further thoughts on kafkatraps

by Kevin Currie-Knight

____

I’ve written about Kafkatraps before, but there is so much more to say about these deceptively powerful rhetorical devices. In my previous article, I proposed a new way to think about Kafkatraps and what they do. Here, I want to think about how Kafkatraps are often used in groups that seek to maintain a monolithic consensus. If you’ve noticed – and I certainly have – these groups, whether they be cults, political tribes, or something else, often have Kafkatrapping built into their very structure. Why? What does the Kafkatrap device have to offer these groups? I think there are three very important answers to that question.

First, a brief refresher on what we mean by the term ‘Kafkatrap’.[1] A Kafkatrap is a statement – often an accusation against a person – where any retort or objection is interpreted as confirmation of the original statement. For the purposes of this article, I am going to broaden out what we mean by Kafkatrap to focus less on explicitly accusatory statements (“You’re guilty of implicit racism!”) and more on belief structures where some part of the belief structure preemptively implies that dissent is an indication of guilt (“Implicit racism exists, and denial that one is implicitly racist shows just how implicit the dissenter’s racism is”).

Here’s what I’ve noticed that is probably not surprising but is interesting enough to warrant further dissection: Groups that function as echo-chambers almost always have their own special methods of Kafkatrapping. The NXIVM cult treated objections as indications that the objector has “issues to work through” (“turning an issue back on its author” as mentioned in note 1). Qanon (and other right-wing factions) hold the “mainstream media” in high suspicion to the point where media reports that conflict with the group’s chosen narrative will indicate the untrustworthiness of the source and reinforce the need for the group’s preferred sources to “speak the truth.” In both cases, dissent just proves how lost (and in need of “our” help) the dissenter is.

We can probably see why this sort of Kafkatrap is so useful to groups that have an interest in maintaining easy consensus. My concern is to outline three specific benefits such Kafkatraps afford to such groups.

Kafkatraps provide a way for believers to preserve not only their belief, but their certainty.

This is probably the most obvious benefit that Kafkatraps confer on groups of believers united around a cherished belief. Yet, it may be worth pausing on why Kafkatraps confer this benefit. In one sense, it is because Kafkatraps render the cherished belief unfalsifiable (whether by intent or effect). Where a skeptic might (in the vein of Karl Popper) view this unfalsifiability as a concern or vulnerability of the cherished idea, the believer will likely take this unfalsifiability for granted, as a consequence of the correctness of the cherished belief.

Kafkatraps, though, confer this unfalsifiability in a particular way, by meeting all criticism with ad hominem responses, which amounts to a change of subject. If we think about it, the aforementioned term “turning an issue back on its author” is an entirely appropriate way to describe the Kafkatrap, which is a changing of the subject from the issue to the motives, intellectual estimation, or situation of the author (the dissenter or objector). You make a claim, I try and refute the claim, and the Kafkatrap you respond with will shift the matter from dealing with my objection to explaining my objection by focusing on something about me. It could be that my objection indicates to you that I have a pernicious motive (the devil made me do it?), or am somehow not capable of making a criticism (I am in denial about the truth or am otherwise incapable of seeing the truth that you see).[2]

This effectively means that believers can rest secure knowing that their belief is true and that any criticism of it indicates fault on the part of the objector. It also means that because actual objections never need to be confronted on their (rather than the speaker’s) merits, the belief becomes much easier to defend, as defense need never involve anything more intellectually heavy than speculating on the speaker’s deficiency. This change of subject means that the believer can approach all skepticism with the starting assumption that her cherished belief is right, and any argument to the contrary can be dismissed without having to deviate from this assumption.

Kafkatraps provide a way for believers to explain why what is obvious to them is not obvious to others.

From Qanon and the John Birch Society to Scientology andthe Teal Tribe (zealous followers of youtuber Teal Swan), echo-chamber groups tend to be as small as they are insular. This poses a potential problem for group members: how to explain why something they believe to be so compellingly true is not at all compelling (or true) to the larger population.

