The Ashley Madison hack has provoked many worthwhile conversations about digital privacy, consumer protection and the state of modern marriage. The most interesting of them is the ever-shifting division between public and private behavior. In a short piece for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald decries the “puritanical glee” with which people were exposing others’ private lives. “Whatever else is true, adultery is a private matter between the adulterer and his or her spouse,” he writes. “Except in the most unusual cases — such as a politician hypocritically launching morality crusades against others — it’s most definitely not any of your business.” So far, at least publicly, the government and the media establishment appear to agree with Greenwald.
As of writing, the only user who has been held publicly accountable is family-values child molester Josh Duggar, who falls right in the middle of the “hypocritical public moralists” exception, as Dan Savage readily agrees. Gawker’s Sam Biddle outed himself, saying he set up an account for research, and though he has plenty of online enemies, his presence in the data dump will not ruin his life. And anyone who didn’t pay for an account (which, with the way Ashley Madison works, includes almost all female users) has plausible deniability, since the site didn’t verify their emails.
At The Awl, John Herrman predicted a worst-case scenario, in which there are “tens of millions of people who will be publicly confronted with choices they thought they made in private.” I find this very unlikely. No one should be arrested or be deprived of their civil rights for having consensual sex. Reporting on the affairs of a nonpublic person is poor journalistic practice; even Gawker seems to get that now. We don’t have enforceable criminal penalties for civilian adultery. So most exposed Ashley Madison users shouldn’t have much to worry about, at least when it comes to the bounded public sphere of government and the media. Even if a few dozen users get exposed unfairly, that’s a one-in-a-million chance.
Instead, people will wind up being privately confronted with choices they thought they made in secret. Freedom of secrecy is what Freddie deBoer calls “the right to be left alone” — not just by the authorities but also by the middle layer between the state and individuals, or what we might, in defiance of Margaret Thatcher, call society. Liberals have fought religious conservatives for decades trying to keep the government from intervening in citizens’ sex, drug and rock ’n’ roll choices, but deBoer and Greenwald want us to go further and ignore all behavior that isn’t listed in the Constitution. That might fulfill our obligations as citizens but not as people.
The right to be left alone has always existed; it has just been unevenly distributed. Cheating, as deBoer reminds us, is as old as marriage itself. That husbands are expected to step out on their wives has long been an integral part of heterosexual relations, but (all other things being equal) unfaithful men have been left alone with a wink and a nod. In fact, heterosexual men have traditionally had far more domestic privacy than they should. Marital rape wasn’t banned throughout the United States until the early 1990s, and although the law now prohibits men from abusing their partners, society, empirically, does not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 10 million American women have been raped by their intimate partners. Extending the right to be left alone in an unequal society doesn’t protect anyone from this kind of violence, and privacy is an abuser’s first excuse.
In today’s American political rhetoric, there is a split between social issues — meaning private behavior — and public economic policy. The bifurcation allows for the libertarian socially liberal, economically conservative position that (with the exception of reproductive health) both mainstream political party establishments are heading toward; it’s only a matter of time before every national politician will support gay marriage and closed-shop unions lose the little support they currently enjoy.
But there’s a difference between saying private behavior is not the state’s business and saying it’s nobody’s business. Society is the group of people who care whether you lie or cheat or harm others, even if the government doesn’t and shouldn’t.
Unlike liberalism, the 20th-century radical feminist tradition tends to reject these public/private social/economic divisions in favor of a holistic view: The family and the private home are important social institutions; to exclude them from the political realm is disastrous. The writer Valerie Solanas, for example, advocated “couple busting” — intervening to sabotage heterosexual pairs wherever they may appear — to bring about a more just society. In this view, the dominant heterosexual couple form, with its built-in inequality, is a serious obstacle to American social development and it must be confronted somehow. If it’s always vigilantism to interfere in other people’s private lives, then so be it.
There is no contradiction between taking socially liberal positions on same-sex marriage, abortion and drug use and believing that men must be forced to treat women better. Nor is it a contradiction to say women should have more sexual freedom and straight men should have less. Leaving people alone in their families won’t improve these gender relations. As Solanas writes, “Dropping out is not the answer; fucking up is.”
The men outed in the Ashley Madison hack have little to fear from society at large. They will, as straight men with disposable income, likely be just fine, even if their wives, employers and families find out. An unemotional look at that CDC data would lead a sober viewer to worry much more about their wives, if only because they’re married to men. That’s why we should be concerned.
Society does exist; it’s the plural of private life. We, as social beings from first breath, cannot afford to stop caring about the way people treat one another just because no one else is watching. What is and is not our business is more complicated than that.