The KafkaTrap

by Kevin Currie-Knight


In 2010, author and computer programmer Eric Raymond coined the term “kafkatrap.” It was his attempt to characterize a nasty style of argument that seemed to rely on a certain trick. Someone is alleged to be guilty of something in a way that anything short of acknowledgement by the other is proof of guilt. For example: “You are a communist, and if you say you aren’t, that’s just what we’d expect a communist to say!”

In that now well-circulated blog post, Raymond goes over several forms a kafkatrap can take. (The name “kafkatrap” alludes to Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, where the protagonist is accused by the state of a vague crime, and every defense is treated as proof of guilt.) Sometimes, Raymond writes, the trap is that the charge is impossibly vague. On other occasions, it may be that any denial is interpreted as a cover for one’s guilt. In the case of Josef K. in The Trial, of course, it is both.

I want to propose that we distinguish between two further types of kafkatraps: where the determination of guilt (even after the charged person rebuts) is meant to convince onlookers or authorities; and where the determination of guilt (again, even after the charged person rebuts) is meant to convince the person charged as much as any onlookers or authorities.

In the first case, I might charge you with being a communist. You know very well that you are not a communist – you might even be a Republican! – so you offer a rebuttal: “I love market capitalism, and I oppose government intervention into the economy!” But to that, I reply: “You are saying that precisely because you don’t want to be exposed as the communist you so clearly are! See how he lies?”

My response is not meant to convince you that you are guilty and likely won’t. You know that you are not a communist. Instead, my intent is to persuade others – onlookers or authority figures – that you are a communist.

And this type of kafkatrap is arguably the most consistent with Kafka’s novel The Trial. There, Josef K. is arrested for a crime – he never finds out what which one – and he never seems to become convinced of his own guilt. Despite the state’s apparent conviction that K. is guilty, he fights this unknown charge the entire way through the novel as best he can with the scant tools available to him. Nor does the state seem terribly interested in convincing him of his own guilt. Though at times there are nods to the “well, if they charged you, you must be guilty” variety, they are never presented in a way designed to convince K.

There is, however, another type of kafkatrap, this one arguably a bit more pernicious because the accuser’s attempt is to persuade not just the onlookers or authority figures, but the accused herself. Suppose I charge you with being a communist. You answer back that you are not a communist and give all the reasons you gave in the previous example. My response to you this time, however, is different: “Well, you might not think you are a communist. But you are one. Communists, you see, are great at brainwashing people, and since you live in a culture that is so steeped in communist ideas, you can’t help but imbibe those. You may not think you’ve done so, but you have!”

In fact, anyone who has read J. Edgar Hoover’s 1958 book Masters of Deceit, in which he tried to convince readers that communists are everywhere, will notice that this is precisely the type of thing he does. Readers learn that while there are communists who realize that they are, in fact, communists, there are other people who imbibe and agitate for communist ideas who don’t even realize that they are communists. You, dear reader, might even be one of them! He calls these not-aware-they-are-communist communists “dupes.”

The final area is that of the dupe, or innocent victim, the individual who unknowingly is under communist thought control and does the work of the Party. A tragedy of the past generation in the United States is that so many persons, including high-ranking statesmen, public officials, educators, ministers of the gospel, professional men, have been duped into helping communism. Communist leaders have proclaimed that communism must be partly built with noncommunist hands, and this, to a large extent, is true.

Armed with that information, I can concoct a story, informing you of your nascent communism. And if my bar is low enough (as Hoover’s was) and my story well-crafted enough, I might be able to pull off the ultimate kafkatrap: not only will I convince onlookers to our exchange that you are a communist, but I might convince you also.

I mention this distinction between types of kafkatraps, because they seem on some level to have different purposes and uses. The first type, where my goal is to convince onlookers of your guilt, has the use of maintaining a certain kind of social control. If I want people to disassociate with you online, I can accuse you of something. Whether you yourself become convinced of your guilt isn’t of particular concern to me because I don’t want to reform you, only to influence how others think of and behave towards you.

