Americans have long been impatient, in most cases rightly, with childhood poverty or other misfortune as an excuse for criminal behavior.
So what are we supposed to make of the system when the “excuse” is wealth and privilege?
Ethan Couch is a Texas teen who this past June, along with a group of friends, stole some booze and went careening around in a truck. Police say he was driving near 70 in a 40- mph zone, and that his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit. The joyride ended when the truck ran over and killed four people, including a mother and daughter.
Couch faced four counts of manslaughter that could, and arguably should, have netted him 20 years in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years — on probation.
The defense argued Couch suffers from “affluenza” — a supposed emotional/psychological disorder that afflicts people so accustomed to getting everything they want that they lack the capacity to distinguish right from wrong or understand the consequences of their actions.
The term isn’t new, even if its use as a legal defense is. It was coined more than a decade ago by author Jessie O’Neill in a book titled “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” According to a psychologist for the defense, “affluenza” is Ethan Couch’s debilitating psychological disorder.
According to another psychologist The Associated Press interviewed for the story, not even the author who coined the term intended it as a justification for outrageous actions: “The simple term,” said Dr. Gary Buffone of Jacksonville, Fla., “would be spoiled brat.” It seems the dependent poor aren’t the only people with a deficit of “personal responsibility.”
There are so many things wrong with this story that it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe with the familiar fact there have been children since the dawn of civilization raised in wealth and privilege who still somehow managed to learn right from wrong. Maybe you chew on the fact that the young man’s parents, concerned that the juvenile justice system created for lesser mortals won’t provide adequate “therapy,” have offered to send him instead to a $450,000-a-year rehab center in California. Nothing like a little tough love.
But ultimately the outrage goes beyond the issue of either privilege or deprivation as a defense. It goes to the socio-psychological fallacy in which every evil, every crime, every offense against an individual or society is interpreted (you might say distorted) through the prism of pathology. If everything bad is a disorder, then moral discernment is meaningless.