Over the last 10 days I’ve developed a kind of Mandela-phobia, or ‘fear of Mandela’. Virtually every time I’ve turned on the telly or radio, there has been something about the late former President of South Africa. The extent of the coverage he’s recently received matched his life and his achievements. Unfortunately those celebrations were tainted by some scandals of varying calibres. Seemingly the worst one was caused by a sign-language interpreter, who turned out to be anything but. When the scandal broke there were many different concerns raised, such as the sniff of possible corruption or the compromise of the security of the political leaders at the memorial service. No disrespect to the politicians but, in my opinion, the worst affected were those for whom the interpreter was hired: the deaf. They braved the weather and discomfort to be part of that celebration, but it was ruined by the man making up signs with no meaning.
In everyday life we code and decode massive amounts of information every now and again. Our ability to process and to make sense of a constant stream of signals from different sources at the same time can hardly be matched even by the most powerful computers. They are good at specific tasks, but so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ is still in its infancy. Our ability comes from the common use of signs. In a very compact, compressed and simple way, they carry a vast array of meanings. Usually we don’t realise that; we process all those encrypted bits of information automatically, almost inattentively. We realise their presence only when we have come across a sign we don’t know, don’t understand.
The greatest set of invented, artificial signs is the alphabet. Unlike the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, none of the twenty-odd letters represents a particular object or idea. On their own, they are meaningless. Using their combinations, we can code anything from descriptions of everyday things to the most abstract ideas. The invention of alphabetical writing is considered as the distant beginning of culture and science. Discoveries, ideas and culture could travel independently of their creators. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th century provided a much cheaper means of circulating texts, opening the way to the Enlightenment and to modern science. Nowadays anybody with access to the internet can share his or her own ideas at a click of the mouse or a tap on the touchscreen. We take the alphabetical means of communication for granted. But, as I said before, these twenty-odd signs have no meaning in their own right. Their meanings are ascribed by convention, and must be learnt. It’s the same story with many signs other than the alphabet.
In today’s gospel we see St John the Baptist locked up in jail, confused by what he has heard about Jesus’ actions. So he sends out his disciples looking for an explanation. At first glance Jesus seems to shirk from giving a direct answer. His response is in what he does, rather than in what he says. Words can be read in many different ways: they can be twisted, changed, misinterpreted, misquoted… We angrily but delightfully see this done by politicians, and deniably by ourselves. Jesus points to his own actions: they are much simpler signs to interpret. These signs speak more clearly than any words.
Since his election, Pope Francis has already made many public speeches and sermons. But what has drawn the world’s attention to him is what he has done. Words can be powerful when they are consistent with the action that follows. Otherwise they just produce hot air, melting ice caps but hardening people’s hearts. Actions speak louder than words.