In the first five minutes of the movie, Sliding Doors, we follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s character as she leaves work to catch her train home. The gimmick of the movie is that just before she boards the train the movie splits and begins cutting back-and-forth between two alternate storylines. In one version, Paltrow’s character makes the train and in the other she just misses it and the doors slide closed right before she can board. This has life altering consequences.
In the first scenario, where she catches the train, she gets home to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In the second scenario, of course, she misses the train and by the time she gets home her boyfriend’s tryst is over. She never finds out. The movie then proceeds to intercut scenes of how her life would unfold in both scenarios. Small events, the film shows, can have enormous consequences. Catching a train or just missing it might change everything. As much as we like to think we’re in control, we probably have no idea how important any individual moment is for our lives.
The film also poses a fundamental philosophical question: do you always want to know the truth?
Imagine your spouse had an affair. Now choose from two scenarios. In scenario A, the affair doesn’t last and you never find about it. Ignorance is bliss and you remain happily married for the rest of your life.
In scenario B, you find out the truth. There are no guarantees about what happens from here. You may or may not get divorced. If you do, there is no guarantee you’ll remarry. Your kids will no doubt be affected for the rest of their lives. Given this, would you like to know the truth despite the risk? Which scenario would you choose?
You might say you are fine skipping the heartache as long as you’re happy. No harm, no foul. Let’s not dig up trouble. But I’d wager most people come down where I do: I’d want to know. Yes, it’s riskier to find out, but I can’t get comfortable with the idea of living with a lie that big, even if I’m unaware of it. Deep down I believe that the truth sets you free.
But what about a third scenario? What if, when you find out the truth about the affair, simultaneously so does everyone you know? This, in fact, is the real-life situation for the spouses and children of thirty million users of the extra-marital affair site, AshleyMadison.com. An anonymous group has hacked into the website and posted the email addresses, account info and message history of every single user.
Millions of people have entered a sliding doors moment. Out there right now, somewhere, is a place you can go to look up your spouse’s email address and see if he or she was looking for an affair. Will they look? Even if they don’t it will likely be revealed to them. Already, those looking for a scoop have published reports of accounts held by reality stars, political heirs, corporate employees and even pastors. Chances are, even if you don’t go looking, if something is there, you’ll find out. The question is, will you go looking? I’m not sure there are right and wrong answers to this question, but there are better and worse answers.
Better reasons to look
Here are three reasons to look, to pass through the sliding doors, that make sense to me:
- To check if you’ve been pwnd. To be pwnd is hacker-speak for to be owned, as in “I now own your identity.” Even if you never visited Ashley Madison, you might check if someone else used your identity for an account. I’ve read a few stories of people claiming they were framed.
- To assure yourself that your spouse is true. The ideal marriage is one where there are no skeletons in the closet and no reason for distrust. You may trust your spouse but having some confirmation that they didn’t stray online may be of some comfort. However, be careful in drawing conclusions. From what I can tell, almost all of the female accounts on the site seem to have been fakes so while your spouse may have been tempted, it seems unlikely that many couplings actually happened through the site.
- This third one I am less confident about, but it seems to me reasonable to search for the name of someone on this database, if you a) know them personally b) you have some duty to them and/or they have some public duty that you share, and c) are in a position to help care for them. As an example I could imagine a pastor of a church checking the name his associate pastor because the associate pastor has a public responsibility (to represent the church) and needs to both admit his wrongdoing, likely step down from his role, and seek help. The pastor’s friendship would be critical in that situation to deal with the crushing truth of reality. That’s why my third criteria is key: the motive is to help the person who has done wrong, even if you are disgusted by their actions. At least two suicides have allegedly been linked to this leak. Lets not have more.
Worse reasons to look
There are two reasons people will check this database that are less morally defensible.
- Shaming and self-righteous puffery isn’t a good reason. Your goal is to run other people down, to expose them, to prove you are better than they. This is the modus operandi of the social media era: public shaming and self-congratulations. The media does this and so do regular people. It’s a power trip. You could look up your friends and colleagues, your neighbors and your nemeses. There is nothing stopping you.
There may however be some practical reasons not to witch-hunt. Imagine if hackers collected the emails and IP addresses of everyone who checked for names on the Ashley Madison databases. What if those searches were also published online? If you went looking for your boss or your cousin, would you feel comfortable if they knew you had searched for them in the database? Why were you snooping on me, Ted?
Or what if hackers published a history of your emails about your mother-in-law or your search history in “private mode.” If anything, the Ashley Madison hack proves you shouldn’t assume any part of your digital life is “safe” and will remain private. As one author put it, we are all living in glass houses now. Be careful with the stone throwing.
2. Affair rubbernecking isn’t a good reason. Another indefensible use case for searching the Ashley Madison database is idle curiosity, looking up people just because you can. Like a rubbernecker checking out a car accident, you don’t intend to help the victims, you just want to see for yourself. It’s ugly, but it’s not uncommon at all.
A decade into the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram experiment, we have become habituated into the act of looking at and for each other online. If you are going to interview someone for a job or meet them for a blind date, the natural first step is to Google them first. You can even look up their address and see how much they paid for their house. Yes, that’s gauche but I bet you’ve done it. It all feels pretty natural now. So why not look up who among your Facebook friends has looked for an affair on Ashley Madison? Why not be an affair rubbernecker?
The urge is understandable, but acting on the urge is a mistake. Looking for cheaters with no intent to help them or their families is, in my opinion, not much better than being the person who signed up for an account on Ashley Madison. Why? Both the husband looking looking to cheat and the affair rubbernecker looking for cheaters are reaching for the same thing: access to secret information to satisfy a curiosity of their hearts.
The curiosity the cheater pursues is whether a “new” woman will give him what he’s been looking for, will restore the excitement in his life, will prove he’s still a man (in his mind, the man). The affair rubbernecker is also pursuing a curiosity: is that guy as bad as I thought he was? I wonder how many people I know who are in trouble? It is voyeuristic schadenfreude.
Moving from Consumption to Restraint
Marital infidelity is the stuff of late night humor. It’s easy to laugh at a public figure when you catch him with his pants down. We forget that those laughs come at the expense of broken hearts and breaking marriages. Those who have gone through the agony of discovering an affair know they are no laughing matter.
So while I am rooting for Ashley Madison to collapse and want nothing more than the shuttering of thissleazy and disgusting business, if I take another moment to consider all the lives that will be changed because of this (including quite possibly people we personally know), I realize I would do well to replace my cheering with mourning, and my rubbernecking with prayers.
The sliding doors of the marital heartache train have opened. Inside you can get a good look at the lives of others: their indiscretions, their secrets, their loneliness, their brokenness. Some will surely jump in and shout about all they see — the hypocrisy, the stupidity, the foolishness. Do you too want to step aboard and have a look around?
Or will you let these doors close and allow this train pass, counting yourself lucky to be the on the platform and not among the passengers inside?