Posted by: chrismaser | November 12, 2010


Displacement is used to shift the focus from that which is uncomfortable to that which is safe; it’s often referred to as a “smoke screen.” I’ve had attorneys for the federal government try to distract me with this tactic while I was under oath as an expert witness; they didn’t want me to complete my answer to a question they’d asked, because they were afraid of what I was saying, so they’d interrupted and asked a totally unrelated question. Recognizing this tactic, however, I always completed my answer to the first question and then answered the displacement question.

Another handy way to cope with the fear of being out of control, is to displace the real reason onto time. I know people who have their lives so tightly scheduled that they have not a second to “waste.” They confused motion and time constraints with accomplishments. In this way, they control what they do, whom they see, and how long they see them without ever having to take the responsibility of saying, “I don’t want to see you, because you make me uncomfortable,” or “I don’t want to see so and so, because I might have fail the test, which I can’t handle knowing right now.”

The use of time, in this sense, is another form of displacement, of avoidance embodied in the dynamic of the word “can’t.” I use time to control those circumstances I wish to deal with and to see those people whom I choose to see for as long as I want to see them. At the same time, I’m pleading a case for being innocently out of time, out of control by saying, “I can’t” to those circumstances or those people I don’t want to deal with.

Displacement is a common coping mechanism in any malfunctional agency, not only on the personal level but also on the agency level. The focus on “jobs lost” and “community stability” by both the timber industry and most of the old cadre of foresters in the Bureau of Land Management and the U. S. Forest Service has been used as a displacement for having to deal with the rapidly increasing scientific evidence that the ancient forest has value for something besides woodfiber—or even as habitat for spotted owls. In fairness, the conservationists have often used the spotted owl as the hammer for their arguments to save the ancient forest instead of directly facing the issue of the forest itself. Both sides are not only misleading each other through displacement behavior but also misleading themselves and the public at large, because while each side strives to save the ancient trees for its own purposes, as a product of the political struggle, society is losing the forest in terms of the processes embodied in the forest itself.

“Higher officials” in an agency often used time as a displacement to achieve their own outcomes. Three examples come to my mind.

The first way time is used to avoid undesirable data or change is to be very stringent with the allotted time for a particular job. An example is an agency’s taking two or more years with the full-time commitment of an entire planning team to create a land-management plan and then limiting the public to a 30-day period of review in which they’re supposed to understand the plan, the proposed alternative methods of operation, the timber sales or grazing allotments, the ecological and economic consequences of the proposed array of actions on all resources, and submit their reply—all on the agency’s chosen timetable and to their usual plethora of specifications.

A second way in which “not enough time” is used is by making it a moving target. I once conducted a weekend workshop with the Forest Service in which the District Ranger and a lady from a conservation group were determined to work out their differences and keep the proposed management plan out of court. The Ranger invited thirty people from the Forest Service, the timber industry, and several conservation groups to meet for a weekend and begin to resolve their differences over the management plans. At the close of the two-day workshop, conservationists were talking with industrialists and Forest Service personnel and vice verse, and there was a general agreement that the process we’d established was working and needed to be continued.

All parties worked diligently for some time, and came to more agreement then ever before. As the parties got closer to working out their differences, which would have altered the management plan, the upper echelon in the Forest Service, prodded by the upper echelon of the timber industry, suddenly shortened the promised time for the plan to be completed, which broke faith with everyone involved, including their own employees who had worked so long and hard to build the bond of trust.

To see how time is used a third way, it’s necessary to read the following two paragraphs. Here the Republican Senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield, once attempted to use the allocation of time as a displacement, which is clearly pointed out in the last paragraph:

The premise behind Hatfield’s legislative tactic [trying to prevent the public from challenging timber sales in court] is that frivolous lawsuits by environmentalists hamstring federal agencies because courts don’t make timely, responsible decisions. Were that actually the case, the answer for Congress would be to enact clearer laws or provide for faster judicial action.

. . .

The real threat of lawsuits, of course, is not the time it takes to resolve them. Federal judges can act quickly when time is of the essence. Rather, the threat is that the suits will have merit, that judges will find agencies have acted improperly. That is the very reason that Americans should not be denied their day in court, whatever the perceived urgency of a particular issue. (Editorial. 1988. The Oregonian, Portland, OR. June 27.)


Series on Resistance to Change:

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• My Introduction To An Agency

• The Inception Of An Agency

• Stages In The Cycle Of An Agency

• When Dysfunction/Malfunction Creeps In

• Homeostatic Defense

• Coping Mechanisms

• Coping Mechanisms: Anger And Aggression

• Coping Mechanisms: Appraisal

• Coping Mechanisms: Defensiveness

• Coping Mechanisms: Denial

• Coping Mechanisms: Filters

• Coping Mechanisms: Projection

• Coping Mechanisms: Rationalization

• Coping Mechanisms: Repression

• Coping Mechanisms: Resistance

• Breaking The Dysfunctional Cycle

• From Where I Stand

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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