Tags: argument

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sparkline

Dichotomy

I usually confine my JavaScript-related ramblings to the DOM Scripting blog but a recent bit of DOM blogging got me thinking about larger issues.

I posted on the WaSP Buzz blog and the DOM Scripting Task Force blog about a great little script by Dan Webb. In the course of posting, I inadvertently stepped on a land mine of scripting controversy.

I described two possible ways of generating markup with JavaScript:

The innerHTML property is quick and easy to use. But it’s also proprietary and heavy-handed. DOM methods like createElement and createTextNode, on the other hand, are precise and part of a standard but they can be finicky and repetitive to use.

I thought I was being pretty even-handed. But both Jonathan and Dustin felt that I was dissing innerHTML and praising DOM methods.

In a way, it’s kind of reassuring to think that the word “proprietary” can be interpreted as meaning “bad”. It bodes well for standards when the word “proprietary” has such negative connotations.

On the other hand, it obscures clarity when the meaning of one word is conflated with the meaning of another. It’s also worrying when a hands-off, fence-sitting description is misconstrued as strongly favouring one side of a dichotomy.

There seems to be a human need to divide issues into polar opposites. In reality, very few people hold opinions that are so clear cut. Yet, just look at how so many topics are polarised into binary arguments:

  • innerHTML versus DOM
  • RSS versus Atom
  • REST versus SOAP
  • XML versus JSON
  • HTML versus Flash
  • fixed versus liquid
  • Macs versus Windows
  • Google versus Yahoo!
  • The Beatles versus The Stones
  • Republicans versus Democrats
  • Tory versus Labour
  • cats versus dogs

Most well-adjusted people will find that their subjective opinion falls somewhere between these poles. If you find yourself 100% in favour of one of the above positions and 100% against the opposing viewpoint, I’m afraid you may be borderline psychotic.

There seems to be an inherent need for human beings to form tribes that draw strength from opposition. At a fundamental level, we favour an “us versus them” mentality.

It’s especially sad when this is manifested on a national level. Nationalism became a dirty word in the twentieth century when it was associated with notions of superiority and inferiority. Even today there are people for whom it is not enough to be happy in — and proud of — their own country; they must also declare it to be “better” than all the other countries. Such a subjective viewpoint seems like a crazy way to form a mental model of the world.

And yet, that’s exactly the kind of mental model that our brains seem hardwired to prefer. A balanced outlook doesn’t sit comfortably with our base instincts. Our natural tendency is to take a subjective opinion and declare it to be objective truth. In order to do that, there can be no room for doubt.

A subjective opinion that lacks certainty and conviction doesn’t seem convincing (even though its very lack of certainty hints at its truthfulness). Instead, strength of conviction is seen as a positive trait. But, as history has shown us, the strength of a particular belief has no bearing on its accuracy.

Still, come election time, our media will be filled with politicians fiercely defending one view or another. They will be judged less on the veracity of their positions and more on how sincere they are in their convictions. Nobody likes a flip-flopper.

I have a theory about correlating strength of conviction with age. When you’re young and full of righteousness, the world seems clearly divided into black and white. Then, as you mature, you begin to see things in shades of grey. But as you get older still, the world returns to being black and white except what was black is now white and was white is now black.

Before I’m labelled a complete relativist, let me clarify something.

I’m talking about subjective opinions and the danger that comes with treating them as if they were objective facts. It is equally dangerous to treat an objective fact as if it were a subjective opinion. That way lies madness. Specifically, the madness of the flat-earth society, the geocentric model and neo-creationism. Well, not so much madness, but definitely ignorance and self-delusion.

Of that I am certain.