Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows I celebrate cultural differences here.
Knowing that others approach certain concepts differently, helps me better understand my own ways, like …
… what it means to “be on time”
… how close to stand to someone I’ve just met
… whether to eat my dinner with my fork or my fingers
… which body parts to cover
These are useful reminders for me that MY WAY is not the ONLY WAY.
Nor is yours.
When cultural differences get a bad rap, when they get blamed for things they have no business being blamed for, I get prickly. And lately I’ve been getting pricklier and pricklier.
As promised a few weeks ago, in my post creatively entitled When Cultural Differences Are Used As An Excuse (for bad behavior), I’ll be spending a few weeks this month focusing on just how we decide to hold someone accountable, responsible, worthy of blame, culpable. We do have a lot of words for this idea.
This week, we’ll do it against the case of Ethan Couch …
… the 16-year old who pled guilty to killing four people while driving drunk and got a 10-year probation rather than the jail time the prosecution sought. At his sentencing hearing in 2013, the defense used the Affluenza argument and the judge agreed. He was back in the news in December when he broke probation and fled to Mexico.
But, ever mindful that life is absurd, we’ll couch the conversation in the words of Mr. Flip Wilson. (Yes, I did that on purpose and I apologize.)
To jog your memory, here’s a YouTube of Flip on the Ed Sullivan show doing his famous “The Devil Made Me Buy That Dress” routine:
“The devil made me do it” became a pop catchphrase in the 70s and beyond, thanks to Wilson.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we’ve got, “Affluenza made me do it.” [Or, at least, “makes me less responsible even if I did do it.”]
Right. It’s not nearly as funny.
Affluenza is a portmanteau word created from affluence and influenza. It’s been around since the mid 1950s, when Frederick Whitman, a member of one of San Francisco’s founding families, used the term to describe how rich people suffer from feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, extreme materialism, and isolation, in other words: the psychological effects of wealth.
The term faded away until a PBS documentary in 1997 and Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic was published in 2001. The word has since been solidly embedded in everyday usage.
Of course, I hadn’t heard of it until this past December, but that’s fodder for another post.
Let’s start with a definition. Both the book and the PBS documentary define “Affluenza” as:
A painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
I love that “socially transmitted” part. That’s what I call “culture.”
You’ve heard of the “culture of poverty?” Well, Affluenza brings us the “culture of affluence.”
Here’s the rest of the definition:
…..including an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege.
We’ll get to that “inability to understand the consequences” after a bit.
What difference does this “culture of affluence” make in the larger scheme of things? In this case, it turns out quite a bit.
[learn_more caption=”Need the facts of the case? Read here”] On the evening of Saturday, June 15, 2013, Ethan Couch
is SPEEDING. He and seven of his friends pile into his fathers’ red Ford F-350 and drive down a residential street at 70 mph (it’s a 40 mph zone). Six are in the cab with him, two more are in the open bed in the back.
is DRIVING DRUNK. His blood alcohol level was found to be 3x the legal limit for an adult in Texas (measured three hours later). There is also valium in his system. He’s driving on a restricted license.
KILLS FOUR PEOPLE. His truck literally plows into a group of four people standing near a disabled SUV, killing them all. A total of four vehicles are involved: Couch’s truck, a stalled SUV, a car that had stopped to help, and an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle
INJURES NINE: His truck flipped over, throwing out the two passengers, riding in the bed. One is permanently paralyzed and communicates through eye blinks. Also injured was a passenger in the car that had stopped to help. No evidence is ever found of his brakes being applied.
Prosecutors seek 20 years incarceration. Couch is charged with four counts of “intoxication manslaughter” and two counts of “intoxication assault.” He pleads guilty, saving a trial.
JULY, 2013 — Ethan Couch checks into a rehab facility in Newport, California suffering from a broken neck, a broken rib, and a broken arm. His parents visit each weekend for family therapy. They pull him out against medical advice after 62 days. Their bill: $90,000
DECEMBER, 2013 — Sentencing hearing is held before judge Jean Hudson Boyd (now retired). His lawyers produce G. Dick Miller, a psychologist who testifies that Couch suffers from the typical “adjustment reaction to adolescence.” But what got the media’s attention, was his statement that Ethan “was a product of Affluenza” and “unable to link his bad behavior with consequences because of his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.”
