Kafkatraps

Kafkatraps

Given the recent bannings and takedowns, I've decided to archive two of Eric Raymonds essays here that I found particularly useful. The first of these is on Kafkatraps - the construct where anything you say and do, even defending yourself, is taken as proof of your guilt.


Good causes sometimes have bad consequences. Blacks, women, and other historical out-groups were right to demand equality before the law and the full respect and liberties due to any member of our civilization; but the tactics they used to “raise consciousness” have sometimes veered into the creepy and pathological, borrowing the least sane features of religious evangelism.

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name. I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap. In this essay, I will show that the kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. I will also attempt to show that kafkatrapping is so self-destructive to the causes that employ it that change activists should root it out of their own speech and thoughts.

My reference, of course, is to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, in which the protagonist Josef K. is accused of crimes the nature of which are never actually specified, and enmeshed in a process designed to degrade, humiliate, and destroy him whether or not he has in fact committed any crime at all. The only way out of the trap is for him to acquiesce in his own destruction; indeed, forcing him to that point of acquiescence and the collapse of his will to live as a free human being seems to be the only point of the process, if it has one at all.

This is almost exactly the way the kafkatrap operates in religious and political argument. Real crimes – actual transgressions against flesh-and-blood individuals – are generally not specified. The aim of the kafkatrap is to produce a kind of free-floating guilt in the subject, a conviction of sinfulness that can be manipulated by the operator to make the subject say and do things that are convenient to the operator’s personal, political, or religious goals. Ideally, the subject will then internalize these demands, and then become complicit in the kafkatrapping of others.

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Sometimes the kafkatrap is presented in less direct forms. A common variant, which I’ll call the Model C, is to assert something like this: “Even if you do not feel yourself to be guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}, you are guilty because you have benefited from the {sinful,racist,sexist,homophobic,oppressive,…} behavior of others in the system.” The aim of the Model C is to induce the subject to self-condemnation not on the basis of anything the individual subject has actually done, but on the basis of choices by others which the subject typically had no power to affect. The subject must at all costs be prevented from noticing that it is not ultimately possible to be responsible for the behavior of other free human beings.

A close variant of the model C is the model P: “Even if you do not feel yourself to be guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}, you are guilty because you have a privileged position in the {sinful,racist,sexist,homophobic,oppressive,…} system.” For the model P to work, the subject must be prevented from noticing that the demand to self-condemn is not based on the subject’s own actions or choices or feelings, but rather on an in-group identification ascribed by the operator of the kafkatrap.

It is essential to the operation of all three of the variants of the kafkatrap so far described that the subject’s attention be deflected away from the fact that no wrongdoing by the subject, about which the subject need feel personally guilty, has actually been specified. The kafkatrapper’s objective is to hook into chronic self-doubt in the subject and inflate it, in much the same way an emotional abuser convinces a victim that the abuse is deserved – in fact, the mechanism is identical. Thus kafkatrapping tends to work best on weak and emotionally vulnerable personalities, and poorly on personalities with a strong internalized ethos.

In addition, the success of a model P kafkatrap depends on the subject not realizing that the group ascription pinned on by the operator can be rejected. The subject must be prevented from asserting his or her individuality and individual agency; better, the subject must be convinced that asserting individuality is yet another demonstration of denial and guilt. Need it be pointed out how ironic this is, given that kafkatrappers (other than old-fashioned religious authoritarians) generally claim to be against group stereotyping?

There are, of course, other variants. Consider the model S: “Skepticism about any particular anecdotal account of {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression,…}, or any attempt to deny that the particular anecdote implies a systemic problem in which you are one of the guilty parties, is itself sufficient to establish your guilt.” Again, the common theme here is that questioning the discourse that condemns you, condemns you. This variant differs from the model A and model P in that a specific crime against an actual person usually is in fact alleged. The operator of the kafkatrap relies on the subject’s emotional revulsion against the crime to sweep away all questions of representativeness and the basic fact that the subject didn’t do it.

I’ll finish my catalog of variants with the verson of the kafkatrap that I think is most likely to be deployed against this essay, the Model L: “Your insistence on applying rational skepticism in evaluating assertions of pervasive {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia, oppression…} itself demonstrates that you are {sinful,racist,sexist,homophobic,oppressive,…}.” This sounds much like the Model S, except that we are back in the territory of unspecified crime here. This version is not intended to induce guilt so much as it is to serve as a flank guard for other forms of kafkatrapping. By insisting that skepticism is evidence of an intention to cover up or excuse thoughtcrime, kafkatrappers protect themselves from having their methods or motives questioned and can get on with the serious business of eradicating thoughtcrime.

Having shown how manipulative and psychologically abusive the kafkatrap is, it may seem almost superfluous to observe that it is logically fallacious as well. The particular species of fallacy is sometimes called “panchreston”, an argument from which anything can be deduced because it is not falsifiable. Notably, if the model A kafkatrap is true, the world is divided into two kinds of people: (a) those who admit they are guilty of thoughtcrime, and (b) those who are guilty of thoughtcrime because they will not admit to being guilty of thoughtcrime.  No one can ever be innocent. The subject must be prevented from noticing that this logic convicts and impeaches the operator of the kafkatrap!

I hope it is clear by now that the particular flavor of thoughtcrime alleged is irrelevant to understanding the operation of kafkatraps and how to avoid being abused and manipulated by kafkatrappers. In times past the kafkatrapper was usually a religious zealot; today, he or she is just as likely to be advancing an ideology of racial, gender, sexual-minority, or economic grievance. Whatever your opinion of any of these causes in their ‘pure’ forms may be, there are reasons that the employment of kafkatrapping is a sure sign of corruption.

The practice of kafkatrapping corrupts causes in many ways, some obvious and some more subtle. The most obvious way is that abusive and manipulative ways of controlling people tend to hollow out the causes for which they are employed, smothering whatever worthy goals they may have begun with and reducing them to vehicles for the attainment of power and privilege over others.

A subtler form of corruption is that those who use kafkatraps in order to manipulate others are prone to fall into them themselves. Becoming unable to see out of the traps, their ability to communicate with and engage anyone who has not fallen in becomes progressively more damaged. At the extreme, such causes frequently become epistemically closed, with a jargon and discourse so tightly wrapped around the logical fallacies in the kafkatraps that their doctrine is largely unintelligible to outsiders.

These are both good reasons for change activists to consider kafkatraps a dangerous pathology that they should root out of their own causes. But the best reason remains that kafkatrapping is wrong. Especially, damningly wrong for anyone who claims to be operating in the cause of freedom.

UPDATE: A commenter pointed out the Model D: “The act of demanding a definition of {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression} that can be consequentially checked and falsified proves you are {sinful,racist,sexist, homophobic, oppressive}.”

UPDATE2: The Model M: “The act of arguing against the theory of anti-{sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression} demonstrates that you are either {sinful,racist,sexist, homophobic, oppressive} or do not understand the theory of anti-{sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression}, and your argument can therefore be dismissed as either corrupt or incompetent.”

Model T: Designated victims of {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression} who question any part of the theory of {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression} demonstrate by doing so that they are not authentic members of the victim class, so their experience can be discounted and their thoughts dismissed as internalized {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression}.