In an important way, cognition is social. We rely on those around us to give us cues about what we should believe or whether our existing beliefs need re-examining. This is arguably why echo-chambers are often so insular. Members have an (often unconscious) interest in surrounding themselves exclusively with others who confirm their existing beliefs. But at the same time, group members surely understand that they are (usually) part of a fairly small group. Indeed this is what gives members the often intoxicating “us versus the world” feeling.

Kafkatrapping is a good strategy for resolving this conflict: It isn’t that our beliefs are wrong, but that critics have some defect that prevent them from seeing what is so clearly true. As mentioned, Kaftatraps tend to be ad hominems, which conveniently provides believers a possible explanation as to why so few others see truths the believers find so compelling. Few people share the convictions of Scientologists, because the world is full of suppressive people who, either consciously or unconsciously, do not want the planet to “go clear.” The reason people the world over are not NXIVM devotees is because all but the clear-eyed few have been indoctrinated into a false set of values they cannot see beyond. (That NXIVM is not more successful is simply proof of how successful this indoctrination has been and how necessary NXIVM is.) The reason so few people are convinced by Qanon’s knowledge (and Q’s drops) is a combination of how successful the mainstream media has been at deflecting these truths, and the unwillingness of people (well, people who deny these truths) to look at the evidence.

When people believe in ways that put them in a noticeable minority relative to the population, this might cause a sort of humility: Maybe my beliefs in what is true might be worth a second look, or at least not be as obvious as I experience them. For true believers, however, the structure of a Kafkatrap offers a more convenient explanation: I am part of a cognitive/moral/epistemic elite that sees things clearly in a world full of dupes, shills, and duplicitous actors, whose criticisms of my beliefs are proof only of their flaws. 

Kafkatraps limit the in-group spread of criticisms.

 Echo-chamber groups are insular and depend on strong consensus regarding the group’s core beliefs. Thus, criticism of those beliefs from within a group poses a real threat to group solidarity. Several works have reviewed the evidence regarding effects of even one dissenter on group consensus, finding that a single dissenter can have an outsized effect on group consensus. Social psychologist Charlan Jean Nemeth summarizes this evidence:

Unanimity may be the most important variable affecting the majority’s power. Just one person challenging the consensus can break that power and increase our ability to think independently and resist moving to erroneous judgments.

In light of this, one can understand why groups fervently united around core ideas might seek quick and easy ways to mitigate the effects (and likelihood) of in-group criticism.

Kafkatraps provide an effective way to do this. Listening (even in a hostile way) to criticisms means, first, that one actually has to allow the criticism to be aired, but also that one has to entertain the possibility that the criticism has some level of merit. Yet, permitting either of these to occur runs the risk of allowing dissent to undermine the echo-chamber. (Of course, groups could also stop dissent by a direct policy of censorship, but this comes at the cost of making the group appear overtly authoritarian or even scared to face criticism).

The employment of Kafkatraps by the group or its members has two uses here. First, it allows criticism to be shut down quite quickly. There is no need to entertain the criticism or do anything short of dismissing it out of hand, as the criticism itself only indicates a shortcoming in the person voicing it and does so in a way that illustrates the soundness of the group’s existing belief. (“No need to listen to her criticism of the John Birch Society. She’s just a [covert or unwitting] communist and we already know why we shouldn’t listen to them. But this just goes to show why we need to be diligent in rooting out the omnipresent communist threat!”)

Secondly, though, if done right, these sorts of Kafkatraps can discourage believers from offering criticisms. The more believers come to believe that criticism of the group’s doctrine illustrates a flaw in the critic, the more they may grow to question themselves in the event that criticisms arise within their own minds. The more Teal Tribe members are told that criticisms of Teal indicate a lack of understanding about the true nature of reality (an understanding that only Teal Swan has), the more they will be tempted to question their right to criticize Teal’s doctrines. Am I unable to understand the doctrine I’m criticizing? What is my real motive for offering criticism of Teal? In this way, not only are criticisms dealt with quickly so as to minimize their potential effect on the group, but group members are subtly discouraged from trusting their own possible criticisms.