FEBRUARY 19, 2014 Couch moves into the North Texas State Hospital, an in-patient mental health facility.
NOVEMBER 13, 2014 — He is released.
A YEAR GOES BY
DECEMBER 2, 2015 — A local student who thought Couch “was getting away with murder” uses her phone to film Couch playing “beer pong” at a party, breaking his probation. She posts the video to Twitter, it goes viral and reaches the authorities.
DECEMBER 11, 2015 — a warrant is issued for Couch when his probation officer is unable to reach him
DECEMBER 18, 2015 — Couch and his mother Tanya Couch are reported missing
DECEMBER 28, 2015 — They are located in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and arrested.
DECEMBER 30, 2015 — His mother is deported to LA.
DECEMBER 31, 2015 — His mother is arrested in LA on a felony charge of hindering apprehension of a felon. Bail is set at $1 million.
JANUARY 12, 2016 — His mother posts a reduced bail of $75,000 and is released.
JANUARY 28, 2016 — Couch is deported to LA, after initially fighting extradition.
FEBRUARY 19, 2016 — his next scheduled hearing.
APRIL 11, 2016 — he’ll turn 19 [/learn_more]
Ignoring the more recent headlines and staying only with the original crime that resulted in the death of four and injuries to nine others, how responsible is Ethan Couch?
How responsible are his parents?
Is anyone else responsible?
Who is to blame? Make no mistake, most people want to find someone to blame.
But, just how does one decide?
How did you decide?
What factors did you use to come to your decision on Ethan Couch?
The news media played Ethan Couch’s case as one of “the rich get away with murder.” And TheWeek.com headlined, “Being rich is now a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
These are easy to grab hold of. I grabbed hold at first too. Especially after watching replays of different news programs on it, ABC’s 20/20 among them.
Excusing Bad Behavior Has A Long History
Over the centuries, humans have found many ways to identify some external force, pre-existing condition, something beyond their control that justifies or excuses their (bad) behavior.
Beyond Wilson’s “devil,” I was surprised to find just how many separate ones have been introduced into case law as potential explanations (excuses or justifications):
parental alienation syndrome (PAL)
premenstrual stress syndrome (PMS)
Gulf War syndrome
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Child sexual abuse syndrome
Holocaust survival syndrome
Super Bowl syndrome *
And now, we must add Affluenza to the list.[learn_more caption=”*Super Bowl Syndrome? “] I know. Super Bowl syndrome jumped out at me too. It’s not actually in case law (yet).
It’s more a medical term that is used to explain the dramatic increase in ER admissions in the hour AFTER the Super Bowl is over. And it’s explained by saying that the patients have postponed going to the ER because they wanted to finish watching the game. [/learn_more]
Defendants (through their well-paid lawyers) use these to explain away culpability, get a reduced sentence, mitigate guilt. And generally, the society at large applauds. This is justice we seek, after all, not revenge or retribution. Or is it?
There are two lines of defense, once a defendant admits guilt (or is found guilty). Beyond the simple, “Yes. I did it …” there always follows a “but …” What follows that “but” is either a justification or an excuse. Stick with me here. I think it’s important.
The justification takes a “lesser of two evils” approach and justifies the behavior as actually appropriate under the circumstances.
Self-defense, the battered women syndrome (in some states), even the so-called “stand your ground” laws are grounded in this notion of “justifiability.” [Now there’s fodder for another post.] Here are others:
“Yes, I stole the bread, but my children were hungry.”
“Yes, I pushed the knife into his belly, but he was trying to strangle me.”
“Yes, I leaked the information to the press, but they were dumping toxins into the water supply and had to be stopped.”
“Yes, I shot him, but I was in fear of my life.”
The Pentagon Papers and the Edward Snowden cases fall into this “justification” defense category, no matter whether you accept that the “lesser of two evils” was selected.
But no one is trying to justify Ethan’s behavior. His case falls into the other one.
The other excuses it, through some external force, something “out of the defendant’s control.”
Aka, “The devil made me do it.”
I can hear Flip Wilson now, singing out, “Yes, I know I shouldn’t drink and drive, I know I shouldn’t kill people, but I couldn’t help it. But my Affluenza made me do it.”
