots (which it doesn’t), it would still be worth it. You know what actually causes blood clots for sure? Covid. There’s an old Penn and Teller video that breaks similar math down beautifully. So where is the outrage?
Does any responsibility fall to the media, who report that “25/20,000,000 Europeans developed blood clots”, knowing full well that the consequences of that story will be Canadians telling each other “The vaccines give you blood clots, no chance of me getting that shot”, and that isn’t some worst case hypothetical I dreamed up, that is a verbatim quote from someone I served last week. Where is that outrage?
Politicians, experts, authorities and media have been messing up hard all year. Fostering a culture of blame feels extremely convenient to obscuring the mistakes of those in power. Their mistakes are many and deadly, and no party or office is without blame. Inaction was the deadliest of all. The federal Liberals waited too long to cease travel. The provincial Conservatives waited too long to impose a plan, which turned out to be a nonsense colour-coded system, and waiting too long to move into high alert. We have all waited too long to get the medicine that is now our only way out, and the experts are trying to hold back that medicine because they fear being blamed more than they care about our lives. Thousands are dead, thousands more are sick, everyone’s health has been worsened. There is so much to hate here.
And we are taking all this perfectly good hate and turning it against each other! Who’s left to hate school? The son kicks the cat!
I never want a rant like this to end on a sour note. I try to count my blessings. Ontario recently got its Red Zone restaurant rules changed. Arbitrary changes to this nonsense system are good for me financially, but my odds of getting Covid before a vaccine are much higher. Writing this is kind of the culmination of coming to grips with my own covid anxiety. In a year of uncertainty, I am certain that this pandemic is a soft-balled version of the bigger challenges humanity will have to face, and I can’t personally live in fear of the things I want to defeat. I’m grateful I have a show like Malcolm in the Middle to binge these days, it’s very silly but I learn a lot from it, and I laugh out loud at pretty much every episode.
This will be over, one way or another, and I have hope that we can learn to stop kicking the cat and turn to face the boss. Let’s go hate school.