The real story in the Ashley Madison scandal is the crime of the hacking, yet I’ve seen little in the way of follow-up on that and no reports about efforts to remove the database. What and who’s working on finding and punishing the people who did this? While there have been some stories about this, media outlets seem far more interested in exploiting the crime for their own profit. I’m seeing headlines like “Head of Louisiana GOP had Ashley Madison Account” or “Christian YouTube Vlogger Had Paid Ashley Madison Account.” This is journalism? I saw a report this morning on how the stolen database is now searchable. Really, people? Who does that serve if not those who wish to exploit the sordid underbelly of murder by character assassination?
My friends and family know I’ve struggled with issues of addiction my whole life. It’s a very long story — and one that has a happy ending — but before recovery, I lived two lives. Most addicts “live” their mask in order to hide the very deep shame they feel. I, too, had an Ashley Madison account, one that I obtained before addictive behavior in this very private side of life was discovered. I was curious, and what I discovered inside was fascinating but a far cry from what’s advertised. I’m also a cultural observer specializing in the Internet. It’s my life’s work. Nevertheless, I cannot be honest with myself if I were to say that my only motive with Ashley Madison was curiosity or work. We have a saying in AA that “the longer you hang out in a barbershop, the greater the likelihood you’ll get a haircut some day.” That awareness acts as a hedge against what the saying teaches, and besides, my relationship with God is such that I fear very little these days. The point is I never gave AM a dime, and that’s required if you want to make a connection. That doesn’t make me innocent, but it does give me a perspective you may not have.
So here are what I view as the real issues of this scandal.
1. We’re a society of hypocrites (what a shock!), and I’m not talking about those who may have used the site to have an affair. The joyful, self-righteous, and condescending energy behind the “stories” in the wake of the scandal bears the cloying marks of a vindictive form of murder by character destruction. While I have no pity for Josh Duggar, his case reeks of rationalization for the heinous nature of the real crime — the release into the wild of the private database. I honestly wonder how some people can look themselves in the mirror without seeing the enormous mote in their eye, for the exploitation of this leak for the sake of personal or political gain is as much a part of the crime as the leak itself. What have we become? We all need to be careful when stoning our neighbors like this, for the very glass houses we occupy could explode into millions of dangerous shards.
2. This is an early example of the legal system encountering the chaos of the network and attempting to wrestle it to 20th Century ground in service to the hierarchy. For one thing, lawsuits over breach of privacy will bankrupt Ashley Madison’s parent company, so the only people who’ll make any money from this are the lawyers. It’s simply too big a mess, and this is sanctioned and sanctified extortion. Secondly, do we really wish to live in a world where hackers can force this kind of ambulance chasing? If we’re ever going to reach a point where identity is a network requirement, this kind of breach simply cannot be tolerated, for the rules of real life that govern behavior run smack dab into the world of thoughts online. This is why membership in the site does not necessarily indicate intent to act, and why public assumptions to the contrary are such an egregious invasion of privacy and the purest form of “The Scarlet Letter.” My hope is always that we’ll rewrite some laws that will prevent lawsuits in the wake of such actions. There’s little hope for that right now, because our legislatures are filled with the same lawyers who profit from the laws they create. As I’ve written many times, it’s the biggest conflict of interest ever known to humankind. There’s no protection against time and chance.
3. This case reveals the true extent to which modernist hyperbole has replaced fact as a determining element of human understanding. Ashley Madison advertises itself as a place where men and women (can) find each other to have an affair, without strings attached. Hell, there’s even a guarantee and the boast of over a million “satisfied” members! The brand’s photo of a comely woman holding her finger to her lips is provocative and full of meaning. Really, people? Have we forgotten caveat emptor? It’s a business, and businesses are all about money, no matter what’s on the sign out front. These people will do anything and say anything to get a renewable fee from users. And like everything else in the world of adult entertainment (a.k.a. porn), therefore, the promise vastly exceeds the delivery, and it’s hopelessly naïve to think otherwise. Even if their hype is to be believed, for every “satisfied” customer, there are 36 dissatisfied members. What is Ashley Madison to them, if not, at best, a fantasy?
4. There are a staggering number of unhappy people in our world. Rather than slinging stones, we ought to be taking a deep look into the cave that’s home to all of these souls. My Evangelical friends would submit that all they need is Jesus, but you’d be amazed to discover the degree to which many of these people have been utterly rejected by the church. And now, the elbows and winks that accompany our self-righteous judgment of others in the wake of this scandal makes us the ones to be pitied. What is it about modern Christianity that produces such arrogance? The degree of discontent demonstrated in a website alleged to be for cheaters that has 37 million members ought to give us pause that maybe we’re not as perfect as we think we are. What does it say about our institutions? I think it discloses (again) that what we’ve built as a culture isn’t working. Let’s face it; Ashley Madison wouldn’t exist without demand. Shut it down, and that demand will retreat once again to the shadows, but it won’t go away.
Look, if this whole thing inspires discussion about infidelity, that’s a good thing. But during the discussion, let’s also look at the root causes (like the soul sickness of selfishness) and not dismiss it with the oversimplified notion of blaming a symptom instead of the disease.
The Ashley Madison story is one of the biggest of the 21st Century and a harbinger of conflicts yet to come. It has the potential to destroy not only real people but freedom itself, including one that’s most precious to all of us, the freedom of thought.
We all ought to be concerned.