The second sort of kafkatrap is used when I want to control how you think about yourself; when I want to change you as much as control you. For example, I might call you out online for something, because I want you to realize the error of your ways. Upon telling me that you haven’t realized the error of your ways, I conclude that you must suffer some defect that prevents you from seeing it. After all, the error of your ways is so clear, so obvious that the only way you could deny it is that there is something preventing you from seeing it. That it is, in fact, quite deniable is an explanation I cannot or will not entertain.

This is why this type of kafkatrap is seen so much in cults and totalizing thought groups. The goal there is less to control bodies than to control minds. Take Scientology as an example. Within Scientology, anyone who criticizes the Scientological methods is called a Suppressive Person (SP), and they are SP’s because they are controlled too much by the bad part of their mind (their reactive mind). The catch is that these people might not know that they are SP’s, because the reactive mind likes to play tricks. They probably feel like normal people. Thus, when a Scientologist accuses someone of being an SP and is met with a denial, the denial is used as a reason the person is not seeing clearly. If it doesn’t work, it’s because the person is too far gone and needs more help. If the person does see it, even better, because acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step toward getting more help of the kind Scientology is offering. It is the ultimate kafkatrap.

Another instructive example comes from Alexandra Stein’s memoir Inside Out, where she recounts her experiences in a Maoist-inspired political cult called “O.” After taking an “ideological assessment” she was accused of retaining strong bourgeois elements in her thinking, one of the worst flaws one could have inside the group. Here is how another O member responds to her incredulity at the diagnosis:

It’s a normal reaction for people to get angry when they get their assessment. In fact, it’s predictable. After all, you have a lot of value tied up in your bourgeois side, and until you have an opportunity to develop your proletarian side it’s very threatening to give up that value. But with struggle, you will be able to identify how your P[rincipal] I[nternal] C[ontradiction] operates and how it holds back development.

The goal of a response like this is to get the accused to doubt herself. After all, in cults, a person who believes they are treated badly may leave the organization. It is only when the accused comes to believe the charges against her that she is likely to take the accusation as an opportunity to stay in the group and receive its help.

In a final example, we can see how the architecture required for this type of kafkatrap is set up, in a way that opens the possibility of its future employment. Here is Sarah Edmondson recalling something she learned at an early NXIVM “intensive” training: “[N]one of my values were real but were only important to me in covering up my inability to really know or love myself.” [1]

Here, we see the architecture that is required for this type of kafkatrap. The person who might be accused must have some plausible (to them) reason to think that they are not in the best position to know the truth about themselves, and preferably that those who would accuse them are in that best position. If Edmondson is later critical or reluctant about a NXIVM teaching, she can be accused of clinging to false values that she acquired outside of NXIVM. If she denies the charge, she can be told (or remind herself) that old, untrue values die hard and one often can’t see one’s errors for reasons of self-protection.

Kafkatraps are frustrating, either by design or by effect. Eric Raymond did us a service by coining the term and articulating the structure of kafkatraps. In what I’ve written above, I do not take particular issue with Raymond’s analysis, but simply have tried to add to it.


[1] My essay on NXIVM

Self-Knowledge, Self-Alienation, and the Curious Case of NXIVM


20 responses to “The KafkaTrap”

  1. Charles Justice

    George Orwell covered some of this ground in “Animal Farm”. Also, recall Plato’s Parable of the Cave. It’s an intellectual set-up, with the imagery designed to make the “Guru” look like he is divinely inspired and infallible, and the disciple as ignorant and living in darkness. The Guru’s ideas are “clear and distinct”, while the disciple’s ideas are but “shadows” and faulty pictures of reality. The Guru’s ideas are initially hard to understand, but that’s because the truth is so powerful and illuminating that it can temporarily disorient and blind you. It’s a brilliant parable – literally. It’s really all about trust: we only fall for these traps if we mistrust our own judgement and slavishly follow someone else’s.

  2. Kevin C-K:

    Your insistence that you are not a communist though no one has accused you of being one is interesting. Do you feel that this might happen some time in the future? At present your denial is perfectly plausible and we would assure you that you have nothing to fear as an innocent man. Nevertheless in these cases it is a formal matter to clear your name, for the record, so we would like you to drop in to our office at your earliest convenience.

