I've recently listened to an interesting Dutch podcast. The podcast talked about framing, and specifically about how people sometimes frame things by using a tactic that uses single words or images to emphasize one aspect of a topic, with the goal of convincing others to have a similar opinion on that topic. It goes on to talk about how emphasizing only one aspect leads to neglecting others and summaring big issues in a single word fosters a climate where discussions and even casual talks lack nuance, discussions harden, and black-white thinking is encouraged, even though this behavior can be highly useful for convincing people.

A good example the podcast used was 'tax relief': Words used by Republicans in America to express their point of view that taxes should be lowered, while implicitly accusing Democrats of letting the taxes get too high. This highlights a specific positive aspect (relief), but bypasses possible negative aspects like getting less state income from taxes.

The podcast talked about one way of countering these words: summarize your own position in one word too. This can be seen in the juxtaposition between e.g. pro-life and pro-choice. In fact, the podcast mentioned this way of countering is way more effective than providing counterarguments when it comes to having a discussion. Which seems nice, but has the same pitfalls as outlined in the previous paragraph. As such, since couter-arguments are probably not effective, I've decided to try and counter the rhetoric technique itself, much like I was taught to do in my high-school classes on Dutch language and rhetorics/debating.

I had a recent opportunity to try and do so in a discussion about "privilege". An acquaintance I was talking to talked about growing up in a household without poverty as 'being privileged'.* I responded by pointing out "privilege" was an example of the technique I described above, explaining the technique and that the lack of nuance in it would not help a good discussion.

They asked me to explain further, so I replied that by summarizing their thoughts about growing up without poverty as "a privilege", they were bypassing other arguments, like how this is something everyone should have. After all, privileges are special rights awarded to groups of people to give them more or different rights than someone would usually have a claim to (think 'computer privileges' and how a parent can grant or revoke those when raising a kid), and everyone has a claim to a right to grow up without poverty.

I do think I messed up the explanation because my explanation can also be seen as a 'counter-argument', but I saw no other way (still don't see any) at that time to answer the question of how they were summarizing their thoughts on a complex societal issue in a single word. The things I said were dismissed as 'what a privileged person would say'. At that point we ended the talk with an 'agree to disagree'. But their response suggests to me that my behavior somehow reinforced their willingness to resort to this technique, instead of made the other person realize they are using a particular rhetoric.

How do I more effectively counteract this rhetorical technique in a way that doesn't reinforce a person's willingness to use it further?

* Someone in chat mentioned this person may have been unwilling to have an open talk/discussion. The remark was made on a website that actively encourages and revolves around such discussions, and we've become acquainted enough that I feel confident in saying that this wasn't the case

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    To me, what you're trying to do sounds very nitpicky. I'm not saying that it is, but your post reads as if you're more interested in debating the meaning of words than an actual topic. Human speech will always take short cuts, you cannot start with the beginning of the universe in every conversation. Could you perhaps clarify that a bit better? I'd also challenge that you should restructure how you and most people talk because of one podcast. I hope you do not take offense in me being frank, but this is my honest attempt to show you in what way your post could benefit from adjustment
    – Raditz_35
    Jan 7, 2021 at 13:04
  • I'd also like to point out that it seems like a politically motivated or easily politicized topic which makes it hard to be absolute and see a clear path that works for people. Could you perhaps choose less political examples or state that this technique is specifically about let's call it (for simplicity) the typical, contemporary American political debate that also gets popular here in europe? What's the context?
    – Raditz_35
    Jan 7, 2021 at 13:07
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    @Raditz_35 I've tried to clarify a lot of that in chat, it seems the concept is confusing to a lot of people. But while the meaning of words definitely matters in a discussion, 'framing' is summarizing an entire standpoint in 1 word, in the hopes to sell the standpoint. It's more like propaganda or advertising than using words to describe the actual things around you, if that makes sense?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Jan 7, 2021 at 13:10
  • As for the examples used, we've discussed those in chat yesterday too... If anyone has any feel free to suggest any, but we couldn't come up with non-politicized topics where this technique was used. I already stated this is about the technique and not the examples, I guess describing the technique as you did in your comment can be seen as just as politicized. I can try to cut out the explanations entirely, but I'm not sure if that would make the question less distracting or less understandable for people that are totally unaware of the concept?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Jan 7, 2021 at 13:15
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    What is your goal here? Is it to find out how to respond to such technique (especially using your example), or is it to convince the other person about the existence of this technique and that they are using it?
    – justhalf
    Jan 8, 2021 at 4:51

2 Answers 2


Framing is used to have others think in a certain way about a problem. Winning the argument by assuming you already won. A classic example of framing outside politics is found in parenting smaller children. (Not "do you want to put on your shoes?" but "which shoe do you want to put on first?" - Don't leave a doubt that they will put on their shoes, and it will be debated much fewer times than with the first way to phrase it.)

