Josh Duggar's Ashley Madison account: Celebrity infidelity doesn't justify the outing of hacked clients

Enjoy the schadenfreude and gossip, if you must -- it's still powered by a despicable vigilante act

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 20, 2015 5:34PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Frank)
(Reuters/Brian Frank)

In the cesspool story of the Ashley Madison meltdown, you won't find too many characters worth rooting for. That's pretty much the reason people are going ape over it, right? But when hackers made good this week on the threat they made in July to expose the infidelity-based dating site's subscriber information, eager dirt diggers promptly hit the jackpot with the discovery of not one but two accounts apparently belonging to one Mr. Josh Duggar. So! Much! Schadenfreude! But as gross and loathsome as this whole thing is, what if we didn't add to the grossness and loathsomeness of it? What if we didn't operate on a moral flatline, in which private morals and genuine crimes are all up for the same degree of lip-smacking glee?

Let's take a moment to deconstruct the information. On the spectrum of individuals whose glass houses seem ripe for some good old-fashioned stone throwing, Josh Duggar's got to be near the top of the list. He's the eldest child of the famously Jesus-loving, transphobic Duggar clan, and until recently the executive director of FRC Action, the political arm of the notoriously anti gay Family Research Council. This is a guy who has professionally worked against gay and lesbian people, against reproductive choice, all from the cushy perch of reality TV recognition. He's also a man who earlier this year was revealed to have admitting to have "forcibly touched at least five girls" — including his sisters — when he was a teenager.  For it to turn out that such a man also allegedly paid nearly a thousand bucks over the course of over two years for an account on a site for cheaters is pretty damn rich. His credibility as a judge of other people's morality is forever destroyed, and that's fine.

To be clear, the current gloating over Josh Duggar's apparent penchant for a little something on the side is not equivalent to Gawker's notorious outing last month of a married Conde Nast executive whose attempt to procure a gay escort became fodder for a humiliating — and then controversially retracted -- story. At the time, now-departed Gawker editor Max Read boasted that "Given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives" — a publishing standard that seems questionable at best. The executive, unlike Duggar, was not a public figure. He certainly never, like Duggar, had the impressive record of both sexual abuse and hypocritical political lobbying.

But you know, this also isn't a case of an embarrassingly misdirected sexual invitation being inadvertently released, a la Anthony Weiner. It's not a sex partner coming forward. It's still private information, including the street where Duggar and his family own a home, that was obtained by a group of vigilantes. Yet now ostensibly legitimate news organizations are poring over the trove of information from the hack, analyzing, for instance, how many Ashley Madison accounts came from military and government addresses. On Thursday, an Australian radio show told a curious caller live on the air that her husband was a member. And the New York Post has dutifully reported that "Locally, 27 people used email addresses registered to the Department of Education, and three each from the Fire Department and Parks Department."

This is where the fallout becomes repulsive. Because I don't care if my local urban park ranger is cheating on his wife. It's none of my business. I do care that a group of hackers has now done their dirty work for a bunch of tabloids, who are using the detailed personal information they obtained to wreak havoc in an yet untold number of lives. I do care that in just the span of the post 9/11 era, we've come to take it for granted that any number of forces — the government, or a shadowy group calling itself Impact Team that has an ax to grind against Ashley Madison — can just rummage through our most intimate data. I care that we're somehow encouraged to participate in the shaming of those who morally transgress, to delight in their exposure, however that exposure was obtained. And I care that based on prior history, when we declare open season, that's when everything is up for grabs. As other recent hacks have revealed, it's all fodder. Private photographs. The contents of an Amazon order.  Let's just point and judge it all!

Josh Duggar won't get a whole lot of sympathy from me. But when I saw Thursday a headline describing the latest news as "yet another sex scandal," I did consider that there's actually a difference between molesting your sisters and cheating on your wife. I believe that the people the Impact Team describe as "cheating dirtbags" — whose personal circumstances and arrangements with their partners are not in fact ours to know or judge — don't merit this prurient promenade around the headlines. And far more than Josh Duggar's list of qualities he's looking for in a bang-buddy, I'm disgusted by the lie that if you're good, you don't need to worry about your privacy, and that as long as you don't have any secrets, you don't have anything to be afraid of.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ashley Madison Family Research Council Gawker Hacking Impact Team Josh Duggar Privacy