  3. Animal Symbolicum

    Is there a reason you didn’t cite Robin DiAngelo’s schtick as an example? Do you not think it’s a good illustration?

    DiAngelo’s corporate seminars are certainly meant to convince the accused of his or her racism. (I suspect it’s not really meant to convince onlookers of the racism of the accused so much as meant to convince onlookers that the accused recognizes his or her racism.) And any reaction by a white person to being charged in a corporate seminar with irredeemable racism by a white woman is taken as evidence — indeed, constitutes the only evidence — of white fragility, and thus of racism.

  4. The trouble of course is that there are any number of occasions — plentiful — where it is true that denial is an expression of guilt. Indeed, there is a common expression that speaks to this: “The lady doth protest too much.” Equally common are occasions on which a person is bound by unconscious and subconscious ideas, commitments, etc., such that a denial should not be accepted on face value. Indeed, the cry of “kafkatrap” itself is likely such an expression in certain cases. If I heard James Lindsay using it, for example, I’d be suspicious.

    The trouble, then, is not kafkatraps, but rather, determining when a person’s denials are (a) in good faith and (b) not a function of unconscious or subconscious ideas, biases, etc. I agree that this can be tricky and also that it can be abused. But that doesn’t make it a “trap.”

    Also, I really dislike the name. It strikes me as ultimately relying upon a misreading — or at best, a grotesquely shallow reading — of The Trial, which is one of the great, most profound literary works of the last century and has layers of significance, most of which go well beyond “Guy accused of crime and never being told what it is.” [I taught Kafka in advanced philosophy of literature seminars for years and would be happy to discuss why “kafkatrap” represents a vulgarization of what Kafka was trying to do.]

  5. I disliked that name “kafkatrap” too. It’s 40 yrs since I read The Trial – my memory of it may be fading – but I didn’t recognize The Trial in the description of a kafkatrap.

    “The trouble, then, is not kafkatraps, but rather, determining when a person’s denials are (a) in good faith and (b) not a function of unconscious or subconscious ideas, biases, etc. I agree that this can be tricky and also that it can be abused. But that doesn’t make it a “trap.” “

    The point is, I think, that the burden of proof is displaced in a kafkatrap. That’s the trap. If somebody accuses me of being unconsciously biased, he may well be right. But it’s not my job to prove I’m not. He has to give convincing, rational arguments.

    A second characteristic of a kafkatrap seems to be that the crime I’m accused of is based on concepts that are so flexible and vague that it’s impossible for me to defend myself. Whatever I say only is proof that the accuser is right. Indeed, the mere fact that I defend myself is proof that I’m guilty.

    In my philosophical naivete I blame Freud for the modern use of this tactic. In a very nice analysis a Dutch academic once made of a Freud paper, he points out that the Freudean concept of “latent homosexuality” is so vague that it’s impossible to deny that one is a latent homosexual.

    The thing is: although Freud clearly was a quack in the scientific sense (where I live he’s mainly a footnote in the history of medicine and psychology) he had a nice career in part of the humanities; perhaps because his concepts etc. are so flexible that you can apply them to everything, always resulting in a paper that has some academic prestige.

    I’m not surprised that through the inevitable process of vulgarization (see also: Vulgärmarxismus, postmodernism for the plebs etc.) this tactic has become commonplace.

  6. I would not blame Freud for all the misuse to which his ideas have been put. And they are not just his ideas, but ideas going back to Nietzsche, Marx and others.

    I would think the existence of unconscious and subconscious thoughts, ideas, etc., is beyond disputing at this point and will often be crucial in understanding a person’s behavior and in deciding how one should assess it.

  7. s. wallerstein

    Why call Freud “a quack”? A quick look at the definition informs me that “quack” has the connotation of someone who fraudulently or dishonestly practices medicine. Freud honestly believed that his discoveries were scientific.

    Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom (Yale courses available online) says more or less what Dan says here, that although many of the details of Freud’s theories are no longer accepted by contemporary psychologists, his investigation of unconscious mental processes was pioneering and is valued by psychologists today.

