When you argue with someone who constantly reframes what you’re talking about, so that you’re always discussing the issue they want to talk about, from their chosen perspective, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to ever reach agreement about anything. This technique is used all the time in bare knuckle politics and the partisan interpretation of law, and it can be maddening. It can also be hard to see or counter, until you learn to spot it as it’s happening.
Here is a recent example, from my life, which lays out clearly how reframing can create a false equivalency that can then be used to drop the mic, having won the argument. It’s likely you’ve experienced the same thing, possibly without being able to get a handle on what actually happened. If so, this illustration may help you see it more clearly.
An old friend questioned me about my falling out with an old jamming partner. I described how tensions had been rising and anger was being stored up by the ace harmonica player. I wasn’t aware of how much resentment this guy had stored up, since he never mentioned any of it to me. In the end, and suddenly, a spark burst into a bonfire. Hurt escalated quickly, and, had the confrontation been in person, and we were the types to resort to violence, we would have come to blows. Things were said in anger that could not be taken back. It was the end of our ability to ever get along again. My later attempt to make peace did not succeed.
The old friend who questioned me later jumped ugly during a couple of tense phone calls, yelling and angrily hanging up mid-sentence the last time we spoke. We then communicated a few times by email, trying to make things right. He felt no need to apologize until I brought it up weeks later, in taking my leave of the troubled friendship he said he was trying his best to save. He no doubt felt justified in his angry actions, under the theory, I suppose, that since I had mercilessly and infuriatingly provoked him, I was the one at fault and so he didn’t need to explain why a person would hang up on somebody like that, let alone apologize for it. Anyone with any self-respect would have done the same thing.
It became impossible to pretend to a friendship that had obviously outlived itself. I finally threw in the towel. To my mild but persistent dismay, he was determined to have the last word.
Here is his reframing of my comments about the awful final, unresolvable confrontation with the harmonica player, which he used to demonstrate that I was the unreasonable, unyielding party in our unresolvable dispute, the cruel bastard who had ended our friendship for no understandable reason:
You’ve said many unkind words to me, Eliot, and I’ve been deeply hurt. When we were discussing your issues with Noam about a year ago, you said something along the lines of, when you have a disagreement with a friend, you try hard to get to a meeting of hearts and minds, but once you conclude that’s not happening, you give it to them with both barrels. I feel that’s where you’re at with me. I feel you no longer value the relationship, but value articulating your grievances and causing me pain in retribution, for whatever purpose that may serve for you. If at this point you just want to be sure you’ve “given as good as you’ve gotten, and then some,” I think you have.
The beauty of this paragraph is that it makes one of us clearly wrong and the other one the victim of the wrong person’s senseless, deliberate cruelty. When I disagree with a friend, and don’t manage to persuade him I’m right, I blast him with both barrels of the old shotgun.
Note that it could not have been accomplished without reframing.
Substitute “disagreement” — a common human experience we all deal with regularly, a largely intellectual conflict — for “violent fight” — an emotional flare up, something hopefully rare, and always upsetting — et, voila! you have the proof you need of who’s being reasonable and who is undeniably at fault for the end of a long friendship. Never mind that it always takes two to Tango, Foxtrot or Waltz.
What I actually told him, in relation to Noam, was that once I recognize behavior as abuse, motivated by sustained, righteous anger, and I fail in my best attempts to defuse that abusive situation (where anger is dumped on us that we’ve done little to bring on and the other party won’t yield a millimeter in their insistence that we are exclusively at fault), I owe that person nothing but a figurative punch in the face.
Friends can do this sort of thing sometimes, argue using unfair politician’s tricks to reframe what is actually at stake and why, particularly when they feel defensive, and it is best to overlook it most of the time. We all can be assholes, our friends are people who value the best of us and don’t slam us for our weaknesses. I had a friend for many years who was a habitual liar, it never bothered me much since it rarely had a direct effect on me or my friendship with the guy.
These kinds of flaws only become dangerously contentious when good will has been otherwise lost in a friendship. When we share a problem with a friend who tells us we’re crazy, that it’s all in our head, or who won’t address our concerns at all — it’s pretty much game over. Once that happens, every technique available can come into play to pry whatever remains of friendship apart. What I think about then is trying to leave with integrity, taking my leave in a way that explains my position as clearly, and nonviolently, as I can.
Of course, not matter how gracious I may try to be, it doesn’t change the other person’s sincerely held belief that I am the violent, enraged asshole who deliberately and unilaterally blew everything up. Nothing I can do about that. Having extended courtesy and fairness to the other party makes me feel better about my difficult decision. It also supports my improved ability to make healthier choices based on an honest assessment of what actually took place, to own and try to fix damage I’ve caused and to let go of blame unfairly thrust on to me.
Of course, the injured party, reading this account, will snarl at this further proof of my pathological need to be right, and sanctimoniously unforgiving, and the lengths to which I’ll go to preserve my self-righteousness. Fortunately, that particular snarl is no longer really my problem.