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The Scarlet Letter and Ashley Madison

Many people had no idea Ashley Madison, a “dating website marketed at would-be adulterers,” existed before this week. Now, they’re not likely to forget it. The site’s hacking has resulted in the release of information from 32 million users of the site. As these users’ emails—and thus, their identities—have come to light, a manhunt has begun.

The site’s very existence seems rather odd, at least at first glance: who would give their personal information to a website publicly set up to help you cheat on your spouse? It seems the risk is hardly worth taking. It seems some, at least, would fear that their membership would come back to haunt them.

But while it’s impossible to know exactly why so many signed up for Ashley Madison accounts—with their work emails, no less—one can imagine that there was an extent to which the website’s mere existence, its promise of a sheltering and complicit community, soothed many consciences.

Because that’s what Ashley Madison did: it organized and fostered a community around cheating. We speak of the importance of private associations, their ability to inculcate habits of virtue. But here, we see the opposite: we see an association fostering and even facilitating vice. And this is the dark side of community that we forget about: we forget that peer support and approval will motivate us to do things we may otherwise have avoided—or at least felt guilty about.

But in the past several days, in the massive manhunt for guilty parties, we see a social ethic of truth and moral indignation (tinged by revenge and a lust for sensationalism) engulf Ashley Madison’s community of complicity. Across the globe, people are searching for names they know. Journalists are seeking out the well-known, eager to bring them to justice. One such person is Josh Duggar—a lobbyist for the Family Research Council, whose conservative Christian family starred on TLC’s now-cancelled “19 Kids and Counting” show. It’s bad enough to see political and military emails starring with such frequency in the files hacked from Ashley Madison. But to see a man whose vocation was to defend and promote conservative family values amongst them is definitely saddening.

The whole episode reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter—a book whose community may seem like the opposite of Ashley Madison’s. Yet they are not entirely different: Hawthorne’s Puritan town casts out Hester Prynne because she has a child out of wedlock—yet unbeknownst to them, the father of her child is the town minister. While Hester continues to live on the outskirts of town, viewed with disdain or suspicion, Dimmesdale is revered and loved by many. When the truth finally comes out, they are shocked. The New England town has its own comfortable vices, which it condones or overlooks because they’re held in common. Solidarity can foster vice, as well as virtue—in this case, the continued maltreatment and punishment of a single mother.

This week, I shared a Mere Orthodoxy blogpost from Alastair Roberts, in which he compares our online community to a Jane Austen village: both, he wrote, have a propensity to become echo chambers, affirming our vices and encouraging us in typical forms of behavior. Both urge us to pick up our pitchforks and castigate the unpopular or disliked, when the opportunity presents itself.

Here, too, we see the village venom brewing. The Puritan’s judgment of Hester and corresponding ignorance of Dimmesdale isn’t so far removed from our own eagerness to eschew Josh Duggar and his Ashley Madison compatriots, coupled with our desire to overlook other moral woes simmering beneath our societal surface. It’s always easier to pick out and publicly shame the cheaters and adulterers than it is to look at the vices within.

This isn’t to say that the Ashley Madison users shouldn’t receive some scrutiny—especially those who have put themselves in the public eye, and are therefore subject to public accountability.

But I can’t help but wonder what is spurring on this massive investigation into Ashley Madison users: is it a desire for justice, for public accountability? Is it a desire for sensationalism, for tawdry details to come to light? Or is it a desire for self-satisfaction, for an opportunity to shake our heads at those naughty and stupid people who used the dating website?

I’m sure all of the above feelings are involved in the exposures going on. And I can’t help but think of Dimmesdale, hiding beneath the surface of his town’s consternation. It makes me wonder—in the midst of our public outcry over the obvious and embarrassing, what hidden sins are we forgetting, or choosing to forget?

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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