The trouble is, the person with Affluenza, according to the current definition, doesn’t know that what they did was wrong.
Next week: Culturally Acceptable Excuses or Are We Just Getting Soft?
How about you? What’s your take away at this point?
Oh please, let’s don’t add affluenza–I hope I never hear that as a justification again!!
It certainly is a term that gets people riled. I’m glad. Thanks for being the first to weigh in, Susan.
Affluenza, as in the case of Ethan Couch, is simply Spoiled Brat Syndrome by another name. It in no way prevents the accused from knowing the difference between right and wrong, but is an easy excuse (which greedy lawyers will exploit to the full because they make money out f it) that is used in mitigation of irresponsible behaviour.
He should have received the same punishment for his crime as any other citizen who had to rely on a publicly sponsored attorney, and this would certainly have included a jail term and a lifetime driving ban.
The judge made a serious error in his decision. Given the inappropriate character of his decision, the legal authorities should have questioned the judge’s capacity to do his job and sent him for retraining. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking he had been bought off by Couch’s rich parents.
The parents should also be called to account for failing to instil an adequate sense of responsibility and appropriate behaviour in their son before letting him drive. Simply backing him with money and buying his way out of trouble does not constitute responsible parenting.
This case has opened a whole can of worms and surely more will emerge as it unfolds.
Hi Ian, I’d love to hear you tell us how this type of situation might be handled in any of those African villages you write so well about. Do they even have adolescents acting-out? Hormones raging out of control? Or is that yet another consequence of the relative affluence of the West?
Joan Z. Rough
I agree with everything you’re saying here, except for your inclusion of PTSD in your list of excuses and justifications. PTSD is a real mental disability, while affluenza is not. I know because I have it. I never use it as an excuse or justification for my behavior. It’s just the way things are and I take full responsibility for my behavior. I have sought help with it and am on medication for my anxiety. Using PTSD on this list makes it seem like an unimportant hoop-de-loo that means nothing.
I’m very glad you wrote. I hope I’ve alleviated your distress over the inclusion of the term PTSD, with my comment below. If not, please write. Or call. You know how to find me.
Bravo Joan! I witnessed a case of PTSD kick in in 1984, perhaps before the condition had a name. A young bank teller who had been involved in an armed robbery where a gunshot happened swore with full belief that she heard a gunshot fired after glimpsing a water pistol. I believed her then. Thirty years later, I got it!
I don’t equate excuse with justification either, and I agree with Joan, PTSD is a certifiable mental disability, along with Battered Woman Syndrome. Also, it’s easy to confuse reasons/excuses for certain behaviors. The court system would have to mitigate in murder cases involving spousal abuse vs. killing to claim an insurance policy.
In the end though, we are each responsible for our own actions. I agree: You have a lot of material here, enough for at least another blog post.
Thanks Marion. There is a lot of material. And I’ve found it gets me rather depressed (situational, not clinical; so it can’t be used in a court of law if I kill off my blog!)
I need to keep my eyes on the sunshine out the window as I proceed with this.
I so much preferred my series on Life Lessons from Camel’s Hump! Now that was fun. This, not so much. But very important I believe. I’ll hang in there.
At least I know I’m not alone.
Oh dear. I can see some additional explanation is in order. I wanted to introduce the terms “justification” and “excuse” as legal terms, not pop culture terms. I do not mean either to equate with “cop-out” or rationalization.
… Legal terms with a history of being used to mitigate the punishment or consequences for a defendent. I might have included “exculpatory evidence” but that one leads to a “not-guilty” verdict, by definition. And I was only interested in those instances in which we “excuse” bad behavior, both legally and morally.
Think of it in terms of the phrase, “excuse me.”
It’s the idea that we all agree there was bad behavior; we all agree s/he/they did it. And there is this explanation, this reason, this “excuse,” that is brought into the mix to try to explain, describe, and eventually, mitigate.
We are talking “excuse” when we use Affluence. Not in the sense of saying, “I don’t want to hear any more of your excuses.” (Who among us hasn’t heard that one at some point?) And we retain the right to raise up our clenched fists and holler, “No way. Bad decision.”
