Ashley Madison and the art of Darkness Management

You’ve no doubt seen the news about the Ashley Madison data hack. A website that facilitates affairs for married people, boasting “life is short, have an affair”, has been hacked, and now the group responsible has purportedly released nearly 60GB of personal information including users’ names, addresses and search histories.

What has struck me most about the whole thing is the range of emotions I’ve seen on display. As my newsfeed has been filled with people sharing the story, I’ve noticed three major reactions:

The first reaction is Judgment. Outrage at Ashley Madison for their existence. Condemnation for those who have used their service.

I get this response. I understand the sick-to-the-stomach feeling, and I feel it too. The sheer scale of the website’s user base – 37 million users in 46 countries – is staggering; especially as this represents only a tiny portion of people who engage in extra-marital affairs. I feel disgust and anger on behalf of the victims.

But expressing judgment in a flippant tweet or Facebook update is hardly going to help. Statistically speaking many of us may have at least one person in our widest friendship group whose name features on that list, and if judgment is what comes out of our mouths and fingertips, we’re only going to cause them to dig deeper into their secrecy, shame and feelings of aloneness, rather than seeking help.

The second reaction, closely linked, is Enjoyment. I’ve read countless posts and remarks about people ‘getting what they deserve’, or praising the hackers for their courageous move in the name of truth. I’ve seen the ubiquitous ‘lol’ deployed more times than I care to count.

These reactions bother me for two reasons. Firstly, they buy into the idea that there is a hierarchy of evils, at the top of which is sexual misconduct. And so other activities that we might normally consider immoral become permissible. So we celebrate the questionable actions of vigilante hackers, when only a few months ago we were outraged at the not-dissimilar methods of journalists in pursuit of a story. And we unquestioningly justify their actions as a necessary evil.

Secondly; enjoyment includes judgment, and judgment can be covert entertainment. It’s titillation. Perverse. We tut externally and smile internally.

People seem to have taken particular delight in the revelation that many of the accounts belonged to politicians or people inside the Vatican. The glee with which people have reported this fact concerns me. It reinforces our feeling that we ought to be sceptical about leaders – particularly those in the political or religious spheres. All year round we like to remind people in power that they’re no different to us. But then an opportunity arises to make ourselves seem better by comparison, and so we push leaders up high onto a pedestal on which we never thought they belonged, with the sole intention of knocking them back down…

I do think leaders need to be held to a high standard. But they’re not targets in a coconut shy. And our enjoyment of their rise and fall can mask the fact that deep down we know that none of us is blameless. We all have our Ashley Madison. And when we laugh at the misfortune of others, the laugh rattles around in the vacuous cavern of our own hypocrisy. Our only option is to laugh louder and hope to drown out the echoes.

Each of these reactions – judgment and entertainment – is tempting, but ultimately deficient. And it’s the third reaction that I think is most appropriate:


Deep sadness. Sadness that is directed towards all parties entwined in this horrible mess. Sadness that we live in a world where Ashley Madison is both possible and desirable. Sadness towards those who feel so desperately in need of physical or romantic validation that they turn to a site like this. Sadness towards those who are innocent victims, wondering right now whether their partner’s name might be in that 60GB of cold, hard data.

But here’s the thing that has struck me most of all. Many of the articles I’ve read conclude with one question… one point of application:

how can you find out if your data is safe?’

Long pieces on data protection, our right to privacy, and what steps people can take to cover their backs. And that saddens me most of all, because it fails to address the biggest question and the greatest need. It’s an exercise in darkness management.

What the 47 million users and the countless other halves need most of all is not more tools to keep misdeeds hidden in ill-lit corners. They need tools to bring them into the light.

I want to see articles that conclude with “how to” guides for broaching the difficult conversation; for initiating the confession. I want to see step-by-step advice for how to be honest and remorseful. I want guides for the wronged party on how to love, grieve, forgive and rebuild trust. I want to see guidance for parents who have to explain the situation to children and teenagers. I want to see tips for how friends, couples and communities can help others process their shame and guilt and rescue their marriages.

We don’t need any more tools for darkness management. As a species we’ve had thousands of years of practice at that and we’ve got pretty good at it. We need help on how to come into the light.

The message these articles tell us is that there is no light and there is no hope. If you want to be able to carry on – business as usual – you need to know your rights, check your data, cover your back and make sure your partner doesn’t find out. Darkness management.

But light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There is hope for restored marriages. There is power for forgiveness, trust and reconciliation. There is light. And none of us possess it of our own volition. We only receive light by first admitting our own complicity in darkness.

As John puts it:

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1:5-9)

Life is short, don’t waste it in the dark.

Image: Light, Wood & Darkness by Alexander Mueller, used under CC-BY 2.0

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