The Disclaimer – How to be responsible and irresponsible at the same time


Warning Sign via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the line, this sentence is the line, do not cross this line if you are unable to handle personal responsibility and accountability. If you cross it something may happen to you, that something may be bad, you might not like it, you could get hurt. I have now warned you. What I’m really doing is making you responsible for your own actions so that I can say and do what I want and I won’t have to listen to your whining and blame passing when something I do or say bothers you. I apologise if this disclaimer offends you. That is the first and last apology I will give you, take it or leave it. What you do is up to you, don’t tell me I made you do it, I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, you chose to be made to do it so you could do it and not blame yourself for doing it but blame me instead.

That’s my version of a disclaimer. I could have made it more airtight. It definitely has loopholes through which an irresponsible person can jump, fall and injure themselves and then blame me for it, maybe even sue me. If I point out to them that there was a warning sign telling them not to trespass if they couldn’t handle being shot for trespassing, they’ll probably tell me that the sign was not clear enough and they thought it was an invitation.

Last night I watched a news broadcast which was all about a part of the coast which is unsafe. The local council has put up barriers and warning signs to stop people from going beyond a certain point. The barriers are easy to climb over and under, the signs are easy to ignore. So the council called the news and asked them to repeat the warning and stress that crossing these barriers was dangerous and could result in injury. Images of the dangers awaiting those foolhardy enough to ignore warnings were shown… Still there will be someone who in spite of all the warnings and barriers will cross the line, they may even do so as an activist proclaiming it’s a public space and they have the right to be there, if they get injured bet they blame the council for not protecting them… protecting them from who or what exactly? Themselves?

That news item was followed by a violent storm warning for most of the country this weekend, with the sort of winds which turn acorns and conkers into bullets, ordinary items into dangerous projectiles, and have the potential to knock down trees. That reminded me of the time I was in the Bahamas when Hurricane Andrew hit. There had been a tropical storm warning, but the locals just shrugged that off, it was that time of year. Then it turned into a hurricane and everyone started to prepare for the worst. As the storm neared the island, the streets emptied, except for one intrepid newscaster who kept everyone up to date with what was happening outside. They were about to head for shelter as the wind was picking up pace when they spotted a man sauntering along the beach with his two children. The reporter spluttered and fumed at such an irresponsible parent. They confronted him and he remarked that his kids had never seen a hurricane. The reporter tried to contain their rage and repeated the warning that this hurricane was going to be devastating, and then reminded the man that it was one thing for an adult to ignore the warnings, that was his choice and problem, but his kids relied on him for their protection.

So sometimes responsibility for our safety and lives lies with ourselves and with others. Sometimes all the time. We do rely on others not to kill us even if they can and want to, and they rely on us to do the same. We share the responsibility.

Many disclaimers are there because the person giving the warning is trying to be responsible.

Sometimes the disclaimer is there so that the person giving it can then pass on the responsibility and be irresponsible, such as – I don’t mean to be rude, but… Now you’re not allowed to get offended by anything they say or do because they don’t mean to be rude. But they do and they know that’s exactly what they mean to be, and so do you. However if you get offended, they’ll get upset because they gave a disclaimer and now they are free from the consequences of their intended rudeness. The problem is yours.

Then there are those who make a statement which doesn’t seem like it is a disclaimer, but it is, such as – I am very sensitive. At first this seems innocuous enough. The person is aware of themselves and is passing on that awareness to you so that you know that anything you say and do will be taken personally and they will get hurt and blame you, then you’ll have to apologise, repeatedly, and eventually being around them will be a tightrope walk on a rope made of eggshells over a minefield.

Of course the problem with disclaimers and warnings is that if we see them or hear them often enough we tune them out. We know, we know, blah blah blah. Which is fine most of the time. In fact it is amazing how often it is fine, we just tend to only notice when it isn’t fine. When the warning we thought didn’t apply to us, suddenly applies to us.

Then again some warnings are invitations. A challenge. Tempting us to trespass. Why? Because we’re human and we are a complex mix of opposites and all the varied hues in between.

This time of year… Is Trick or Treat a warning, a disclaimer, an invitation, a challenge or an incredibly annoying and limited choice?


A very funny take on the complications of heeding and reading a warning:

Norges Talefelj discussing the swimming rules at Norwegian beaches (in Danish with English subtitles).