Francois Marie Arouet – 18th Century writer, philosopher, and sit-down comedian (satirist) – is better known to all third semester French students as Voltaire. He lived his life in full. Smart, cruel, generous, witty, kind, atheistic, humanistic, misanthropic, absurdist, English-loving Francophobe, Francophilic Parisian; long-suffering, well-rewarded, hunted, despised, and dearly beloved.
He gave to literature some of the strangest confabulations ever seen, even in the modern era – stories of science fiction absurdity – spacemen, giants, deranged civilian populations, plagues, pirates and villains pretending to do public good; and then mystical, perfect (and boring) Edens, soon to be discarded for lustier, more perilous pursuits.
He tried to wrangle out of the human condition some sense, some middle ground, but seemed to enjoy the highs and lows of existence – in his writing, and in reality – more than the simple, quiet life his literary creations claimed to desire.
He gave, in some work or another, or perhaps only in speech, a phrase which echoes in my mind in almost every conversation I have with those defending the various religions of our era – Bird Flu, Aids, Sars, Bombing Iraq for democracy’s sake, etc.
“If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.”
(I have also seen it as, “If you want to speak with me…”)
I take it to mean, “If you want to debate me, first we must define the terms of our argument or there can be no meaningful debate.”
And this is advice I always take. There can be no discussion of any real merit, in my opinion, without reducing the ideas in question to their simplest, least-divisible form, for the purpose of absolute clarity, distinction, and for the most accurate transmission of meaning.
This process – the definition of terms – is, of course, not done, never done, always undone.
Define your terms.
War for Democracy. Invasion for Peace. Democratic Election every four years (choose the father/son, husband/wife team with the best handlers, 28 years running).
Define your terms.
“Deadly Pandemic Bird Flu.”
Deadly? Is it? Is it a flu? Has there been a pandemic? Is it a bird flu?
How and why do we know that? (And if we don’t, then why do we say it?)
Isn’t it also anything that occurs in poor rural Southeast Asian villages, that allows western powers to exercise some economic expansion?
“Hiv Causes Aids.”
What causes what? What is “hiv?” How do you define it? With tests that test for nothing?
What is Aids? Every disease that occurs in poor, brown-skinned people, and then, any condition at all that occurs in gay men? What is Aids, but a brand name, covering a litany of ancient biases, prejudices and presumed sins?
If you want to debate me, first, define your terms.
The so-called dissidents, and the orthodoxy alike, would surely be at a loss, if they stopped for a moment to really understand what it is they were arguing, arguing, arguing…
And so, I’ll ask:
Can we have some definition of terms in meaningful public debate? (And if not, can we agree that it’s not meaningful, after all?)
Voltaire’s Candide Here.