Are Revolutionary Beliefs an Expression of Repressed Anger at One’s Parents?

*resumes blogging after a week of busyness mixed with business*

In one recent post I offered qualified criticism of one ‘psychologising’ tactic, that of analysing someone’s belief as ‘wish-fulfilment’. A slightly different tactic is to accuse someone of ‘displacement’, which differs in that whereas with wish-fulfilment, the wish itself, the guiding emotion, is usually admitted, ‘displacement’ is a pathology of the emotion itself.

In particular, it’s the idea that an emotion (say, anger) that appears to be about one thing (the suffering of humanity, the exploitation of third-world women, the impending extinction of the panda, etc) but is ‘really’ about a quite different thing (resentment against one’s father, a history of romantic rejections, professional failure, etc).

My view of ‘displacement’ accusations is basically the same as my view on ‘wish-fulfilment’ accusations: they may be valid, but they’re not really separate from the more basic accusation that someone is reasoning invalidly, that their beliefs aren’t justified by logic and evidence. Psychological criticism of how a conclusion is drawn generally presupposes a view on what conclusions are rational to draw.


So what does it mean for a feeling to be ‘really about’ something other than what it seems to be about? A simple answer might be that it means that the feeling is ‘produced by’ something else (mother-issues, whatever) and the apparent object (corruption in Equatorial Guinea) is merely an occasion to express it.

A more sophisticated definition might be that displacement occurs when a feeling is conditional on something other than its apparent object – e.g. you would stop feeling angry about Equatorial Guinea if you worked things through with your mother, but you’d be largely unaffected by learning that corruption there wasn’t so bad after all.

But all feelings are contributed to by many past experiences, and changes in these experiences can affect them. A particularly good example is the way that feeling concern for other people’s plight draws on having had experiences that are similar (in whatever ways) to the ones they are having; it also draws on the experiences through which one ‘learns’ who to empathise with and who not to about what subjects.

Consider some examples:

Person X is Ontarian, and hears about discrimination and prejudice facing Manitobans in their local community, but doesn’t really care. Then they have to move to an unfamiliar community, and find themselves a victim of prejudice. They feel angry and hurt; then they move back to Ontario and hear about some indignity suffered by Manitobans, and now this make them feel angry.

Person Y is also an uncaring Ontarian, until they make friends with a Manitoban neighbour, and experience warm and fuzzy feelings towards them. Increasingly, they find that now when they hear about manifestations of antimanitobianism, they feel angry.

What are people X and Y ‘really’ angry about? Is person X ‘really’ angry about their own experience of discrimination? Is person Y ‘really’ angry about their friendship with a Manitoban? I don’t think so. If they are, then I don’t see how we can avoid saying that all empathy is ‘displacement’, and hence pathological, which to me seems absurd.

But then consider person Z, who is very pained when they hear about discrimination against Manitobans. But then they visit Manitoba and some people there treat them badly. When they come back, they dismiss claims of discrimination, or assume that the Manitobans deserved it.

This strikes me as a case where a there’s a ‘displacement’ at work: the proper object of person Z’s resentment is their bad treatment by certain people, but they direct it onto a whole population of people. But it seems like displacement because I think the resultant feelings are inappropriate – my ‘diagnosis’ rests on my substantive beliefs about whether it’s reasonable to feel angry or not when hearing about prejudice.

If we accepted the ‘conditionality’ definition of displacement though, we’d have to say that when person Z was, at first, indignant about discrimination, they were actually motivated by the fact that Manitobans hadn’t yet been mean to them, and not ‘really’ about discrimination. But in that case, most of our feelings towards people are ‘really’ directed at the fact that those people have never betrayed us or locked us in a room and beaten us with crowbars.

That can’t be right – but the reason we resist a claim of ‘displacement’ here is that we feel that our interactions with people typically don’t just cause but also warrant the feelings we have towards them. So again, ‘psychological’ criticism relies on assumptions about rational criticism.

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