Ashley and the Right to Secrets

I like to begin my thoughts with the phrase “I could be wrong.” For me, the journey of life is not about being right, but rather a process of refining how I think and what I assume. Where the beautiful mind of Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” my more modest mind suggests, “I think, therefore I could be wrong.”

I may say a few things here that piss you off, I could be wrong.

But I invite you to come think with me. Let’s think about privacy, let’s think about morality, let’s think about society; more specifically, about what the job of society is and the job of the individual in society. Let’s think in light of Ashley Madison.

Freedom and Debate

To me, there is no such thing as a Free Society. Maybe there could be in the future when enough of us have put our minds together in sheer numbers of innovation and consensus to develop a society that operates freely. There isn’t now, there has never been.

I say this because the very function of society in any culture is to provide limitation. That limitation is set to provide structure for growth. We come together, agree on what should be limited, what should be protected, and then we create social mores specific to our culture. We think, and then we limit.

In the West, we orient ourselves around ideas of organized freedom. We polarize and fall to one side or to the other about who gets limited in the interest of freedom based on our own personal views and perhaps, on larger pictures and end results.

This is what our marriage equality debate is all about (nay, it’s not a debate, it’s more like a bunch of people shouting loudly at each other and then returning to their corners hissing barbs at the other under their breath. But I digress.)

Should all human beings enjoy the same rights and responsibilities afforded to others in marriage and—as a result, should opponents of marriage equality be limited in their ability to limit others based on their own views? Should the “traditional institution of marriage” held sacred by the top three religions be transformed on a secular level to include people who are members of a lifestyle those religious institutions don’t condone? Who gets limited?

Personally, my views fall to the first and not the latter. More freedom is achieved through the first as far as I’m concerned. This article isn’t about marriage equality, but about a deeper theme.

March of the Memes, Schadenfreude Blogs, and Flame-Wars

We’re in the middle of a lot of tumultuous debates right now as a society. We have flung mud, we have called names, we have created memes, we’ve interviewed pundits ad nauseam, we have been angry, all of us.

We’re discussing our future social mores. Where will we stand on violence, on freedom, religion, on race, on income inequality, on poverty? What will we do with the events that face us in our time? How will we direct our course? This could be naive of me to assume, but we discuss all these with one central question: how do they relate to freedom, our greatest social more? What views will we limit in order to achieve a greater freedom?

Thank you for following me thus far with no mention of all the cheating dirtbags who have made Ashley Madison a success.

For the sake of thinking, let’s say that freedom is an individual idea. No society is free, but individuals can be. The more free individuals there are in a society, the freer the society. What makes you free is your freedom to choose, your freedom to move, your freedom to direct your path.

Your freedom, however, can impact the freedom of others. If enough people (or rich enough people) are limited by your freedom, governments can legislate, people can protest, laws can be made in public and in private to limit your freedom to limit theirs.

Or, you can remain free and limit yourself—which is still freedom.

Central to the idea of freedom is privacy.

Robin Hood

Throughout time, when the social institutions we’ve put in place—namely government—fail to act in the interests of enough members of the society they represent, we revolt. We create new limitations for them and keep them in check or sometimes we overthrow them altogether.

We have stories that we rally around of cavalier renegades and revolutionaries. We all cheer at these stories: Robin Hood, Sam Adams and Paul Revere. The KKK. The Open Carry Movement. Black Lives Matter. Anonymous.

Oh, did you groan at some of those? Cuss?

Good.

In every era, at every time and every segment of society, there are members that are willing to break laws, to trample unspoken social mores in order to get their point across or expand their freedom.

Some of them are heroic, or downright despicable. The line gets blurry most times, but sometimes it’s very clear.

Exhibit A: the Fappening. There was no greater social good to the public, grand scale assault of a score of human beings. Their personal accounts were hacked and then dumped to remain on the internet. They’re out there, permanently, only a few words in a search bar away.

Being a lover of history, they remind me of so many heads shoved onto pikes and displayed at city gates over so many millennia of human civilization. A different kind of violence happened in the Fappening, one that we’re not so refined yet to recognize. Maybe in future generations we will be as appalled by these new kinds of corpses.

