The OOXML debates (non-combatant’s perspective)

[21-22 July 2008]

So far, I have managed to avoid participating in the debates over standardizing OOXML, and I don’t plan for that to change. But my evil twin Enrique and I spent some wickedly enjoyable time this afternoon reading a lot of postings in that debate, from a variety of sources, when I should have been working on other things. (“Log it as ‘Professional – continuing education’,” suggested Enrique. I may do that.)

It’s interesting to be able to observe a hard-fought technical battle in which (other people’s) feelings run high but in which one does not have a large personal stake. So many rhetorical maneuvers are familiar, the deterioration of the quality of the argument brings back so many memories of other technical arguments in which (distracted by caring about the outcome) the observer may not have been able to appreciate the rhetorical ingenuity of some of the contributions.

What strikes both Enrique and me is how distinct the styles of argumentation on the various sides of the debate are. We counted three, not two, in this battle, but we could be undercounting.

On one side, there is a class of contributions carefully kept as thoroughly emotionless as possible, focusing exclusively on technical (or at least substantive) issues — even when the contribution was intended to persuade others of a course of action. This seems, at first, an unusual rhetorical choice: I think most advertisers tend to prefer enthusiasm to a studied lack of emotion in trying to sell things. Still, this class includes some of the people whose judgement I have the most reason to respect, and in an over-heated environment a strict objectivity can be immensely attractive.

There is a second class of contributions, which provide a complex mix of a more emotional, excitable, even passionate, style of argumentation, which is however almost always tethered to concrete, verifiable (or falsifiable) propositions about technical properties of OOXML (and ODF), about process issues, and so on. The contributions of this class are by no means always well reasoned or insightful, but they are all recognizably arguments which can be refuted.

And there is a third class, which contains some of the most inventive ad hominem attacks, imaginative name-calling, and insidious smears I have ever seen outside of recent U.S. national electoral politics.

What is striking and puzzling to me is how cleanly the three different rhetorical styles seem to me to map to different positions (let me call them left and right, without mapping left/right into pro/con) on OOXML. If you see a statement that could in principle be verified or falsified by an impartial third party, there is a much better than even chance that it’s from a contribution arguing, let us call it, the left-hand position. And if you see an infuriatingly smug piece which avoids addressing actual technical issues and confines itself to name-calling, slander, and innuendo, there is a very strong chance that it’s taking a right-hand position. (I’m speaking here mostly of bloggers and essayists, not of those who have commented on various blog posts — the blog comments are uniformly smug and infuriating regardless of handedness.)

I have tried not to say explicitly which position each of these styles is associated with, because if Enrique and I are right then all you have to do is (re)read some of the rhetorical barrages of the last year or two to see which is which. (Those of my readers who care about the outcome, or about the health and reputation of the institutions involved, may find this too painful to contemplate. I’m sorry; you don’t have to if you don’t want to.) And if we’re wrong (and we may be — we only had stomach for an afternoon’s worth of the stuff, not more), then there’s no fairness in pointing the finger of blame at just one side for the incivility that can be seen in the discussion of OOXML.

And in any case, as Enrique points out with a certain malicious glee, “Most people who don?~~t look into it will assume that the merits of the technical arguments must be with the first or second groups, because they don’t descend (or more correctly they descend less often) to slander and name-calling. But there is no rule that says that just because those on one side of an argument argue unfairly or irrelevantly, or act with infuriating disregard of basic rules of courteous technical discussion, then it’s safe to conclude that they have the wrong end of the technical stick, any more than it’s safe to conclude that an invalid argument has reached a false conclusion. Unfairness and low behavior don’t mean people aren’t right in the end.”

Enrique may be right. But watching the OOXML debates serves as a salutary reminder that when some in a technical discussion descend to name-calling and slander (and what better to spice up a blog with?), the animosities created during the process will hover over the result of the decision for a long time.

Memo to self: in future, try to be calmer and more fair in discussions.

(“Yeah,” I hear Enrique mutter. “Leave the dirty work to me.”)

One thought on “The OOXML debates (non-combatant’s perspective)

  1. Very good article, Michael!

    I would like to point out that few people in this debate read the ODF or OOXML specification seriously. Even those who I respect appear to praize ODF blindly without reading a single page of the ODF specification.

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