The Ashley Madison hack: the rights of the community & the triumph of the individual

The Impact Team, a group of hackers, has followed through on their threats and dumped, en masse, 35 million + email addresses and other details they hacked from Ashley Madison online for all and sundry to trawl through. Ashley Madison is the champ of online affairs; specifically targeting married people, their byline is “Life’s short, have an affair”. Ashley Madison are far and away the largest provider of online liaisons, with 124 million site visits a month and over 37 million members in 46 countries, It was assumed that it operated at the highest levels of security; the hack of their data has sent shockwaves through the online world.

Apparently 70 percent of members are men, 30 percent women. More broadly, currently something like 50 percent of married women in developed countries will have an affair, and 60 percent of married men. Affairs are big business, so the hacking is big news because this isn’t celebrities, this is us normal everyday people. Ashley Madison members are, understandably, freaking out, but it’s others’ reaction that interests me.

There;s a fair wellspring of mockery and derision, of the sense of this being a fair payment for infidelity (guilty as charged, this was my initial reaction). More sober heads and as such the dominant thread of commentary is a concern about this broad invasion of privacy of data and the potential for it to be a watershed moment. This concern has two key aspects: we cannot judge others’ lives; the right to privacy is fundamental.

This dominant thread presumes that the rights of the individual is the greatest good; it is connected to the libertarian ideal that we should be absolutely free as long as we don’t impinge on the rights of other individuals. Yet this goes further, because the presumption is that even in the instance of an affair, which damages the physical, mental and communal health and well-being of the spouse and the family, the privacy to conduct that affair without fear of public humiliation and discovery is more important than the expectations of a spouse and offspring to your fidelity.

But of course we don’t know the circumstances. Potentially people are in an unhappy marriage, perhaps an abusive marriage, perhaps a lack of intimacy and a failure of their hopes and dreams. An affair may be the sad outcome of their difficulties and suffering. My own whakapapa is replete with affairs; unhappy, suffering people who tried to deal with mental and emotional suffering in the arms of others. My feelings about my ancestors in this instance are complicated; the affair is part of their story for me and a complex humanity that I appreciate.

So my view today is this: hackers shouldn’t be the arbiter of public morality; and this data is none of our business (hence I haven’t linked to it or had a look myself).

However, I don’t agree with the assertion that we cannot judge affairs. The logic of that assertion must be that our community, our society cannot regard some behaviours as preferable to others. For the sake of a functional, healthy community it is absolutely our communal right to discourage infidelity. Along with domestic violence and neglect, where two people have agreed to commit to each other, an affair threatens not just that relationship but also the stability our community.

At this point, let me be clear I am not talking about open marriages and relationships or polyamorous relationships. Consenting adults who enter into such relationships are active participants in the decisions around the structure of their relationships. An affair is hidden, it goes against the consented strucuture of the marriage relationship; it is selfish.

Affairs are destructive to the community because: they tend to encourage riskier sexual behaviours that affect the health of both the person engaged in the affair and their unsuspecting partner; affairs lead to the break up of relationships which impacts on the mental and emotional health and long-term well-being of the partners, the children, the wider family, the social and professional networks; the break-up of family units make the community less stable as people move away from communities and/or the community has to address the dysfunctions of broken relationships.

I’ve been married 15 years. Long term relationships like marriage are hard work. They are not sustained by lust and excitement, but by choice. Anyone in a long term relationship know that you chose the other person (or persons) and sometimes that choice is against what you feel you want or desire. Being a part of a culture that supports you to make the hard choices makes those choices moderately easier. If we want a functional society and functional communities then the members of said communities need to understand that we value fidelity, honesty and trust. So it is alright to state this as a principle: people shouldn’t have affairs. And it is alright to say that sites like Ashley Madison are parasites that encourage dysfunction and damage.

Finally if your marriage is awful, damaging to you, a source of pain and you need to get out; do that. Get out of that. You don’t deserve that, you deserve better. An affair is not going to fix that pain for long, but having the courage to start the process of leaving might. There’s lots of support to leave from women’s and men’s groups, social services and health providers; maybe even in your wider family. Have the courage to say it is over and leave. Don’t use short term pleasure to hide your need to do something about your crisis. Ashley Madison et al. isn’t an answer, it’s just another leech grown bloated on your suffering.

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