To some of you, these people were “asking for it.” At what point they were “asking for it” confuses me. Perhaps they “asked for it” when they chose to have bodies. I wonder how much of that phrase “asking for it” is constructed to justify either apathy or a personal google search of those photos. To justify you, personally, also invading that person’s privacy, shaming them, or not caring whether they’re hurt.

“Everyone else is doing it, what does it matter if I did?”

What does it matter if you watch a lynch mob? What does it matter if you’re among the crowd surrounding the swinging corpse of a man, if it’s your face there in those old photos once published in newspapers or filed in the annals of our gruesome past? What does it matter if you watched a boy bullied, kicked, whimpering? If you said nothing, did nothing? There were others who watched and did nothing, too. Why you?

Why should you be singled out? Why should you be made to feel defensive, vulnerable?

Simple: because that is when you are at your most powerful and most free.

Finally, Ashley

I will share something very private: I am in love. I’ve been in love for the past several years. Deeply so. There is a person who rises like the sun in my eyes. Whose company I never get enough of. Whose presence never ceases to bewitch, amuse, and soothe my soul.

The thought of finding out that he has been dishonest with me, or is somehow different than he’s represented himself…it’s terrifying.

I don’t like to cross bridges I haven’t visited, but I think I can reasonably predict that I would spend a period of time feeling like my world has shattered if that happened. Part of my heart would howl like a roving ghost, wander from place to place trying to pick up the fragments of what was there, try to see what pieces could fit together again.

Why do I know this? Well, I’ve lived long enough to know. I’ve experienced enough heartbreak to know the dance moves.

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen members of my family with red rimmed eyes and divorce papers. I’ve seen people I love wonder how they were going to keep paying the electric bill for their children because their husband had cast them aside in the interest of their mistress. I’ve listened to an old boyfriend describe the sudden desire to throw himself from a moving vehicle after seeing that a woman he was in love with had a string of lovers when he was not home.

Most of us wince at the thought of adultery. Most of us cringe. It’s easy to see the hackers of Ashley Madison as a moral Robin Hood. It’s easy for us to feel like we can sleep safer from treachery knowing that there are people out there who will make it harder for adulterous lovers to act with impunity.

There are a lot of problems with that sort of understandable thinking, but that’s not what we’re thinking about today.

What we should think about is the new social more we’re creating. We should think about the heads we’re surrounded with, piling up around the city walls.

What Ashley Madison promised the 30+ million users it catered to is freedom. Rather, privacy. New information has come to light that a portion of those users, namely those in Saudi Arabia and other places of the world where LGBT individuals are not free, have used the privacy afforded by that site to achieve a form of freedom.

Now that their privacy has been invaded, their last line of freedom stripped, there will possibly be very real heads that result from this—the old kind—the kind where a sword removes a head from the shoulders of a praying man.

Now that Whatever-His-Name-Is has been uncovered (yet again) as a moral hypocrite and now that infidelity support sites are filled with the forum posts of people who found their spouse’s names in the roster of the exposed, now what?

This sort of invasion of privacy is only INITIALLY committed by hackers. But it is perpetuated by the rest of us. The ones who fall into the trap of cheering it on, who point at one or two lone idiots as justification for the rest.

I’m not suggesting justification doesn’t exist. When we invade the privacy of the violent, the sexual predator, the drug lord, there is an almost palpable sense of the future lives we are protecting. We need special permissions to invade their privacy, namely in the form of warrants. Whether those special permissions exist any more in a time of the NSA, I don’t know. I don’t have answers for this.

I know this one thing…

Privacy is the only sort of freedom you really have, it’s the only sort of freedom your neighbor has. We live in a world where your neighbor is in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Egypt. The only way you can protect your neighbor’s privacy is by choosing not to look into their windows. The only way to limit the actions of hackers and Robin Hoods is to not look, not cheer.

It’s not sexy, but neither is adultery, neither is mob justice.

In the words of the band, Digging Roots, “Simple acts of integrity are ones that will set us free.” We can choose as an individual to respect another’s privacy. We can choose to have integrity, personally. It’s in your power to answer of the greatest questions of our time.

How we respond to this situation and the ones that WILL rise in the future will determine the course of our freedom, of our overall integrity and our overall privacy and freedom.

These are my humble thoughts. I thank you for reading them, for reflecting on them. I could be wrong. But even if I am, may we all be free.

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Melanie Stormm is a Love Maven, Marketer, Mother, and Maker of Cookies

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