traffic lightsCharlie has never been to Africa, but he knows a lot about Africa. Charlie has read books about Africa. He has heard lectures about Africa. He has talked with people who have been to Africa.

Symbols let Charlie travel without leaving home. Fido the dog doesn’t even know that Africa exists. Score one for the symbol user. Charlie knows that red means “stop” – even though the street looks clear.

It’s not that he has ever been hit by a car; symbols alone keep Charlie from venturing into the road. Symbols allow Charlie to learn without experiencing.

Fido trots into the intersection and nearly becomes road kill. Score two for the symbol user. Charlie watches Fido nearly get killed and learns an important lesson. He teaches that lesson to his daughter, warning her to always watch the traffic light. She didn’t see what happened to Fido, but her father’s words keep her from making Fido’s mistake.

Symbols allow Charlie to pass knowledge to the next generation.

Fido’s puppies don’t fare so well. Score three for the symbol user. Symbols let Charlie talk about the past and the future; Fido knows only the present. Symbols let Charlie talk about what might have been and what could be; Fido only knows what is.

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Symbols let Charlie talk about things that aren’t here and things that don’t exist; Fido only knows what he sees and experiences. So symbol using Charlie is superior to Fido – right?

Hmmmm… Charlie was miserable today. He was miserable the day before, too. Seems he made an error in his checkbook – added an extra zero. Before he learned of the mistake, he was on top of the world. After he erased the zero, he was in the pits. If he learns tomorrow that his error is an error, he’ll be ecstatic. One little symbol can drastically alter Charlie’s disposition.

Fido doesn’t have a checkbook. Score one for the ignorant animal. Charlie called one of those “phone sex” numbers last night. He spent lots of money to have a total stranger – whom he will never see or meet – whisper words to him through the telephone.

Symbols can be substitutes for things that really matter. Fido wouldn’t settle for anything less than the real thing. Score two for the ignorant animal.

Charlie visits an art museum and sees an unusual exhibit – a trash can filled with rotting garbage. Although it looks a lot like the can he emptied in the dumpster that morning, Charlie reads the description on the wall. He learns that the exhibit was created by a world-famous artist, and that the garbage represents human suffering. Charlie decides it is brilliant and priceless.

Symbols can make the “same” thing seem different. Fido rummages through it, like any other trash can. Score three for the ignorant animal. Symbols can manipulate Charlie; Fido isn’t susceptible to their persuasive power. Symbols can change Charlie’s mood, appetite, decisions, and well-being; Fido isn’t so easily swayed.

Symbols can lead Charlie to do things he wouldn’t normally do, buy things he wouldn’t normally buy, and think things he wouldn’t normally think; Fido is blissfully unaffected.

Humans use symbols and symbols use humans.

So who is symbolically superior – or Fido?

The jury is still out.


From Et Cetera, Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues) from Box 728, Concord, CA 94522 USA