One of my closest friends went through an awful breakup last year. She received a forwarded email from her boyfriend (although later she found out another girl had sent it from his computer) that included the entire text history between him and a young college girl. The texts included months of sexual repartee that bordered on the perverse (this girl apparently had very sensitive nipples and a vivid imagination) and had culminated in him cheating on my friend frequently. And to top it all off, during the ensuing breakup, she found out that this girl was only one of many trysts he engaged in during their relationship.
After cycling through the first few stages of grief, my friend really embraced the anger stage of all cheating induced splits and was soon livid. She decided she didn't want this self-identified sex addict to continue to be able to deceive people. She wanted to embarrass him so he could feel a fraction of the guilt and shame that she felt.
So she created a flier. This flier was mainly a large picture of his smiling face with a warning at the bottom that said to stay away from this creep because he was a sex addict and women should protect themselves from him. Her plan was to paper the New York City neighborhood that he worked in with copies of this flier, including right in front of his office building. But just before she put the flier up, she sent me a copy and asked what I thought.
Obviously, I thought this was a bad idea, but she was so blinded by anger she didn't seem to care about the consequences. Her days were consumed with how to get revenge. She seemed obsessed with embarrassing him. So I did the best thing I could think of: I stalled. I gave her some style notes and we went back and forth, adding a black bar across his eyes and changing the wording of a few things. Simultaneously, I casually brought up potential legal consequences and eventually as time passed, her anger slowly simmered and her desire for revenge began to fade. With enough time, most people can simply move on. Thankfully, by the time my friend was really ready to enact her plan, she no longer had that blind anger driving her to do so, and the flier never went up.
I was happy she never went through with it because I was mainly worried about potential adverse consequences for her and because obsessing about the past seemed to prevent her from moving on. But one thing I never thought was that the guy didn't deserve to have his life ruined. I was disgusted with his behavior and felt so acutely for my friend that I felt he probably deserved to be publicly embarrassed.
But did he really deserve to have his professional life ruined? I started to consider that thought more closely when I realized that if I knew she could get away with it, I would have encouraged her to go ahead with her plan. In reading Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, which details the horrifying fact that people's lives really are ruined, all because a bunch of people click a few buttons to "Like" a page calling for someone to be fired, it's hard not to wonder what people really deserve. In short order, I discovered that I had been totally in support of a modern "scarlet letter." When I had read The Scarlet Letter in school, I remember feeling so acutely for Hester Prynne and hating the townspeople who judged her. But here I am, in 2015, secretly rooting for the same judgment. The scarlet letter as a form of punishment is back, it's just not written in red anymore; it's written in Tweets, and Facebook posts, and blogs, and shares. Only it's even worse, because the punishment can be permanent -- you can never take it off.
I felt that same sense of guilt recently when reading about the hackers who released Ashley Madison's data information on millions of cheating spouses. I kept wondering, what do these people really truly deserve in life? Is the crime of cheating so egregious that they deserve to have their lives ruined? Even if there's an argument that they deserve to have their personal lives or marriages damaged, don't cheaters still deserve whatever professional success they achieve on their own merits? What justification is there for the contention that a person who cheats doesn't deserve career advancement? If we start living by that edict, we will create a world where employers could use a divorce proceeding that included details of an affair to fire you.
And even if we do think cheaters deserve to incur whatever destruction to their own marriage befalls them, do we believe that so much that third parties should enforce it? For instance, when Gawker exposed a private citizen as a cheater, everyone was horrified and rightly so, as our media shouldn't be trying to ruin the lives of private citizens for cheating on their wives. But what if Gawker had simply sent all the information to his wife and kept it private? Does the cheating husband deserve to have his marriage ruined? Would that have been the "right" call? And if it is, does that mean if we find out about someone cheating that we have a moral obligation to tell the wronged spouse? What if the spouse had a hunch about the cheating, but had chosen to simply look the other way? Is that spouse really better off if we were to tell him/her?
It seems we've never really come to terms with this. We love movies that are about a cheating spouse receiving his/her comeuppance. Movies like, The Other Woman, Fatal Attraction, The First Wives' Club, and John Tucker Must Die, all operate under the presumption that cheaters deserve to be punished. But when did we decide that we all have a collective responsibility to punish cheaters? And what kind of punishment should society be doling out to these people. We're so eager to cast aspersion on countries that mete out violent lashings to women who are deemed to have been cheaters and rightly so. But we should hold ourselves to the same standard. Public humiliation can become a type of violence and mob justice doesn't have the best track record.
If we choose to look at and read and consume information about who the people exposed by the Ashley Madison hack are, we will be creating a world where the internet has become the morality police. We will be branding them with a modern scarlet "A" by forever marking these people as cheaters, ascribing our own judgment and morality to their decisions.
In Daniel Solove's book, The Future of Shaming, about the death and rebirth of shaming as punishment, he explains that, historically, shaming was done to enforce transgressions of norms. But back in the time of the 1600's when public shaming was deemed useful to society, the nuclear family was the norm. That's no longer true. The majority of adults in America are single. Many will enter into all sorts of agreements to raise children. We are enforcing transgression of the norm ever more viciously, and yet, most of us are no longer living the norm. We decided long ago that when people violate their marital bonds, they shouldn't be required to wear a mark forever broadcasting to the world that they are cheaters. We decided that our society had evolved beyond requiring a scarlet letter. We need to uphold this standard even in the internet age.