How harmful are the words you say? Are they ever harmful enough that you shouldn’t be allowed to say them? Do you own the consequences of your words, even if the actions belong to another?
If you tell a thirsty person, “drink this” and then point to a glass of acid, how culpable are you for their burns? Maybe you didn’t put the glass there. Did you know it was acid? How can we be sure? Did you claim it wasn’t acid? Did you claim to be handing out water?
Caveat emptor, sure. But do we want to live in a world where we can never trust anything anyone says, simply because there is a complete disconnect between what people say and what we’d hold them responsible for saying?
In case you’ve never heard this, a lot of people will say “you can’t shout ‘fire’ in a public theater!” For one, you almost certainly aren’t using or hearing that phrase used correctly. But even if you’re one of the few who are, that’s a legal question. I’m talking about a philosophical one.
I don’t usually get mad at other people for lying to me or misleading me, even if I fall for it. I consider myself ultimately responsible for all of my own actions. Someone else can tell me to go jump off a bridge, but that doesn’t make me have to listen. Virtually every time in my life that I’ve suffered misfortune because of a lie I believed, it was from a source that, given even an extra moment’s reflection, I should never have trusted. Oh, the sketchy dude in the hoodie behind the gas station lied to you and said that car worked? He’s not ultimately to blame for you being out three grand. You are.
I like to think about it like this – what’s my personal cost if I’m being lied to? If it’s high, then I shouldn’t default to belief.
Coming back around to the harm of your words – I have no desire to harm. I don’t want anyone to jump off a bridge. I don’t even want to say “jump off a bridge” to anyone. But I find it strange that if I did say “jump off a bridge” to someone, and they jumped off a bridge, there’s some reasonable likelihood that I’m culpable for that.
And, to speak my mind, I’m not sure how I feel about it.