Disclaimers are everywhere. Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think life is risky. We all know that when we go swimming there is a chance that something could go horribly wrong, and we could drown. Signs warning us to “swim at own risk” aren’t really about safety and warning. Such signs are there for the expressed purpose of denying responsibility for, well, anything one can put on a sign. The grocery store does not want to get sued for the cost of repairing your car if a cart hits it, even if it is the job of the company to make sure its employees go out and wrangle said carts.
[Image from here.]
The website selling the above sign, and many other such signs, boasts:
Decrease your liability with a simple, effective “Not Responsible” sign. Not only do these signs limit your responsibility, but they also promote personal responsibility and respect for your property. –mysecuritysign.com
It’s easy to see whence this idea came. America is the land of the lawsuit, and companies didn’t want to get sued. It seems to me, though, that companies don’t want to be held responsible for anything that happens on their watches. There has to be a limit to what you can disclaim, right?
My husband recently told me he used to be confused about the meaning of the word responsibility when he was a kid, because it seemed that any time adults were using the word they were trying to make someone else accountable. When someone else says, “This is your responsibility,” what they’re really saying is “This is not my responsibility.” It’s like the childhood response of “He started it!” The cry that says: even though I was involved, someone else is to blame. In reality, we should be teaching our children that anyone who is involved in responsible.
It’s especially difficult in a democratic society not only to point to who is to blame for any given problem, because so many people are involved in the process but, more importantly, to point to who is responsible for fixing a problem. Sometimes people blame whomever is president at the time, whether he deserves it or not. Blame is the less important of the two issues. Who will fix our problems is more important.
Elected officials are more concerned with not stinking up the place, not doing anything wrong to get the attention of the voters, than they are of making a real difference. If they try to make a real difference and mess up, the voters will notice and vote them out. If they sit there and do nothing wrong, but everything stays the same, more often than not they will get voted back in. Where’s the motivation?
When I was a kid, teachers often gave us predictions of what would happen in our lifetimes. One told us that my generation would have more careers than generations past, something like five careers. This concerned me. They also told us that even though since the depression each generation has had it better than the generations before, ours would be the first to be overall worse off than our parents. That makes me think they had some advanced warning of this economic depression.
Yet, beyond warning us, their generation did little to nothing to change that dire prediction. I thought maybe we’d only be as bad off as our grandparents’ generation. I didn’t think that maybe we’d be going farther back than that. Maybe much farther–we don’t really know yet how this is all going to work out. Perhaps they could say to themselves, “Well, we warned them. It’s up to them now.” No, my friends, a disclaimer was not good enough this time. It’s not good enough any time.
[Image from here.]
If the playground is not responsible for making sure the equipment is safe, who is?
These kinds of warnings come with no assurance on the part of the sign-poster that they will also be doing their part to ensure that you are not going to drown in their pool. There is no assertion that they will be diligent in removal of carts from the lot or thieves from their premises. All that matters is who is at fault: you, and who is not at fault: them.
We need to be careful about what we teach the younger generations, about themselves and about ourselves. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from The Postman by David Brin that always comes to mind when I think about humankind and responsibility. There is, according to legend, a supercomputer in this post-apocalyptic world who is helping mankind survive. The main character imagines that he hears this in the ever-repeating blinking of its lights, always the same pattern:
Who will take responsibility now, for these foolish children? …
Who will take responsibility …
The words repeated over and over again within his head, firmly lodged like a tune that would not let go. It was the same rhythm–he realized at last–as the winking lights of the parity display on the face of the old, dead machine, lights that had rippled again and again.
… for these foolish children?