If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)At a conversation with friends over coffee, we were discussing the most effective way to govern a society. One aspect of government we touched on was how rules should be communicated to and enforced among the governed.
Actual Anarchy gave the example of the towns in Europe that abolished all traffic laws while simultaneously reconstructing roads in such a way that the only way to drive on the roads would be the 'safe' way. For example, imagine a straight and wide boulevard where it is perfectly possible to travel at 80 mph even though it may endanger other users of the road, a sign that says you can only drive 40 mph, and certain people who are paid to act as 'officers' who have a limited ability to enforce what the sign says and sometimes abuse that power. Instead, the road is now constructed of cobblestone so that it is literally impossible to drive faster than 40mph because it would destroy your car.
The results, of course, speak for themselves.
My friend made the seemingly convincing argument that, while he didn't fully disagree with this later method, he thought that the sign still had value inasmuch as it can explain to a user of the roads the proper method of driving. His argument, if we understood it correctly, is that it is an act of charity to take the time to explain the need and how to drive safely, rather than simply forcing you to do so.
This struck us a reasonable enough argument. That is, until we drove home from the coffee shop.
On the way home, we encountered an intersection with dual traffic lights. As we approached the intersection, it was clear our light was green, had been so, and continued to be for some time. During the twenty seconds or so it took us to proceed to and through the intersection, we noticed the second light was not functioning. And in that second lane sat a car motionless, the driver seemingly unable to proceed without the approval of his lane's green light.
While it could be true the driver was oblivious for other reasons, it recalled to mind the nature of language and symbols. The problem it becomes apparent is that while language can be extremely useful, relying on it too much can be downright harmful. If society becomes overly dependent upon signs and legislation for its methods of acting, we can begin to disintermediate ourselves from reality and begin mistaking the abstract symbol for the concrete reality.
We become as drivers in need of green lights, even though all the prerequisites for driving forward - even legally - have been fulfilled. But because that symbol we are too highly dependent upon is not there, we are paralyzed.
So, while symbols have a use, we must not come to replace reality with symbols. As in the verse from Corinthians, if we are all words and no action, we have not charity.
A symbol is like the tinkling cymbal. Remember that.