Notes

[1] I am sympathetically aware that several commenters on my previous article dislike the term Kafkatrap. The main reason, to which I am also sympathetic, is that it trivializes the complexities of the novel from which the term came: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. I will continue to use the term with these objections duly noted, primarily because ever since Eric Raymond coined the term in a 2010 blog post, it has been the term of choice when describing the phenomena I’m trying to describe. Nor can I think of a viable alternative term: the closest I’ve come is the term that former NXIVM members allegedly use to describe the technique used in NXIVM: “turning an issue back on its author,” (episode 2, 27:40) which purchases accuracy in description at the expense of brevity. I’d love to hear potential replacement terms, but until/unless I settle on one, I will continue using the term “Kafkatrap.”

[2] In her book-length treatment on the idea of being wrong, Kathryn Schwartz suggests that there are three assumptions believers make in the face of skepticism of the believer’s ideas: the “ignorance assumption” (the skeptic must not know the evidence), the “idiocy assumption” (the skeptic must not be smart enough to see the truth), and the “evil assumption” (the skeptic must have some motive for not wanting to admit the truth). This list is probably not exhaustive, but each of these assumptions can be employed in Kafkatraps, and each surely is a type of ad hominem argument.

11 comments

  1. Three cheers. In the 1970s Kafkatraps were called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” which some applied both to psychoanalysis (“Disagreement with me/us is resistance”) and Marxism (“Disagreement with me/us indicates your class position”). But you are right, the rhetorical response is a shift in the question to explaining the dissenter’s disagreement. Not noticing these shifts seems central to contemporary political culture.

  2. I’ve never heard of the term Kafkatrap though I’m well aware of the defensive ploys it represents but, I’ve always been amused by the sly question — Have you stopped beating your wife, and the ominous implications it entails.

    Great summary and timely in the age of Trump. Thank you.

    1. What’s interesting to me is that in intellectual circles at least, these Kafkatraps must be used in conjunction with some legitimate points to work, because otherwise the group members would have literally no semblance of academic integrity. But if they have just enough integrity to support their core beliefs (albeit confirmation bias style), then they can kafkatrap away the remaining criticism, further reinforcing the beliefs while also maintaining the sense that they are still, at core, academics/people who value truth seeking.

      So for theologians, there is some legitimacy to the argument that not all physicalist assumptions are justified, or that neuroscientists have yet to explain the hard problem of consciousness coherently. For the far left, there is some legitimacy to the argument that African Americans are treated unfairly by the police, or that members of the LGBTQ community are unfairly discriminated against.

      But in both cases instead of extending these arguments fairly (backing them up with new evidence, dealing honestly with criticism, etc.), the theologian and far leftist simply use kafkatraps. In other words, we get Deepak Chopras-esque reasoning instead of that of someone like Donald Hoffman (who challenges physicalism legitimately, whether you agree with him or not). It’s really quite an elaborate rhetorical game.

  3. Each morning I wake up, throw off the quilt and waving my little legs in the air attempt to get out of bed. A flutter of my rudimentary wings rights me and I am on the floor and moving to my row of footware that save me from the cold flagstones of my dungeon. ‘I am Gregor Samsa’ and the carapace of a beetle that is projected on to me by the opinion contrivers hides my reality as a conservative. I do not know who Q is or Teal. Is she a cousin of AOC? Is there a globalist conspiracy? No, merely a convergence of interests. Is the Far Left evil? Is the Near Leftist a moral imbecile? Yes and maybe. Can the latter be talked to? Yes, very slowly and images help. Musso on the balcony and Trump on the lawn. Can you tell the difference? A clue. Musso’s men in the 20‘s murdered up to 2000 and others they didn’t like they forced to drink cascara. Trump issued tweets. Do you get that?

