Professor Ashley Madison: Lessons Learned from the Scandal

By Haim Engelman

The media splash made late this summer by the hacking of the popular adultery website known as Ashley Madison and the subsequent user information dump was hard to miss. As expected, conventional and social media focused heavily on the sensational aspects of the story: alleged suicides of exposed unfaithful spouses, military and government emails galore strewn throughout the data dump, and of course, all of the media focus on the idea that “these cheaters got what was coming to them.” From my perspective, however, this data breach highlighted numerous other issues, none of which the media seemed to pay any attention at all to.

While many of the takeaways from the Ashley Madison scandal are obvious and glaring, others remain more subtle and sometimes more subjective as well. As a precursor, I would like to note that adultery is a heinous act. When a married person cheats, he or she commits a vile, detestable act of dishonesty. One cheats not only on his or her spouse, but also on his or her children, on the integrity of the family structure he or she has worked to create, and on the uprightness of his or her life itself. But it should also come as no surprise that a scandal embodied by the vulgarity and, dare I say, mystique, of cheating (or the mere plotting to do so) lends itself to such widespread intrigue and fascination. Herein lies why the Ashley Madison scandal lends itself to be such a clear illustrator of many reflections and life lessons.

As a young man and a university student, it is seldom my place to criticize or cast judgment upon individuals. However, it is precisely that life circumstance that provides me with a unique outlook into the all too prevalent social woes brought to the forefront by this scandal. I, like many others, believe in learning from our mistakes; the opportunity an error provides in order to fine-tune ourselves is a tremendous gift only a foolish society would dare forfeit. Mistakes are crucial in personal human growth. They teach us lessons and provide insights that would otherwise be unattainable. When kept to ourselves and to the ones we trust, a mistake provides a private lesson in the workings of the world. They assist us as individuals to find our place and what suits us best. It is an intensely personal journey. We act, we err, we rectify, we learn.

The greatest problem that I perceive of this hack is that our faults and blunders no longer belong to us. The media broadcasts mistakes to the world. Instead of learning from our errors, we now accept mistakes as a part of who we are forever. A Jewish sage once said, “To say something foolish, exposes your nakedness in a single place, at one specific time, but to write something foolish shows your nakedness to everyone, forever”. This is rapidly becoming the new norm as the Internet further infiltrates our personal lives. Opportunity for growth quickly fades as every single error is recorded online for all to see. That foolish comment you wrote on your friend’s Facebook wall when you were 14 is alive and well. The silly post is a testament of who you are as a person, even if you have long moved beyond it. That immortalized remark on the web has not grown as you have and it will never change the way you do.

The only way to combat this social malady is to exercise restraint when it comes to what we put on the Internet and what we share in general. Prudence is key and perhaps the seemingly harmless status or very witty comment that I am about to post may not be something I want published in my name forever. Maybe forgoing the instant gratification of that clever one-liner is worth saving yourself from being held accountable for it sometime in your future. We must realize that we gain exponentially more character when we learn from our mistakes instead of becoming them.

While many of the approximately 34 million email addresses released by the hack are obvious fakes, a surprising number are real individual or work email addresses. This means two things: Firstly, that many people are too stupid to realize that absolutely every action online is recorded and can easily be revealed, and secondly, that others are simply too lazy or brazen to care. The inconvenience of making a fake email address is too much trouble, let the chips fall where they may when the fallout occurs. It seems Ashley Madison was a meeting ground not just for liars, but for the lazy and narcissistic as well.

Mistakes are an integral part of the human journey. Many of our earliest life lessons are borne from mistakes we have made. That first time we drank hot chocolate that was scalding hot we burned our tongues, but we learned to be more cautious forever after that. Indeed, some mistakes may be unforgivable and a strong case could be made as to why the unfaithful lot of Ashley Madison patrons should not be forgiven. But I believe this whole ordeal proves a larger point. An error is a potent tool that we have and, in many cases, errors are the only way we learn and grow. In today’s battle to uphold our right to privacy, we cannot afford to lose the ability to make mistakes. Without mistakes, we become more elementary and crude, as individuals and as a society.

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