spin cycle: affluenza

Blah blah, Spin Cycle, blah blah, people in the news say a lot crazy stuff and we’re here to help you cope, etc.

By now you’ve all heard about the teenager who killed four people while driving drunk and will not go to jail because he suffered from a severe case of “affluenza.” “Affluenza” is the term an expert witness used to describe being a teenager in a rich family who doesn’t believe his actions will have consequences.

The word (we use the word “word” loosely, just this once) sounds like a disgusting, sometimes deadly condition, so in that sense, it might be a good metaphor for drunk driving. But the psychologist who coined it was a witness for the defense. His defense of the teenager was, essentially, “This kid shouldn’t go to jail for killing four people because he thinks he can do anything he wants because he’s rich.”

The psychologist later said he hated to see any kid — rich or poor — go to kid jail. But the fact that his defense kept this particular kid out of jail tells us something important about courts and bias and the persuasive power of certain ideas.


If someone calls you articulate, it means you express yourself clearly. Not everybody can do that. But you can. You’re articulate. Good for you! It’s a compliment. Right?

Well, it depends. Do you belong to a group of people who has, in recent history, been enslaved or denied basic human rights? And was one of the justifications for denying your group’s rights the really destructively wrong idea that your group was not as intelligent or self-aware as other groups? And is the person who called you “articulate” a member of the group of people who enslaved/denied rights to your group, and have members of her group been overtly and subtly questioning your group’s intelligence and making fun of the words and expressions favored by some members of your group (maybe words and expressions you use yourself) basically every day of your life leading up to the moment this person told you her opinion about the way you talk?

In that case, it would be pretty tough to take “articulate” as a compliment because you would have no idea how she meant it. Did she mean to say you have a way with words? Or did she mean she can’t believe how smart and normal you sound, based on how stupid and weird she was expecting you to sound?

It’s important to think about how your words might affect other people.

spin cycle: internal devaluation

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we talk about the worst things people in the news are saying to us instead of throwing ourselves onto an electric barbed-wire fence.

What do you picture when you hear the term “internal devaluation?” I really tried to picture something. I gave it a good honest try. But the only thing I could imagine was seven billion pairs of human eyes glazing over.

When you run into a term like “internal devaluation” — boring, vague, full of bland syllables — you should fight the urge to fall asleep in your chair because it usually means that the person speaking to you is hoping you won’t notice something important. It’s like she’s saying, “HEY, DON’T LOOK OVER HERE. It’s super boring and you probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”

Don’t listen to her. You’re smart. Go on, have a look.

Europe is short on cash. Some countries are trying to fix this problem by “easing regulations” on businesses (or “stripping away workers’ rights,” depending on who is speaking), which the countries hope will make the businesses more profitable, which would bring some extra money into the local economies. They’re calling the regulation-easing/rights-stripping policy changes “internal devaluation.”

So: What’s being “devalued” is work. Or people. Depending on who’s speaking.


Somehow, “garnish” means both “the little decorative things chefs sometimes put on the plate with the rest of your food” and “to take money out of your paycheck without your permission to pay off your debts.”

We don’t know how this happened. The two ideas aren’t related at all. But it’s the second meaning we’re interested in, because it makes “garnish” one of those special words that doesn’t sound anything like what it actually means.

Sometimes we use words to distance ourselves from our actions.

If you and I were in charge of getting money from people who weren’t paying their debts, we might find it easier to get through the day if we never had to say words like “seize” or “steal” or “take by force.” It’s a lot easier to say, “We garnished your wages because you defaulted on your loan” than it is to say, “We’re taking your last little bit of money and giving it to somebody else.”