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.” 
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.
 My essay on NXIVM