  8. Massimo is contemptuously dismissive of Freud and I always found it quite irritating and unscientific.

  9. “Unscientific” is of course a delicate concept when discussing Freud. It’s not always clear if he knew himself what science is. An interesting example is the paper he published in januari 1885 about the effect of cocaine on muscular strength. He was 29 then, not young and inexperienced anymore.

    The paper describes an experiment that shows cocaine makes the muscles of the hand stronger.

    However, Freud only reports results of experiments he did on himself. That’s highly unscientific, for obvious reasons of objectivity. He seems to be aware of the problem, because he writes:

    “I had to proceed in this manner for reasons beyond my control and because none of the subjects at my disposal had such regular reactions to cocaine.”

    Read that last sentence a few times. It’s remarkable. Freud admits here more or less that he picked himself as the experimental subject because other subjects didn’t give the desired result. But it gets even worse. How did Freud know that “none of the subjects at his disposal” had regular reactions to cocaine when he proceeded “in this manner”?

    Did he repeat the experiment on other subjects or not? If he did, but only reported the results he got for himself, the paper is nonsense (and even fraudulent). If he only did the experiment on himself, the paper is nonsense too and Freud is a liar (contrary to what he suggests, he could not have known how regular the reactions of other subjects were).

    I’m not going to wage the Freud wars again; they’re over. Maybe there’s another Freud – not the scientist but the philosopher, the observer of la condition humaine etc. – who still is valuable and interesting. But if you want to know if a theory is scientific, Freud is the last person to ask.

    Is Freud responsible for the misuse of his theories? I don’t think there is misuse. If I set a kafkatrap and claim you’re “subconsciously bourgeois” or whatever, I’m probably not using Freud’s theories, so there is no misuse. And if my concept of “subconscious bourgeois” is so vague that I’m always right, I’m not misusing Freud’s theories either. Quite the opposite: I’m doing exactly what Freud did. The “immunization strategies” in his theories that make them invulnerable for rational debate are well-documented by now.

  10. Freud was a neurologist.

    Obviously we disagree on this, as I did with Massimo. There isn’t much point in debating it, though, as it has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Jonathan Lear’s book on Freud is excellent and explains a lot of Freud’s enduring significance/relevance.

    As I indicated in my comment before, the issue is not kafkatraps. The issue is how to tell when a person’s denials are (a) in good faith and (b) not a function of unconscious or subconscious ideas, biases, etc. The frequency of situations where the latter is the case is quite high. And the frequency of situations where the former is the case are just as high.

  11. kevinck

    “The point is, I think, that the burden of proof is displaced in a kafkatrap. That’s the trap. If somebody accuses me of being unconsciously biased, he may well be right. But it’s not my job to prove I’m not.”

    I disagree. I think a Kafkatrap goes farther than this. I accuse you of x. You say you are not x, and I clearly force onto you the burden of proving you are not x. That is not the extent of what we generally call kafkatraps. Rather, it is the further step of finding some explanatory framework whereby I can interpret any refutation you offer as proof of my point. THAT is the element where shifting the burden of proof traipses into the Kafkatrap.

    And I do think that this explanation parallels Kafka’s The Trial. Here is a particularly pertinent quote from one of the characters talking to K. “but stop making that mistake, don’t be so stubborn; you can’t defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess. Confess the first chance you get. That’s the only chance you have to escape, the only one.” So, it isn’t that the court shifts the burden of proof, but that according to those in the book who have experience in the courts, the only acceptable move to the court is to confess.

    “In imy philosophical naivete I blame Freud for the modern use of this tactic.”

    There is an interesting book by Paul Ricoeur called Freud and Philosophy where he attributes to Freud, but also Nietzsch and Max, the introduction of “the hermeneutics of the self.” (If you read my article on NXIVM, you’ll see it referenced there.) Yes, Freud and those two others arguably introduced the idea that there is what a person introspects about their experience and there is what is REALLY going on, where the two can be entirely different. As Dan said elsewhere, this move can e legitimate (an alcoholic isn’t always able to introspect that they are alcoholic; a depressed person may make sense of what is going on in a very different way). BUT, introducing the idea of a rift between one’s introspective power and what is REALLY going on does introduce the idea that whatever you say about yourself may just be that you don’t really know yourself well enough.

