On Reframing Discussions and Arguments

A short while ago, in a discussion on the intarwebs that got unnecessarily heated, I got accused of “reframing” an argument. I will spare you all the details of that discussion. Suffice to say that the term “reframing” used like this has cropped up before in discussions around the same topic1, but I hadn’t heard it before.

I want to discuss here what this term does and does not mean, and how it applies to discussions.

Reframing

The best summary I have seen after a few googles comes from here, despite the sometimes weird grammar:

A frame, or frame of reference is a complex schema of unquestioned beliefs, values and so on that we use when inferring meaning. If any part of that frame is changed (hence ‘reframing’), then the meaning that is inferred may change.

To reframe, step back from what is being said and done and consider the frame, or ‘lens’ through which this reality is being created. Understand the unspoken assumptions, including beliefs and schema that are being used.

Then consider alternative lenses, effectively saying ‘Let’s look at it another way.’ Challenge the beliefs or other aspects of the frame. Stand in another frame and describe what you see. Change attributes of the frame to reverse meaning. Select and ignore aspects of words, actions and frame to emphasise and downplay various elements.
changingminds.org

If you consider this definition of “reframing”, to be accurate, then so much of any discussion is arguably about the differences in frame of reference of each participant, that reframing is the best possible tool for establishing a common ground from which to start a fruitful debate.

What it isn’t is necessarily about persuasion. In fact, when you google “reframing”, you might come across this here:

Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.
Wikipedia article “Cognitive reframing”

It’s taken out of context, but even when you read up on the details, one thing becomes clear: it’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing that can be used for good and bad.

Reframing Discussions

Where the term has achieved negative connotations, it’s in situations where reframing was applied not just to individual arguments, but to shift the focus of a discussion away from one topic towards another. Such has happened in the #gamergate debate still pretty much raging on the internet, and it’s been done by “both sides”2.

I’m not going to dig into that debate deeply enough to play sides; suffice to say that the side that focuses on misogynism accuses the other side of trying to hide this misogynism by shifting the discussion away towards ethics in games journalism. On the other side, the accusation is to shift the topic of ethics in games journalism away towards a discussion of misogynism.

At the end of the day, both is true. There’s more to it than that, but for the topic of reframing, what matters is that nobody here widens the context in which arguments are made to shed new light on said arguments. Instead, the context in which arguments are made is altered in order to promote a new topic.

Whether that is good or bad is debatable; what it definitely is, is off topic.

Reframing Purposefully

The change in topic is usually made to push ones own agenda, whatever that may be. This isn’t in itself a new thing. It can be easily traced as far back as Cato the elder, who famously ended all his speeches with a variation of Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, whether his speech was on that topic or not.

Now strictly speaking this isn’t exactly the same as reframing. Cato, for all we know, just used repetition to make a point, and did not use this phrase to change the topic of the discussion. Perhaps there’s a better name for his technique, but I’ll stick with it anyway – you’ll see in a moment why.

To better demonstrate how similar Cato’s argumentation technique is to reframing, consider this made up example3:

Drill a hole in a tree and slap a bra on it, still won’t be a biological woman. But I’ll call her your girlfriend.

By the way, I care about ethics in games journalism.

I’m not picking this to argue for or against what is being said. I’m picking this to contrast this to Cato’s speech on, say, agricultural issues, and ending it with an unrelated opinion. Whatever the purpose of expressing yourself like this, the technique is the same.

Hashtag Society

There’s another reason I constructed the example above, and it is to demonstrate a modern version of Cato’s technique:

Drill a hole in a tree and slap a bra on it, still won’t be a biological woman. But I’ll call her your girlfriend.

#gamergate

We use Cato’s technique all the time.

Except… there’s a crucial difference in using a hash tag, and stating an opinion. Stating an opinion clearly will demonstrate to the audience whether or not it is related to the main post. Using a hashtag implies that your post is about the opinion or topic commonly associated with the tag.

And thus, we have moved back towards reframing a discussion – no, more than that, towards reframing an entire topic, whichever the discussion thread.

Framing vs. Reframing

If you consider the above, it becomes apparent that framing is the default technique we use in social networking to form groups or alliances. No wonder we get so annoyed when someone tries to reframe the topic!

It’s not that what they do is particularly different from what we’ve been doing in discussions for hundreds of years, or that it’s particularly wrong. What makes it so hard to endure is that instead of weaking an argument or two, they attempt to undermine the social structure of the group we feel we belong to.

I think it behooves us all (me included), to carefully differentiate between someone reframing an argument, which is a quite sensible and positive technique, and someone attempting to reframe our social group. Personally, I tend to call the second thing “hijacking”, but perhaps that’s just me.

Positive Reframing

There is, of course, always an opportunity to learn from your enemy.

Do you care that your social group’s being hijacked? Well, you can always do the same thing to them that they do to you. Just like Cato voiced an opinion over and over again, you can do, too. The trick is to find a new hashtag that expresses this opinion, but is not particularly prone to being hijacked itself.

Good Hashtags

If you think about it, a hashtag is not so much different from a slogan. The internet abounds with tips on writing an effective slogan, but it comes down to variations of the following points: There’s a list of five tips for effective slogans that applies just as much to hashtags:

  1. Highlight the key point.
  2. Be creative/original/etc.
  3. Make it readable/sayable/sticky/etc.

When you look closely, the #gamergate example really only achieves the last point. Whether it achieves the second is debatable; allusions to watergate may have been original at some point, but the technique has been overused in my personal opinion. But it clearly fails at expressing an opinion about ethics in games journalism.

The upshot? It’s easy to hijack.

Hashtags for Positive Reframing

I can’t be 100% sure about this, but I can guess that if you want to positively reframe a topic, being particularly creative isn’t all that necessary. If a hashtag you previously used was creative and sticky enough to attract the attention of people to reframe it, it’s probably still creative and sticky enough that it holds people’s attention – for a while. In that time, all you need to care about is to be unambiguous.

That is, instead of coming up with a new label such as #gamergatersagainstsexism, use the stickiness of #gamergate to get your message out, but add #againstsexism – or whatever it is you care about – to firmly ground your post in in one position.

Conclusion

I’ve written a bit about #gamergate here, but that’s not the topic. The topic is how reframing works, what it is and isn’t, how you can use it and how it can be used against you.

As a final word, I would like to point out that if you ever find yourself about to argue that someone is reframing your arguments4, then consider that is in itself actually an act of reframing the discussion topic. You’re moving away from saying “I disagree with your arguments or the premises you base them on” towards “I disagree with your argumentation techniques”.

Man, have I been guilty of doing that thing myself. I hope I’ll remember not to do it next time.

  1. It’s gamergate; I will post on that elsewhere []
  2. This assumes there are only two sides. Bear with me. []
  3. It’s based on this tweet, which I didn’t verify for authenticity. The example is made up in the sense that it’s taken completely out of context, and glues together two phrases uttered by two people at two different times. Their commonality is that the people are speaking out in support of #gamergate. []
  4. Not the discussion topic, see above. []