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Ashley Madison and the culture of shame and gossip

I confess I hadn’t even heard of Ashley Madison until the other day when the hack into their data base “went viral” as the saying goes. Oooh, how the human race loves to wallow in scandal. Oh to gossip and swim about in who is having an affair, or who has been caught out for doing something lipsmackingly despicable. It may be “despicable”, unspeakable and so forth, but many are attracted to this smut like flies to manure. The more spectacular the better. Yes, it came as no surprise but was still a headline that a Christian minister and even — celestial virgins forbid — an Islamic preacher have been “named” or caught out on the Ashley Madison lists.

What interests me about all this? How it is we have these fortified walls around us called “our privacy”, which serve to keep us more apart than together. How terrified we are of “it all” being exposed. Here in New Zealand, and even more so when I lived in England, people are so stuck up about their “privacy”. Ultimately, unless you are under the delusion you are at the centre of the universe, who cares what you look at on the internet, or how much you earn, how much is in your bank account, what your various opinions are, when you last had decent sex, and whom you would love to have sex with and how? Why do we think all that privacy actually matters? In China, where I lived for seven years, Western privacy was not understood much. This often had comic results and loads of opportunities to deflate my Western, privacy-craving ego.

As a South African who grew up in the abominable apartheid era I have experienced the alienating effects of not being able to relate to others with — wait for it — our bodies. Because we placed such a curse on the body. We marked out silly differences like pigmentation, accents and cultural habits. We still do.

Connect with each other through our bodies?

The very thought seems disturbing, even gross, something out of a hippie nudist camp devoted to the excessive use of marijuana. We, nearly all of us, have withdrawn, detribalised, and become “private”. We are elitist and every other -ist and -ism you like, instead of connecting with others on a truly authentic level. We do it all the time. Apartheid is only one kind of othering. A glaring one, yes, but still only one kind. It is my view that because we are unable to relate authentically to one another we end up gossiping about one another. We backstab, criticise, delight in schadenfreude, revel in some people being caught with their pants down.

I covered the theme of gossip at one point in a novel I recently finished, titled Orphan Country. About a quarter of it is set in Cape Town in apartheid South Africa and in the time shortly after Mandela’s release. Ruth is half-Chinese and has a strange time of it in the apartheid era where local government did not quite know what to do with the Chinese. I deliberately play on that. Without giving away any spoilers, here is her final journal entry about a quarter of the way into the novel, addressed to someone she is clearly very fond of, a young man called Simon, also half-Chinese, who has fled South Africa to settle back in the home of his ancestors, Shanghai. Ruth’s final journal entry is all about the cancer and shame of gossip, about othering, and expresses her own (self-confessed) romanticised, idealised version of a world without the malice of backstabbing and whispered schadenfreude. The people she depicts in those crammed rooms in Shanghai would certainly have no use for, and definitely no understanding of the Ashley Madison “crises” of a more “sophisticated” world. Here goes.


I detest the way they gossiped about us, Simon. Among the students, among the teachers, and on the streets.

Endless idle talk is one of the results of a society where people have forgotten how to communicate with one another. They become backstabbers. They talk about one another behind their backs because they cannot relate to each other with their bodies. This is because of all the lies said about the body: its skin colour, its desires, its hopes and craving for freedom. I live in a country [South Africa] that is rich with that alienation. I don’t know what your country, China, is like. I do know you are there now by the way. Thanks for letting me know [he didn’t]. I don’t know if I will ever see you again, as, for what it’s worth, this country is the only home I have. I gather you are living in Shanghai now and I can see from a map your restaurant is near Nanjing West Road. I would like to go there – some day. I wonder if you have ever been to any of those ancient villages my teacher told me about, or if you ever go into the real city slums, where eight tenants are barged up in one room apartments not that far from where you probably live somewhere in downtown Shanghai. Here is my romanticised version of all that. Those people who live eight or more to a room know everything about one another. These people even know exactly how the other couples have sex. and for how long. Judging by the sounds of the lovemaking, the others know to what extent the sex relieves the man and the woman. They can intuit the likelihood of the woman becoming pregnant. That she doesn’t have to hide it because there is no shame to hide. Because all in that room or compartment share the same mattress or floor. Around the gas stove, if they have one, they may even compare cohabitation notes as if reading aloud different cooking recipes. Now those, Simon, are conversations. They are not guarded extractions and manipulative revelations like what I got from … the other day about you and me, or him and me. In those rooms in those China slums there are no secrets. It’s the exact opposite of the phone being put down on me, which happened just now when I tried to contact you in Jo’burg. Those crowded places in China, near where you live, squalid as they may be, are where people have roots. These are places where people squat and talk in the same breath about chopping onions, finding a cloth to sponge their bodies down, taking a shit, and have intimate arguments with their lovers while others listen and have their say. They’re all in it together. They share buckets and chipped mugs for drinking water. There are no “privacy issues”. There are no hidden birth certificates, letters from unknown parents discreetly only enquiring about only one offspring. There is no such thing as gossip. No such thing as rumours and smut descending and dirtying everything like smoke from factory chimneys. No word for idle talk at all, like calling a girl an unwanted, abandoned whore bastard. Because everyone already knows other people’s business and even the word “business” or the term “none of my business” has not accreted the meanings it has today. This is so unlike a smart “white person’s” area, such as Hout Bay or Bryanston where the values that are exalted are: mind your own business, only notice the car I drive, the houses I own and the women I can fuck. By the way, Simon, here in Woodstock, where I live, in case you ever want to know, privacy also isn’t such an igloo around people, because there is far less money or the sordid desire to have obscene wealth. Perhaps it’s because of the view of the mountains which I’m looking at right now as today’s Cape mist clears. And because of that harbour nearby. There is a lot of poverty right here. There is also such lovely, natural beauty. So perhaps the feeling of being human here in Woodstock is derived – no, not derived, granted – by this narrow lung between mountain stone and ocean. Here, being human comes from the sense of being squeezed between that light on tall, bearded granite and these stubborn harbour waters – all of which absorbs every story the human race has ever come up with.


Follow Rod on Twitter @rod_in_china