Glenn Greenwald. (photo: Guardian UK)
21 August 15
igh school students have long read The Scarlet Letter, the 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne set in a Puritanical Massachusetts town in the mid-17th Century.
It chronicles the life of a woman who is found to have committed adultery (on her long-presumed-lost-at-sea husband); as punishment, she is forced to stand before her village with the letter “A” attached to her dress. The intent is to forever publicly shame her for her moral transgression. As The Atlantic noted in 1886, “the punishment of the scarlet letter is a historical fact.”
The moral premise of that ritual, its animating righteousness, is by no means an obsolete relic of the Puritanical era. It is as vibrant as ever. Busybodies sitting in judgment of and righteously condemning the private, sexual acts of other adults remains one of the most self-satisfying and entertaining – and thus most popular – public spectacles. It simultaneously uplifts the moral judges (I am superior to that which I condemn), distracts them from their own behaviors (I am focused on those other people’s sins, and thus not my own), and titillates (to condemn this, I simply must immerse myself in the tawdry details of their sexual acts). To see just how current is the mentality driving the Scarlet Letter, observe the reaction to the Ashley Madison hack.
Anonymous hackers yesterday published a massive trove of data containing private information about roughly 33 million people from around the world. The data was hacked from the website Ashley Madison, which promotes itself as a pro-infidelity venue where married people can find sexual partners and “have an affair.” The data published by the hackers includes the names, physical and email addresses, and credit card purchases provided by the users, along with whatever information they posted about their sexual desires and proclivities.
The primary justification offered by the hackers was that the site is a scam. The hackers complain that most of the female profiles were fake (a claim that has some evidence), and that the site demanded a payment of $19.99 in exchange for the unfulfilled promise to permanently delete users’ profiles and personal data. When the hackers last month announced their hack, they portrayed themselves as fraud-fighting vigilantes: they threatened to release all of the users’ data unless the site owners removed the site completely.
But there was also a significant component of sexual moralism to the hacker’s self-described mission. In their original manifesto, they echoed the moral paternalism offered by Gawker’s Max Read to justify his site’s outing of an obscure married financial officer of a magazine company. The hackers proclaimed: “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.” In yesterday’s statement announcing their data dump, the hackers directly lectured the users they were exposing with this sermon: “Learn your lesson and make amends. Embarrassing now, but you’ll get over it.”
That the cheating scoundrels of Ashley Madison got what they deserved was a widespread sentiment yesterday. Despite how common both infidelity and online pornography are, tweets expressing moralistic glee were legion. Websites were created to enable easy searches of the hacked data by email address. An Australian radio station offered to tell listeners on air if their spouse’s names appeared in the data base, and informed one horrified woman caller that her husband did.
The Washington Post actually promoted those newly created searching sites under the encouraging headline “How to Search The Ashley Madison Leak,” helpfully linking to a site that “will tell you if an e-mail address or phone number appears in the leaked files.” When the leak was first announced last month, The Post published a similar article headlined “Was your spouse on Ashley Madison? A new breed of private eye is ready to help.”