But the fact remains that it WAS USED in a court of law and so it has already been added to the list.
I’d like to add here a fact that didn’t make it into the blog: enough signatures were eventually collected to force the sentencing judge to resign. So, we are not alone in our outrage.
I want to specifically concentrate on the use of the word “excuse” for Joan’s sake. I do not for one instance mean to mitigate the pain of suffering from PTSD. And, Joan, you are very fortunate that your PTSD has not led you to act out in a way that would cause you to commit a crime. (I’m assuming here. Yes, my friend?)
But there are many other PTS sufferers who can’t say that. In the height of their flashbacks, they do act out and people get hurt. Killed. There is now a stunning amount of case law declaring that PTSD is an acceptable legal defense. In the social psych literature, to which I return from time to time, it is called an “excuse.” The word has gotten a bad rap over the years.
The issue here is one of semantics I believe. I’m very sorry it was so upsetting for you.
To continue just a bit, the Battered-Woman Syndrome, which I also included in the list, is a long fought for legal defense. I was a part of that fight back in the late 1970s and it has won its place in case law in most states. But, it is not a stand-alone defense and is usually tied to a self-defense plea and considered a form of PTSD.
I’m heartened that the post has produced strong emotions. That’s what I’m hoping for.
The question still remains though, why? That’s what I’m struggling with at the moment in putting together Part II of this series. I’m gathering info on those excuses (like PTSD, schizophrenia, etc.) that we agree must be used to mitigate consequences. And I’m only too aware that they have had a long history of struggle to be accepted.
I (think I) will introduce some information about Ethan Couch that may make him appear a bit more sympathetic. Only then, I believe, can we legitimately decide whether or not this is a verifiable defense or just a cop-out.
Then there’s the “culture of rape” I keep bumping into — the term only, thank goodness. I’m looking at that for the 24th.
I think one main difference between PTSD and Battered-Woman (or Man) Syndrome, which I would think is a form of PTSD, is that they involve suffering trauma, either physical, mental, or both. Janet, I would argue with you, that from what I’ve read, most individuals with PTSD are NOT violent. And I think many veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD are not pleased with the popular image of the psycho, violent vet.
It is difficult to argue that affluence has caused trauma. Yes, parents could be distant or cold, and the person might feel entitled, but aren’t affluent people generally also exposed to great education, ideas, and resources so that they might also be equally likely to be conscious of inequality and have the ability to help and be more sympathetic to those in need? Affluenza, to my mind, seems similar to the 19th century “disease” called drapetomania that supposedly made slaves want to run away.
(Sorry to hear that Joan suffers from PTSD. So does my son-in-law.)
A recent Philadelphia case sort of touches on affluenza. A group of young people violently attacked two gay men, using homophobic slurs–then they left the bleeding couple on the street, and went drinking at a popular bar. A young woman in the group refused a plea bargain, denied that she was culpable and at fault at all.The “affluenza” defense was not used, but it seems to me that the young woman felt entitled and above the law. The judge gave her a harsher sentence than those who received a plea bargain deal because she did not accept any responsibility for her actions.
As you know, I’ve edited some books and written on rape and sexual violence, and I’m currently working on two, one of which explores “rape culture.”
Hi Merril, You are right. The stats clearly show that the majority of PTS sufferers are not violent to others. But, it’s been a successful defense in those cases where it was applicable. And, it’s become quite the factor in domestic violence stats, too. So, on the list it goes. Miserable list.
Interesting case you mentioned, though. Particularly how important the idea of regret or remorse is in determining ultimate punishment. I once had a hypothesis I wanted to test: that there is X amount of remorse needed to balance out a given event, E. So, when my cat jumps up on the dinner table and knocks over the gravy (E), Mother will only get upset if no one else does. But if little Mickey gets upset enough, or better yet, if Mickey and his little sister Susie both get upset, then Mother can take the high road and say, “accidents will happen.” I never set it up. Still, it wanders into my head from time to time. So, for your Philadelphia affluenza case, since the girl didn’t show “enough” remorse, the judge was primed to increase her sentence to (perhaps) get her remorse quotient up. Just a hypothesis looking for a place to rest.
