I’ve always found that defense a little shaky. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” in response to some sort of criticism or insult. It’s a way for someone to say that you don’t control them. A way to knock them down some, I suppose. The obvious issue with using the phrase in defense of yourself is that you end up telling them how to live their life – by not telling you how to live yours – but I’m not here to dwell on the obvious hypocritical irony. I’m more interested in what it says about the human psyche.
The easiest place for me to start is to look at a related idea – don’t tell others how to live their lives. Its commonly used as a defense of gay marriage. Why do you care if gay people can get married? It doesn’t affect you so just let it be. For this reason gay marriage is one of the easiest things for people to get behind. All you have to do is assert that people shouldn’t be restricting other people for no reason and suddenly you’re better than a third of the apparent nation. Here’s the thing though – that’s not what it means to support gay marriage.
Now I know it’s not my place to say, and people always get me on generalizations like this, but hear me out. Being for gay rights because you don’t care what other people do isn’t about defending the principles of love and marriage, it’s just being aggressively adamant about the belief that people should do what they want if it doesn’t concern you. It’s the difference between a bystander who lets things happen and the perpetrator who does the things. And though I insist that apathy like that isn’t healthy for people to lean on, you could point out that at least it still leads to more equality and freedom, so what does it matter?
It matters for a couple reasons. The first is that this has never changed anyone’s mind about gay marriage ever. That’s because the logic is grounded in the notion that the issue of gay rights doesn’t affect anybody except for gay people. Not only is that totally in contradiction of what opponents of gay marriage believe, but it’s also clearly incorrect for proponents. Someone who values equality would note that a world with legal gay marriage would be a better world, with more equal opportunity. Someone who believes that you should marry who you love would likely believe the same. (Someone who is against gay marriage might perhaps see it as an attack on the sanctity of marriage, or the definition of a Christian marriage. And someone who is just against marriage likely sees it as an endorsement of an unfair legal institution.) These are world changing decisions and it seems lazy and messy to just use the justification “it doesn’t affect you so let it be.” And if the underlying reasoning of this justification is based on false assumptions, then the implication may as well be un-proven too.
The second reason is because when we let people use this justification and we validate their reasoning, we’re teaching them that they shouldn’t care about what other people want to do. This is a ridiculous notion. For the same reason that communities form from individuals, we have to be curious about other people. We have to be empathetic and controlling and self-righteous for anything to work. For society to work. We have to believe that we are right and other people should follow us in what we believe. And when we resign ourselves to this idea of a non-obligation towards society – that we shouldn’t have to tell others what is right – it makes us borderline nihilistic. It teaches people that they are not worthy of making a change, and it teaches people to be afraid to make that change. “People don’t want to be told what to do, so how about you just let everyone live their lives?” it tells people.
Well I say that we have an obligation to involve ourselves in other people’s lives. And maybe we’ll fuck everything up and they’ll hate us for it, but it doesn’t matter. We need to be sure that our way is the right way, and we need to meddle with others until they do it our way. And they need to do the same for us, because truly that’s the only way to change things. (I would invoke leaders like MLK Jr, Gandhi and Sean Penn in Milk but I never saw the movie. Suffice it to say that any leader who has ever made social change did so believing that he himself was right and the way things were was wrong). And maybe if we all keep an open mind and give our due diligence we will find out what it really is we want out of this.