The hack of AshleyMadison.com made headlines recently. The website, marketed to those interested in or curious about pursuing extra marital affairs, suffered a data breach, resulting in the public release of the personal data of its millions of users. Now, several websites permit anyone to search the stolen database of the purported 32 million AshleyMadison users, exposing alleged cheaters, or attempted cheaters, for the world to see. Some sites have even compiled lists of high-profile or visible users of AshleyMadison. Clergy are being outed, public officials put to shame, family men and community leaders disgraced, a partial result of an apparent morbid appetite and curiosity for the gaffes and resulting plight of fellow human beings.
This breach and resulting public shaming don’t emanate in a vacuum. The excitement over the exposed secrets of others arises in the TMZ era in which we live. TMZ, its website and television show, has gained prominence by quenching the public’s thirst for celebrity gossip, particularly by sleuthing for and broadcasting news of famous people misbehaving, getting arrested, saying or doing inappropriate things or simply acting a fool. We live amidst, and TMZ thrives in, an accepted culture of exposing people’s secrets, flaws and vulnerabilities and deriving pleasure and entertainment from the unveiling of such blemishes.
This culture is a reflection of us. It is a reflection of our unforgiving conversations about our friends’ or colleagues’ shortcomings and misbehaviors, a reflection of our backbiting a family member, a reflection of our laughing at the latest misdeed of a celebrity or athlete, a reflection of our indulging in the misfortunes of others. This culture exposes our collective lack of compassion and grace. Rather than seek to shield our fellow human beings, celebrity or not, from embarrassment and shame, we find enjoyment in their sins. Rather than attempt to conceal and harbor someone’s faults and flaws, we instead often choose to broadcast or amplify their mistakes. Rather than offer people counseling and support in times of vulnerability and shame, we instead often perpetuate or exacerbate those vulnerabilities by maliciously exposing them.
I wish we, society, took a deep breath, looked in the mirror and took caution with finding entertainment or pleasure in the mistakes of others and with hasty judgments or indictments of anyone’s character or being. We should ask when given news of a person’s errors: what human frailty perhaps led to that misstep? What past trauma might have caused that misbehavior? We all have skeletons. We all have demons and unresolved issues within us. We all make mistakes. Sometimes they’re criminal, most times they’re not. Sometimes those mistakes are caught on video, audio recording, a text message, a website or in an email. Most times they’re not.
Imagine our darkest secrets or flaws being on display for anyone to see. What if our particular vice or flaw showed up on an internet list? A list of porn addicts, compulsive gamblers, shopping junkies, people with anger management issues or alcoholics. How would we want that information to be received? How would we want society, our colleagues, our friends, our families to react to us and our lapses in judgment? We would want and hope for mercy, grace, understanding and support. We would pray for concealment, discretion and advice. We would not want our indiscretions to be celebrated or be the source of entertainment. We would not want to be defined by or known for our worst act or words.
Editor’s Note: Sajid A. Khan is a Public Defender in San Jose, CA. He has a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UC Hastings. When not advocating for justice, Sajid enjoys playing basketball, football and baseball, and is a huge fan of Cal football and A’s baseball. He lives in San Jose, Ca with his wife and son. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @thesajidakhan. The views expressed here are his own.