Thanks for the reminder on your work on rape culture. I may run some thoughts past you, once I get my own mind around them.
Joan Z. Rough
Janet, Marian, and Merrill,
Thanks for your words here in helping me understand what you wrote about here. It is a case of semantics, yes, but it still leaves uneducated and casual readers misunderstanding and putting PTSD on the same list as someone with affluenza. They are not comparable. One is an Orange. The other is an apple.
I used to say I “suffer” from PTSD, but now I say I “have” PTSD. I have never committed a crime because of PTSD or any other reason. It is much more common than you may think and in many cases goes undiagnosed.
If I sound overly sensitive about this, maybe I am. But I abhor being on the same list with Ethan Couch. It hurts deeply.
I am not angry with you Janet or anyone else. It’s just that mental illness is something we are all striving to understand and be sensitive to, especially in this world where so many mass shooting are committed by those said to be mentally ill, as in the case of school shootings in Connecticut.
I think we just need to be very clear about how we deliver the messages we send out into the world so that there are no misunderstandings.
I love you all,
Good to know if I ever decide to murder anyone I can use adopted-child syndrome as my defense. Thanks, Janet.
And Joan, I do know not all people with PTSD are out to murder or maim others…but it has been done…I think Janet is just listing excuses that courts have accepted. That is not to say everyone accepts them.
Thanks for weighing in. I’ll just add here that I was quite surprised to see so many different types of defenses used. The list could have been much longer. I had no idea.
Joan Z. Rough
I don’t believe that anyone with PTSD is “out to murder or maim others.” PTSD is the result of trauma and when there have been murders or mailings because of PTSD there was no “planning.” Those things happen when the person with PTSD is triggered by an event, a word, or someone who looks like the person who caused the trauma. Usually the person who maims someone because of their PTSD hasn’t had treatment or sought help. They know their behavior is wrong but often feel shame for being “crazy,” often as a result of being stigmatized.
It’s time for serious conversations about mental illness.
Joan, you raise the “Intent” part of the defense, something I’ll get into next week. It’s a VERY important part of the picture. In determining punishment, do we look solely on the consequences of the action (the victims really did die) or do we factor in “Intent?” And to what extent? How important is Intent? (that’s a rhetorical question).
“Attribution of responsibility” (how we lay folk determine responsibility) is a passion of mine. I’ll say more about it next week.
Janet, this is a fascinating discussion , both your post and the conversation it has generated. The Ethan Couch issue is deeply troubling. I find myself feeling both disdain for his actions and the watered-down consequences and pity for this young man who has not been held accountable for his actions. The fact that his actions resulted in the deaths of four other young people puts this is a whole different category. Now not only have his parents enabled him but our justice system has done the same. While he may not have intended to kill anyone, four lives are gone because of him. Is he so entitled that he does not have to suffer the consequence of the crime? If he was from another social class, he certainly would have to pay the price. Affluenza seems like a big, fat excuse by high-priced lawyers. Surely , it won’t fly.
I’m so glad Merril brought in drapetomania — a good example of a frame of mind that (fortunately) did not survive. That was such an obvious case of politically based pseudoscience, as to be absurd. It’s tempting to want Affluenza to follow suit. But, curiously, there’s some actual science behind the term, at least the “culture of affluence” part. Social class has long been a part of social science research, but the focus has been on the poverty end of the continuum. It hasn’t been very many years that the affluent end has drawn the attention of researchers. The affluent do “think” differently. That, in itself, is frightening enough. They are shown to have less empathy and less desire for connection.
I’m still trying to pull apart the politics from the science. Not easy, but I’m beginning the think that, thanks to the Ethan Couch case and the public turmoil it’s wrought, more attention will be focused on these kids. And their parents!
And the legal system that follows along.
I’m always glad when you weigh in.
Socially Acceptable Excuses — Part III – Janet Givens
[…] Culture of Affluence or Cop-out? Culture as an Excuse — Part IV — The Culture of Rape […]
Narcissistic Personality Disorder — A Cultural Perspective – Janet Givens
[…] 20, 2016 with When Cultural Difference Is Used As An Excuse, then The Culture of Affluence on February 10, Socially Acceptable Excuses, on February 17, and ended with Culture as an Excuse: The Culture of […]