Using one catchy name for your frame can be an effective way to do the framing. But just because people use one word to convey a concept, this doesn't imply that it's framing in this sense (caveats see below). It's just how language works. It may be framing, but it may also be only a technical term that you might not be familiar with. What's worse, technical terms in one context might be "normal" words in another context, so your might assume familarity where it isn't.

So, I do think that the example (and fight) you picked isn't a good one for framing. Your point is that the word "privilege" for growing up without experiencing poverty would be perpetuating poverty, because "privilege" implied "deserved". But: I'm pretty sure your acquaintance wasn't intending to use the word as a positive frame, but rather as a critical statement about poverty. So, the supposed frame at least lacked intention. And, in fact, while "privilege" exists with the positive connotations you mentioned, it has a more negative meaning in the discussion of white privilege, cis privilege, male privilege etc. In this context "privilege" just has a different meaning than in "computer privileges". It's just a technical term that emerged in the discussion of "people having it better in live because of external circumstances and society's reaction to those circumstances". It's better to have one word to convey this meaning, than to repeat "people having it better in live because of external circumstances and society's reaction to those circumstances" every time you want to talk about "people having it better in live because of external circumstances and society's reaction to those circumstances".

What's more: Shifting the discussion from the matter at hand to the words used in the discussion is in itself a framing technique (as in shifting the discussion about anti-semitism to the discussions who are semites anyway - a known alt right technique). So, even unintendedly, this might be what made the others angry. They possibly didn't see it as framing and didn't agree to what they saw as you shifting the focus of the discussion from poverty to language.

That said, every point of view exists in a frame of thought. "Framing" as a technique is to push this to an extreme, but I don't think, that re-framing (as in "summarize your own position in one word too" or other framing techniques) is bad in itself. Obviously, if two parties to a discussion try to frame the topic in an extreme way you won't have them on course to agree. But to re-frame the debate to a "middle ground" might help the discussion, but is still a kind of framing. The important part is to keep in mind, that there always is a frame.

What's more: Today's middle ground frame might be seen as extreme in a few years if the overton window has shifted. This in itself might be seen as enough reason to counter one extreme frame with a different extreme frame. If done with this intention, there's reason to see this as good behaviour. Problematic behaviour may be the kind that lets the overton window shift, i. e. the framing to the middle ground.

You just might have to use the technique described in the podcast or some other re-framing, if you want to keep the middle ground being the middle ground. Maybe use this as a starting point to explore the middle ground.

To summarize:

  1. Everyone uses some kind of framing, all the time.
  2. Extreme framing might only be counteracted by re-framing in an extreme way.
  3. If the supposed framing would counteract the intended message, it probably wasn't framing.
  • Hi Jan! I've just given my question a pretty massive edit, because people kept getting confused between the rhetorical technique of summarizing an issue in one word and the mental act of framing something (which indeed everyone does). To avoid people encountering the same issues when reading your answer, perhaps you could consider doing a similar edit?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Jan 7, 2021 at 17:25
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    @Tinkeringbell I've just edited my answer to somehow reflect the editing of your question. The gist remains the same. Jan 8, 2021 at 15:29

I believe there are ways to counter the lack of nuance, black and white thinking that comes associated to this phenomenon.

Play dumb

Usually when we have a complex topic summarized in one word, and applied in the wild, it's always possible to not know the reference, genuinely (I often don't), or perhaps because you'd like to be sure of what interpretation of the frame that particular person has made (I always try to figure, and use this especially when I suspect this could be different from mine).

A: I think we need a real tax relief. B: What do you mean by tax relief, exactly?

This counter the desired effect because the person may have to explain details you can actually counter-argue and it also doesn't encourage them to use it further since they have to take into account some people just don't get what's meant.

Reclaiming it, make it look empty, make it look ridiculous

This is a response especially played by politicians that like to rename things (ex: Affordable care vs Obama care), or use the frame into a punch line. When the debate is more about convincing than being accurate, it can be helpful to show flaws in a position quickly. This is sometimes prepared in advance.

A: You're privileged. (flaw of the frame: relative logic brought to absolute conclusions)
B: I am, we certainly are all the privileged of someone.

Note also, that if you claim a title without shame, how can someone intend to shame you with it?

A: I am pro-life. (flaw of the frame: being implying here all life is valuable)
B: I am also pro-life, I support dozens of cockroach families by throwing away my food remains

The key why such techniques work is that meanings and connotations are completely flexible in human mind. A frame, being associated with ridiculous, will remain associated in the spectator mind. So this fits perfectly the point of showing their technique is pointless, and discourage further use of that particular frame.

  • Although the post is providing examples I'm dissatisfied at the low amount of scientific sourcing I provide. If anyone is willing to help me find more scientific sources to back my claims I would be very welcoming.
    – Arthur Hv
    Jan 8, 2021 at 7:58

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