    It can be done.

    1. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8ORZ_iwO3w&w=560&h=315%5D
      Do you get that?

      https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/us/politics/capitol-riot-police-officer-injuries.html

      Trump is not a conservative. Where are the arguments for small government and fiscal responsibility, and for foreign policy engaged with the world to enhance US interests and further US values? Where the effort to persuade us to personal responsibility, to hold that ‘character matters’ in representative government, where the insistence on the need to defend our shared values and provide opportunity for the greatest number of citizens, through a fair, self-managed market capitalism? Instead – “I wuz robbed!” Pity the poor Donald!

      Fascism is not a theory-bound, unified ideology. It is an attitude and a political style, with stylistic variations dependent on the national culture in which it develops. Mussolini was Italian in the 1920s, Trump American in the late 20th century, early 21st. Otherwise, the determination to end democratic representation and exalt ‘the Leader’ in a personality cult founded on idolatry of power and ‘strength’ (always more show than reality) remains the same.

      Your comment is itself evidence of the ‘kafkatrap’ thesis – the ‘Far Left’ is “evil” and the ‘Near Left’ “moral imbeciles” that “maybe” can be “talked to” (not with). Really, what makes you think that’s in any way persuasive? Or is that the point, not to be persuasive, but provocative? To draw ‘lines in the sand’ to see who salutes the flag of your tribal beliefs.

      That would not be the flag of the United States.

      1. Thanks E.J.

        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

        “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

        “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

      1. Kalfka’s Metamorphosis has been interpreted as a prevision of what was to come as a result of many years of Jews being characterised as vermin. Not that such a fate is about to happen to Conservatives but the application of their steady vilification in main stream media has had consequences. Consider the story in today’s Daily Nous but first savour the exquisite pearl clutching sniff from Weinberg:

        The article, “Once Upon a Presidency,” is an attempt to sympathetically convey the perspective of supporters of Donald Trump (including those who were at the January 6th attack on the Capitol), portraying the ignorance, question-begging, conspiracy-theorizing, hypocrisy, and anti-intellectualism common to Trumpism as reasonable or understandable. While absurd, it is at the same time actually a useful look at recent events through a mindset many readers of Daily Nous will find alien.

        Now the twerp students have a petition out seeking the professor’s resignation. To their credit the academics commenting on DN do not support them.

        My last point is that the calling of Trump a fascist and giving him the title Il Duce shows a vast ignorance of history. Five minutes of study can rectify that.

  4. K C-K,
    The ‘kafkatrap’ strikes me as a variant of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, although developed wildly out of proportion to the need to persuade argumentatively. In fact, it’s not about persuasion at all. Rather, as you extend your discussion here, it becomes almost a way of life – a semiotic regulatory system for thought and behavior. Considered in that light, of course, it becomes more difficult to deal with, since eventually discussion simply comes to an end and we all find our separate churches to sing our differing hymns in. And that didn’t go very well in the wars of the Reformation. Ultimately, perhaps the best we can hope for is a liberal state where different sects are allowed to believe what they will, as long as they follow the laws that allow others to do the same.

  5. “Kafkatraps, though, confer this unfalsifiability in a particular way, by meeting all criticism with ad hominem responses, which amounts to a change of subject. If we think about it, the aforementioned term “turning an issue back on its author” is an entirely appropriate way to describe the Kafkatrap, which is a changing of the subject from the issue to the motives, intellectual estimation, or situation of the author (the dissenter or objector).”

    I am glad this sort of fallacious argument has a label. It happens too often. “Ad hominem” covers it but that term is so broad I think people might not consider this sort of use. I think all sorts of discussions in religion, philosophy, and politics, all suffer from this sort of fallacy. Way too much time and space is taken up arguing about whether authors have good motives rather than just dealing with the arguments and evidence. It shouldn’t matter who made the argument or reported the event. Is the argument sound? And did the event actually happen?

Comments are closed.