From the Archive: A Disclaimer about Disclaimers

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from May 2015 about the purposes of disclaimers before talks.

A recent local secular humanist group function featured a talk on a subject contentious in both religious and secular circles. Before this talk, the group leader who introduced the speaker gave the standard “speakers views do not reflect the organization’s views” disclaimer. The speaker, who often gives presentations at churches about this and similar subjects, followed by expanding on the sorts of disclaimers these talks have been subject to: disclaimers sometimes accompanied by church leaders standing near the speaker for emphasis.

There is something that “goes without saying” in situations such as churches bringing in speakers that so obviously differ with religious doctrine. The audience, we’d assume, would know already that a secular humanist’s views necessarily conflict with those of Christians. Likewise, in freethought organizations, we’d also assume that given the premise of freethought—that we should weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves—we shouldn’t need a preamble to talks stating that the views don’t represent those of the group.

All this raises a question: if it’s clear to us that a speaker doesn’t represent the organization’s views, why do we need disclaimers? What work are they doing?

We typically view disclaimers as applicable to tendentious topics, often ones that can be cast in a negative light by one party or another. Disclaimers appear on television and radio stations before infomercials and programs that air unpopular opinions. For the most part, we don’t want or need whatever the infomercials try to sell us. We don’t agree with the conspiracy theories that may be promulgated by certain radio shows. Disclaimers warn us: this probably isn’t worth your time.

Except that the very fact that the media are presenting these programs means that they find something useful—positive, even—in what they’re warning us against. Granted, in the negative examples I’ve given, the rewards for the media are monetary, either directly as in the case of infomercials or through ad revenue generated by popular contentious radio programs. But this sense of something to be gained holds true for the speakers who challenge or even threaten the tenets of the organizations that allow them to speak.

By allowing the speaker an audience, the organization implies that the topic at hand is one worthy of discussion. In the case of arguments against doctrine, bringing in a speaker may be done with the intention of learning more about the other side in order to better argue against it. And yet, the idea that the argument is one worth having in the first place gives at least a little credence to the other side. In this way, the disclaimer may be an attempt to soften this credit, but it can’t negate it outright.

So should we continue using disclaimers? I think so: they’re a handy shortcut for letting us know what to expect in certain situations. Television station management, for instance, doesn’t necessarily think we should all rush out and buy whatever is flogged in the infomercials—they should provide the disclaimer in cases where not doing so would indicate outright endorsement. A disclaimer is absolutely warranted in this case. That said, we shouldn’t hide behind them. Disclaimers are useful as informative tools, but they can’t absolve us from allowing messages to go out from sources we disagree with on our platforms, even if we do repudiate them.

Which leads me to ask, is this what was happening at the secular humanist gathering? We value exposure to evidence, even if that evidence later proves to be less useful than the one who exposes us to it would like to lead us to believe. In this case, I think two things prompted with the disclaimer: one, that anyone unfamiliar with the functions would be assured that we’re not a homogenous group that holds to all the opinions presented at our functions and, more importantly, two, that we’re up for the challenge of difficult subjects. We’re a pluralistic group. As much as we’re happy to agree on a lot of topics—the need for community, the importance of service, and so on—we’re not going to agree on everything. The talk was not, as is the case with religious groups, followed by a “why this is wrong” talk outlining some sort of doctrine. The disclaimer in this case serves to remind us: the leadership trusts us to make up our own minds on this. We wouldn’t belong to the group, I’m certain, if that weren’t the case.