  12. kevinck

    “The trouble, then, is not kafkatraps, but rather, determining when a person’s denials are (a) in good faith and (b) not a function of unconscious or subconscious ideas, biases, etc. I agree that this can be tricky and also that it can be abused. But that doesn’t make it a “trap.””

    It doesn’t MAKE it a trap, but it lays all the conditions for a trap situltaon. As I say, this is why just about every cult and totalizing thought group I’ve looked into uses this structure somewhere in its arsenal.

    What I want to say to readers is something like this: IF you find yourself in this sort of situation, realize that nothing you say to the other short of ‘confession’ will be acceptable and reconcile yourself with the fact that you will not change their minds. After that, do your best not to care about their judgment.

    “Also, I really dislike the name. It strikes me as ultimately relying upon a misreading — or at best, a grotesquely shallow reading — of The Trial, which is one of the great, most profound literary works of the last century and has layers of significance, most of which go well beyond “Guy accused of crime and never being told what it is.””

    I mean, I was trying to write a short article and the quoted passage of mine is admittedly a short summary of the work. But I, too, am not at all married to the idea that we call this type of setup a Kafkatrap, as my own reading of The Trial tells me that that title isn’t an easy fit. To be honest, my preferred name for the latter type of trap I mention is simply “gaslighting.” But for reasons I can’t understand, no one else seems to make that connection. So, I go with Raymond’s term, which seems to be the one that people are using.

  13. kevinck

    My general sense (Via folks like Frederick Crews) is that Freud is regarded as “a quack” for two reasons taken together:

    (a) just about everything he said about humans and their mental workings has been shown not only to be wrong but in a you’d-know-it-if-you-did-any-empirical-work-literally-at-all sort of way.

    (b) when we look at his career, we see wild speculation based on little more than Freud’s creative construction of narratives followed by doing everything possible to explain every result by cramming it (even distorting it in the process) into theories he already decided were correct.

  14. kevinck

    ” The issue is how to tell when a person’s denials are (a) in good faith and (b) not a function of unconscious or subconscious ideas, biases, etc.”

    The problem, as I see it, is that there is no good way to tell. As long as we hold the possibility that people can both be mistaken about their introspective sense and lie about their motives, it will always be possible for those who are suspicious of our accounts of ourselves to interpret denials as either mistaken or fallacious. I see no good way out of that, and I think it may just be part of humans’ predicament of navigating the world with incomplete information where our theory always has to outstrip available evidence.

  15. The irony of Kafka’s great comic novel, The Trial, is of course that K. *’knows’* that he is guilty. It doesn’t matter what the charge. He himself passes judgment, telling us what he is guilty of: “‘Like a dog!’ It was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” As per usual in Kafka’s universe, the judgment comes after execution of sentence.

    My Jewish friends and I used to jokingly debate which was more emotionally all-consuming, Jewish guilt or (Irish) Catholic guilt. Catholic guilt is occasionally more intense because more focused on sexuality. But, after all, sexual urges come and go, whereas Jewish guilt is everywhere at all times. (Phillip Roth tried focusing Jewish guilt on sexuality in Portnoy’s Complaint, with, I think, mixed results.) Woody Allen now in the twilight of his days, the grand master artists of Jewish guilt are the Coen Brothers. (See, esp.: A Serious Man.)

    For Kafka, the “kafkatrap” is life itself. Just grabbing a quote off the internet: “It would have been so pointless to kill himself that, even if he had wanted to, the pointlessness would have made him unable.” Who cannot find the humor in that?

    I think Dan’s reading here is mostly correct, but doesn’t address the purely logico-rhetorical aspect I think Kevin tries to reach towards: In courts there is a kind of question so obviously jiggered, most judges bar it without waiting for objection, the classic form of which is: “Answer yes or no: have you stopped beating your wife?” Either answer is incriminating, lacking further explanation. “Are you or have you ever been a communist?” – this seems to have a more complex structure, but it is indeed intended to preclude any attempt at explanation. Simply saying “no” doesn’t actually answer the question, because the term of denial (“communist”) remains undefined, and can be expanded in ways to incriminate the respondent. (‘Isn’t this your name on the library loan records indicating you once read Das Kapital?’ – Expanded definition of “communist” = anyone who reads Marx.)

