Friday, August 21, 2015

Ashley Madison, Contemporary Mores, And The Christian Ethos

     From what I can discern from the Web chatter, the excrement has well and truly hit the fan in the “Ashley Madison” security breach. Not being in the security end of things, I can’t comment on how it happened...but I can certainly comment on why.

     Bear with me, Gentle Reader. You’re likely to encounter one or two surprises in what follows.

     “Life is short. Have an affair.” – Ashley Madison’s come-on.

     Apparently it surprised many to learn that many millions of their fellow Americans had signed up for the affair-facilitating service. It didn’t surprise me, and (of course) I’ll tell you why.

     Let’s start with a few basic, “environmental” observations:

  1. Sexually, ours is the least inhibited age since whatever period that was that Jean Auel wrote about in The Clan of the Cave Bear.
  2. These days everything is permitted except pedophilia, under current law as it’s enforced.
  3. Our popular culture – books, movies, television, periodicals, advertising, and couture – may justly be called “sex-saturated.”
  4. The unmarried are no longer stigmatized for any kind of sexual or parasexual behavior, including childbearing. Indeed, to be an adult virgin, even if unmarried, is frequently derided as if it were a mark of deficiency. (Ask Tim Tebow.)
  5. Many (perhaps most) Americans of today approach matrimony as if it were supposed to be a path to sexual Nirvana. Needless to say, the majority are swiftly disabused of any such notion.

     So our environment is practically shouting “Have sex! Have lots of sex! And demand that it be bodice-rippin’ good sex!" at us, from every angle and direction. And for a good forty years or more, young Americans have internalized that sexual ethic. “Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best when it’s...” Well, forget that last part. George Michael might not have anticipated some of the more recent trends.

     So the ones who get married have, shall we say, extravagant expectations. Such expectations are usually defeated by reality. I hardly think I need to list the ways.

     “Ah, yes, this son of my people’s enemies hath caused me weariness enough, and some pain, too, I will avow. I loved that poor mad Grecian child. A pity—she’d have made him the perfect wife—”
     “If he had not chosen to dally with others!” the merchant said.
     Solomon ben Ezra looked at his old friend. “Most men dally with others, Hasdai,” he said tartly. “Do not presume of thy fidelity to Sarah. Had she been less fair, or cold, who knoweth what thou mightest have done?”

     [Frank Yerby, An Odor of Sanctity]

     He who feels he’s been denied something he had a right to expect will feel he has a right to seek it for himself. And he will seek it for himself, unless constrained by a perception of risk or cost that exceeds his personal tolerance for those things.

     It shouldn’t be necessary for me to say this, but the deterioration of contemporary English-language communication has made it necessary:

“He,” as used above and in all other contexts where no specific individual is intended, refers to persons of either sex.

     (No, I will not write “he or she,” nor will I use “they” when the referent is singular in number. Those who do so are barbarians. Got that? Good. Now let’s proceed.)

     The World Wide Web has allowed services such as Ashley Madison to exist, to offer prima facie confidentiality to prospective customers, and thus to encourage them to believe that they can have an affair that will “fill their sexual gaps” yet remain completely private. This is a more powerful inducement to adultery than any development since the motel. Scant wonder that it’s become so popular...and still scanter wonder that hackers eager for a “big score” should have targeted it.

     In saying the above, I do not intend to condone adultery. The marriage vow forbids it, and no sophistry about “what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him” can countervail it. I merely note the dynamic involved. It’s quite powerful; possibly most married Americans of our time have felt it.

     Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
     And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
     This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
     So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
     And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
     And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
     When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

     [The Gospel According To John, 8:1-11]

     Whether our hypersexualized culture will ever “relax” and return to some approximation of sanity, I cannot say. It doesn’t matter; we’re discussing today, a phenomenon organically derived from contemporary mores, and the tidal wave of public denunciations and (hopefully) private recriminations that have already begun. The former have probably peaked; the latter will crescendo as American spouses learn that their other half was among the millions of customers of Ashley Madison. But commentary has already begun and is bound to continue. Much of it will come from persons “unfit to cast the first stone,” which is where I’m headed just now.

     Christ Himself forbade the mob to stone “the woman taken in adultery.” He told us to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” He commanded us to return good for evil:

     Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

     [The Gospel According To Matthew, 5:43-48]

     So those of us who claim to be Christians already have our marching orders. Of others not so blessed, I merely ask: Whence cometh your license to condemn, Dude?

     A few final words about “hypocrisy” and I’ll close for today. From Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age:

     "You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices," Finkle-McGraw said. "It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of climate, you are not allowed to criticise others -- after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?...

     "Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others' shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all the vices. For, you see, if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour -- you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all the political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

     "You wouldn't believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi....

     "Because they were hypocrites... the Victorians were despised in the late Twentieth Century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefarious conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves -- they took no moral stances and lived by none."

     "So they were morally superior to the Victorians -- " Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

     "-- even though -- in fact, because -- they had no morals at all."

     "We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy," Finkle-McGraw continued. "In the late Twentieth Century Weltanschaaung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception -- he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course. most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing."

     "That we occasionally violate our own moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."

     "Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved -- the missteps we make along the way -- are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power."

     The great majority of those who condemn others for essentially private sins are hypocrites and nothing more. As I wrote above, even those who cannot be charged with hypocrisy are ignoring the explicit words of the foremost moral authority ever to walk the Earth. Far better, even if you feel personally wronged by your spouse’s infidelity, to forgive – and not “merely” because Christ has exhorted us to do so, but because no other action is consistent with a decent humility.

     Hypocrisy – “The tribute vice pays to virtue” (La Rochefoucault) – is the exact opposite of the humility appropriate to fallible Man. Christ didn’t tell us to “Judge not” because we’re guaranteed to get it wrong. Remember: “the woman taken in adultery” was caught in the act. He told us to “Judge not” because that authority belongs to God and no one else.

     And we’ll all face it, probably sooner than we think.