The Many Strains of Affluenza

On remaining human in an affluent society

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The outrage du jour is the case of Ethan Couch. The 16-year-old Texan, according to his lawyer, was, due to his affluent upbringing, unable to fully understand that it’s wrong to steal beer from Walmart and drive his father’s pickup truck while drunk as a BAC 0.24 skunk and dosed with Valium. Couch was underage, speeding, over three times the legal limit, and transporting seven passengers, some in the bed of the truck unsecured by seat belts or seats.

Couch killed four people: a woman whose car had broken down on the roadside and three good Samaritans who stopped to help her—a mother and daughter, and a youth pastor. Prosecutors requested a sentence of 20 years in jail, the maximum sentence. Acting within Texas’ minimum sentencing guidelines, the judge ordered Couch to be sentenced to 10 years—of probation!

Legally considered a minor, Couch dodged even that small consequence. Instead, he will enjoy rehab at a facility in the sunny neighborhood of Newport Beach, California; at $450,000-per-year for inpatient treatment, I’m sure it’s the lux, swank environment he’s used to. Naturally, the country is outraged at this instance of judicial insanity: Four are dead—and Couch is sentenced to a sleep-away-camp.

No one in their right mind would accept that being born into wealth and privilege constitutes an impediment to understanding right from wrong; neither would clinical psychologists allow “affluenza” to be listed in the DSM. Anderson Cooper of CNN interviewed Dr. G. Dick Miller, the architect of the Affluenza defense. To the frustration of many viewers, Miller refused to accept the term “affluenza” and in multiple instance refused to acknowledge any responsibility on the part of Couch for the deaths, even denying that Couch caused their deaths.

Many see in this sentence two injustices: the first towards the families of the victims (“Words can’t describe how disappointed I am in terms of how the judicial system works”—the words of just one of the grieving family members) and the second towards those caught in the justice system without the benefit of family wealth or white skin.

Take the case of Jose Luis Sanchez as a comparison. In 2010, Sanchez was 19 years old and drove drunk; his car careened off road and struck a residence, pinned a sleeping man underneath; the injury led to the man’s death. In July 2013, Sanchez was sentenced to 9nineyears in jail. Unlike Couch, Sanchez is not rich (his vehicle was a ’93 Chevy pickup), not a minor, and not white. Perhaps most striking of all Sanchez, according to his lawyer, “fully and completely accepted responsibility for his actions and did not want to put his family or the victim’s family through any more heartache.” No pleas for special treatment here.

I bet Couch in fact does have affluenza. If someone’s got the gall to demand special and separate justice because he’s rich, he’s probably blind to the suffering and humanity of others. That’s what affluenza boils down to for me: It’s not about the inability to appreciate the existence of consequences (since one has never experienced any), it’s a dangerously introverted focus on gratification. It’s this strain of affluenza that poses a danger to us as students at Harvard.

Reaction to the Ethan Couch story has been predictably focused on him; his deadly narcissism poisons the air like an over-application of Axe body-spray. Collectively, we are outraged at the judge’s poor decision, disgusted by Couch (“He should be made an honorary Kennedy” was one of the better insults posted among the online comments); and fearful that our justice system is openly corrupt—with favoritism for members of socially privileged groups its guiding principle.

Instead, I believe we should examine the notion of affluenza popularized by authors de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor. Their “Affluenza: How Overconsumption is Killing Us—and How to Fight Back” will arrive in February in its third edition.  Overconsumption, fueled by the “dogged pursuit of more,” leads to overload, debt, anxiety and mental illness, and waste of resources. I find this account simplistic but truthful. Our society organizes itself according to the rule of “winner-take-all,” with less emphasis on the duty to love one’s neighbors as oneself.

Here at Harvard, it’s easy to see us enter this mode of blind self-interest during finals. We might console ourselves with the idea that our dedication to study is noble, or leads to advancement, but it is nonetheless a gratification of the desire for more: higher grades, more prestige, greater prospects of high-wage employment upon graduation.

There’s a high level of pressure—pressure coming from anxiety about how we can attain more, not seeking self-improvement, or being of service to others. I don’t mean to imply this is true of everyone. The case of Ethan Couch reveals a dark side of human nature common to us all and should give us pause—inspire us to remain authentic selves, human, aware of our best interests, not society’s cookie-cutter expectations of perfection or success. Let’s remain humble, remain rooted to the world beyond the Yard—where we are swaddled in wealth. We need to remember the end result of a life of ignoring the consequences of our self-absorption is deadly.

Michael Thorbjørn Feehly ’14 is a History and Scandinavian studies concentrator in Mather House.

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