“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested."
In The Trial by Franz Kafka, Josef K, an officer of a prestigious bank is accused of a crime, the nature of which he is never told. His attempts to learn the nature of his offense lead only to confusion and strife. He must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. The book is an attack on totalitarianism and the cruelty of mindless, unaccountable bureaucracies grinding down individuals that become ensnared in them. The Trial was written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka's death.
The term Kafka trap is a reference to Kafka's novel, although the definition doesn't line up with the plot of the book. In The Trial, Josef K. is never told what he is accused of while a Kafka trap is a method of arguing in which a condition is affirmed through the accused's denial. The target of a Kafka trap knows exactly what the accusation is. It's just that their denial will never be accepted as valid. That can lead to the same grinding down of individuals who have unfair accusations leveled against them. Their accusers are like the mindless, corrupt bureaucrats in The Trial who have little interest in truth. They lump together people who genuinely are not guilty of an offense with people who are. This is an example of a Kafka trap:
Police Officer: You robbed the convenience store.
Suspect: No, I didn't.
Police Officer: Obviously the robber would deny committing the robbery.
If the accused is indeed the robber, one would reasonably expect them to deny it. However, if the accused is not the robber, one would reasonably expect them to deny it as well.
If the accused accepts the accusation leveled against them, that is evidence of guilt. But if the accused denies the accusation leveled against them, that is also evidence of guilt. The accusation is essentially unfalsifiable and almost impossible to defend against. This is a key aspect of conspiracy theories as well, where denial is seen as evidence of truth.
So-called Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) are often accused of setting Kafka traps when they make accusations of racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia. Because of this, the Kafka trap is sometimes called the SJW trap. According to Ibram Kendi:
"I don't think people realize when they self-identify as 'not racist,' they're essentially identifying in the same way as white supremacists."
In reality, white supremacists often have no problem identifying as racist and are often proud of it. But Kendi's claim is a perfect example of a Kafka trap and shows how these rhetorical devices are used to tar someone as something regardless of what a person actually believes. While the use of Kafka traps is often closely associated with the woke movement, they are used by those on the right as well.
And for those on the right, using the term may not be the best way to defend against a false accusation. The term Kafka trap was coined by software developer Eric Raymond who has many controversial beliefs. In 2015, he accused women in tech groups of attempting to entrap male open-source leaders and accuse them of rape. He also blamed AIDS on the "unfettered promiscuity" by gay people.
© 2021 LT Wright