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Mobs Have No Principles, Hacker Edition

Fredrik deBoer thinks the Ashley Madison hack is the latest proof that the left hasn’t really won the culture war:

Since at least the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, it’s been trendy to say that the culture war is over. With acceptance of gay love now ubiquitous, with trans rights taking center stage, with even traditionally conservative culture like sports increasingly accepting of gender and sexual differences, many now presume that social conservatism, as a mass political phenomenon, is in permanent retreat. Indeed, some prominent social conservatives have been debating the “Benedict option,” which entails a retreat from public life by social traditionalists. Left and right both seem to agree that the battle is over.

With the recent leak of massive amounts of data from infidelity-enabling AshleyMadison.com, though, and Gawker’s notorious naming and shaming of an obscure, married publishing executive who attempted to hire the services of an escort, we might well ask: if the culture war is over, who really won?

That social conservatism lost seems inarguable. Gay marriage was the hill that the forces of social conservatism were willing to die on, and die they did. . . . And yet I can’t help but feel that social liberalism hasn’t exactly won, either. Once, a central pillar of progressive attitudes towards love and sex was the right to be left alone, the right to have privacy, the right to undertake adult behaviors that others might not agree with but which nevertheless must remain permissible. That version of social liberalism—the one associated with tolerance and personal freedom—seems almost as dead as the religious traditionalism that we’re so eager to discard.

To which I can only ask: what makes you think the AshleyMadison.com hackers are indicative of any political tendency at all?

There is a liberalism of principle and a liberalism of temperament, and I think deBoer is confusing the two here. A liberal temperament is pretty much diametrically opposed to the kind of outing and shaming involved with these kinds of hacks, regardless of the underlying politics. Whether we’re talking about outing closeted gay people or anonymous racists – or, for that matter, making public the names and physical addresses of the kinds of people who execute these kinds of hacks – there’s nothing liberal, from a temperamental perspective, about the activity.

But a liberalism of principle is as subject to perfectionism as any other politics is. And it’s easy to see how perfectionism can lead to justifications for all kinds of invasions of traditional zones of privacy and immunity. Slum-clearing was a project with considerable liberal backing; so was forced school busing; so is yes-means-yes. All of these are noble-intentioned projects that substantially invaded such zones.

Moreover, it would not be hard to construct a left-wing attack on Ashley Madison. What kind of men have the resources to avail themselves of the opportunities provided by such a site? Who benefits and who suffers most from the aggregation of this kind of data on “availability”? What does the existence of a site like that do to the power dynamic within most marriages? I’m not endorsing that kind of critique (nor am I getting into the thicket of ranking adultery itself in the table of sins – though I may do that at another time). I’m just pointing out that such a critique can certainly be constructed, and shouldn’t be dismissed with mere hand-waving.

And that is precisely why it’s important to keep the two questions separate. You can embrace a left-wing critique of an entity like Ashley Madison without being a neo-Victorian moralist. But you can also be a neo-Victorian moralist without embracing mob “justice.” And that is what is being enacted with the Ashley Madison hack – something essentially illiberal in temperament (as mobs always are), but also something completely lacking in principle of any kind, and motivated instead by base emotions like envy and schadenfreude (as, again, mobs always are).

The mob may well be winning the culture war. But that is not merely a different front from the one deBoer (and the rest of us) are talking about when we discuss gay marriage, or abortion. It’s a different war altogether. Because no principled politics of any kind, whether moralistic or libertarian, can safely or in good conscience rely on the mob.

UPDATE: oh – and this news story is of obvious relevance to “The Runner” – yet another reason to go see it!

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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