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Why do we feel the urge to tell other people what to do?

I wonder how the people who voted against same-sex marriage feel now

When the same-sex marriage referendum passed, the country was, mostly, proud of having voted in favour by such a large margin. Yet about one-third of people voted against and I sometimes wonder how they feel about it now. The No voters would have had various reasons, though one of the main arguments fielded at the time was that it would somehow change the institution of marriage.

I wonder if they feel that those fears were realised; or if they can admit that giving the right to marry to a minority of the population didn’t affect the majority one jot. Even if they still oppose the principle of same-sex marriage – and they have every right to – can some of them now admit that its existence is no skin off their nose?

The answer, I suspect, might be mixed. There is still an odd urge within all of us to tell other people what to do, even if it doesn’t impinge on our lives or the lives of others. Sometimes we restrain the urge, and sometimes we act on it and come up with the justifications afterwards.

Two examples: years ago, on a visit to London, I bought a pair of shoes. On that day I was a little tired. Okay: hungover. (Life lesson: never buy shoes when you’re hungover.) What I brought home were grey, chunky and had an inordinately complicated lacing system. They resembled bricks rather than shoes.


As soon as Herself saw them, I knew she wasn’t a fan, but she’s not the boss of me (I like to think), so I continued to wear them.

Over time, I noticed people stealing glances at the shoes; and not, it seemed, in an admiring way. I eventually realised they were hideous.

Yet during this period, no one approached me to tell me this. Quite properly, the social convention regarding shoes is that it’s no one’s business other than the shoe wearer. You can hate others people’s shoes, but from afar.

In other areas of life though, this convention doesn’t seem to apply.

Shouting ‘lesbian!’ at a lesbian is like shouting ‘tree!’ at a tree and expecting it to feel bad about its tree-ness

Second example: I wrote here a few weeks back how Daughter Number Two came to realise that she was gay. I also wrote that, so far, she hadn’t experienced any homophobia.

Well, that didn’t last long.

She was on a bus in the centre of Dublin with her girlfriend when two young men around their age started screaming abuse at them. If it hadn’t been so frightening, it would have been close to daftly comic: shouting “lesbian!” at a lesbian is like shouting “tree!” at a tree and expecting it to feel bad about its tree-ness.

But, of course, they weren’t too bothered about the content of their attempted insults; rather, the tone in which they were delivered. The aggression and the naked hatred were designed to intimidate; to somehow shout my daughter and her girlfriend out of existence.

The simple explanation is that they were homophobes. I still wonder why they felt the need to do it, or what they thought it might achieve. That they felt they had permission to do it is more easily explainable.

The girls told the bus driver, who opted to do nothing. They reported the incident at a Garda station but were told it “wasn’t in our jurisdiction”: which, perhaps, was another way of saying they weren’t going to investigate a relatively minor matter, where it was arguable that no law had been broken. Being an arsehole isn’t illegal.

And, of course, on the bus that night none of the other passengers said anything. You can’t blame them. No one wants to get drawn into what might develop into a physical confrontation. Yet it allowed a hateful minority to inflict their will. The more we allow that, the more it could be aimed at any of us.