Understanding ‘crabs in the barrel’


A particular emotional sickness is eating away at the fabric of our community and it is vital that we expose it for what is, bring it into the light of day and then effectively deal with it.

First, to illustrate, here is a disturbing, true story: A young man diligently saves his money with the aim of buying his first car. He is careful to keep working toward his goal because he wants to own the car without incurring debt. Eventually, he saves enough and fulfils his dream. He drives the car home and parks it in front of the house where he lives with his family. After years of having to use the public transportation system to get to work and to get around, he is finally seeing his dream of greater mobility and independence come true. He looks forward to driving to work the next day and to helping out co-workers by picking them up on the way in to work. But that is not what happens.

The following morning when he is about to leave for work he finds his car has been vandalized to the point where it is now a useless pile of metal. The tires have been destroyed, slashed or missing. The upholstery inside has been ripped out; seats removed, and every window, side, front and rear has been smashed to pieces and the engine damaged.

Apparently, someone the young man knew could not stand to see him moving forward and achieving something of value in his life. Somehow, the hard work the man put into making his dream a reality was not appreciated or understood.

Instead, someone in his vicinity looked at his achievement and decided he must not have the thing he worked so hard for. The person who was suspected of leading the charge in the destruction of the young man’s car, while not admitting he had done the deed, made a point of telling the young man that he “thought he was better than every one else”.

There is a psychological term for the behaviour acted out by those who destroyed the man’s car: displacement.

Displacement, an unconscious defense mechanism, is what happens when a person transfers his or her anger or discomfort arising from unacceptable or intolerable circumstances onto an object or person that the affected individual feels is safe or allowable. Unconsciously, emotions or thoughts are transferred from the original object of anger to a substitute, for example, a person who slams the kitchen cupboard doors when angry at a friend. The effect is that it can to some extent ease anxiety.

A person can be both the victim and the one who causes displacement. For example, a man is angry with his boss, but since he cannot express this he yells at his wife, who later hits their child, and rationalizes it as punishment for something the child did.

Lateral displacement in social psychological terms is the extension of this phenomenon among oppressed and colonized peoples. In rebellion against their painful past such people will not attack the deemed oppressor group but rather attack others who, like themselves, are oppressed. That is how we end up with such terms as ‘Black-on-Black crime’.

When, in 1992, the people of South Central Los Angeles revolted after it was announced that four White police officers caught on videotape beating African American Rodney King were found not guilty of assault and use of excessive force, rioters did not go to the conservative White neighbourhood of Simi Valley where the case was tried. Instead, these African Americans living in oppressive conditions completely destroyed their own neighbourhood. That was an expression of displacement.

We need to understand that trying to pull down one of our own is not a solution to the difficulties of our disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions. We need to educate ourselves about the phenomenon of lateral displacement and to understand what it is we are feeling when we envy or despise the success of one of our own. And we need to counter those feelings, replacing them with an awareness of what each of us needs to do in order to contribute to our greater success. We do not have to unthinkingly be ‘crabs in a barrel’ pulling down the ones that seek to climb towards success.

A note on World Cup withdrawal…

The South Africa Games are over, but the sound of the vuvuzelas linger.

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