    One of the problems here is that many terms of socio-political disapprobation have been long over-used and thus emptied of precise reference. I have spent a number of articles and coments here trying to make the case that Trump is a fascist (or, at least allow, fascistic), referencing Mussolini and other obvious, historically recognized fascist demagogues and dictators. But I’ve made such an effort because the term was largely vacated by New Left agitators and pundits back in the ’60s. “Communist” is now equally vacuous a signifier. It used to refer specifically to certain interpretations of Marxist socialism, especially that politically enacted in certain countries (the dominant interpretation in these being Stalinism). But this is now largely forgotten. Now it just means “Not ‘true’ American.” Even “socialism,” with widely variant histories of interpretation and application, has been emptied by pundits and demagogues on the right. It thus becomes impossible to have reasonable, cogent public discussion of possible economic policies for the future. (‘Allowing insurance to pay for birth control or abortion? Socialism!’)

    Finally, I’ll stick my oar into the Freud discussion, briefly: Freud is pertinent here partly because of the language of “resistance” he engendered and which psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic culture theories, developed to sweep aside or appropriate competing explanations for everything from personal denials of Oedipal complexes to collective denials of misogyny for certain social institutions. A dreadful, historic misstep, to be sure. However, Freudians have paid for it dearly, as this language began getting debunked thoroughly in the ’80s (see for instance, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus), leaving the Freudian camp dis-empowered, except as historical reference point.

    But it is wrong to deny the power of this historical reference point. Freud tried to enact the so-called ‘scientific method; in his studies, well-aware that he was trying to do so with a subject matter – the processes of human thought – that only have behavior and speech as empirical signifiers. He did what he could with what he had; and though he over-reached by quite a lot, he also along the way provided fascinating insights into the darker regions of human thought, often despite the prevailing socio-cultural biases of his time.

  16. I agree that Freud got lots wrong. But perhaps that’s because he was starting a new field of study.

    By comparison, Priestley is one of the people who started the new field of chemistry. He is known for his work on phlogiston. These days, phlogiston is often the laughing stock science. Yet Priestley still deserves credit for his work.

  17. s. wallerstein

    Here’s the Paul Bloom (Yale courses) lecture on Freud.

    The first half is an outline of Freud’s theories and at about minute 33 he begins to evaulate and criticize them.

    As Freud’s many critics point out, Freud isn’t very scientific and Bloom notes that.

    However, Bloom first of all points out the myriad ways that contemporary psychology uses the concept of unconscious mental processes, which Freud was one of the first (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche too) to explore. In addition, Bloom notes that we often don’t realize how much we owe to Freud because much of what Freud discovered is now part of our educated common sense, for example, the concepts of defense mechanisms, of projection, of displacement, of sublimation, of latent homosexuality and so much more.

    Bloom also says that Freud, for some reasons which I’ll not go into here to avoid unnecessary conflicts, seems to awaken intense rejection.

  18. kevinck

    “Either answer is incriminating, lacking further explanation. “Are you or have you ever been a communist?” – this seems to have a more complex structure, but it is indeed intended to preclude any attempt at explanation.”

    I’ll even go a step further on that. There are accusations – are you a member of the communist party? Are you racist (in a Robin DiAngelo sense) where the appropriate response – the only real appropriate response – is something like this: “If you have to ask, you already have an opinion of me as either duplicitious or untrustworthy in reporting on my experinece. So, whatever I answer, you will not change you mind. Therefore, I think no answer is necessary and will give you no answer. You will think what you want, but you were going to anyway.”

  19. Yes, but that is precisely why talk of it as being a “Trap” is not useful. That some people can illegitimately use a common, legitimate thing in an illegitimate way is not properly described as a “trap.” After all, it’s true of everything, which would make everything a “trap.”

  20. Daniel Tippens

    Hey Kevin, I think I made the connection to gaslighting which I wrote about here: