A reader brought to my attention that the term Kafkatrap was actually coined in 2010 and not the decades ago I had assume. Here is the link to that blog post.
If you’ve never heard of Franz Kafka, that’s fine, but you should change that. He lived from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and wow did he write some incredible stories.
I’m not a fan of fiction. I read every nonfiction book my library had to offer when I was in grade school (lots of drama when I ran out of books and cried), but Kafka’s work is a special kind of fiction. It’s the kind that isn’t real but you know what it’s referring to, and the visceral feeling it gives you for something that’s hard to express is profound.
He wrote a lot about the law and beurocracy. Go check out the short parable “Before the Law” which is public domain at this point. It’s three pages of justice system critique I think would put Michael Barbaro to shame. The topic of this article comes from his story “The Trial”.
What’s a Kafkatrap?
A Kafkatrap is one of the dumbest, most frustrating things you will run into in an argument. It stems from describing corrupt indictments and evidence, but distilled it is a rhetorical device in which the denial of an accusation against someone is evidence thereof.
This is best shown by an example.
Let’s say my aunt drops off some cookies at our house. My brother and I are munching on those sweet, round niblets until there is one left. We leave the room, and at some point he yells for me to come to the kitchen. I show up, and he accuses me of eating the last cookie. We should have shared it. I say I did not, to which he replies, “That’s exactly what a cookie snatcher would say!”
That’s exactly what a _______ would do!
You are now locked in an unwinnable argument. If you say you ate the cookie, you just confessed to being a cookie snatcher. If you consider to say you did not eat the cookie, now you’re a lying cookie snatcher. It’s nonsense that can be so fervently held by flustered folks or powerful police.
This can take on many other forms, but that’s the gist. Denial = evidence. See if you can spot it in dumb arguments you get into.
What Do You Do When You’re In a Kafkatrap?
Leave. Stop. Call it out.
You don’t win in a Kafkatrap unless it’s so petty that leaving is benign or the person has some shred of rationality left in them so as to understand you pointing out the fallacy. Usually the kind of person who pulls them out isn’t very rational. If this is your spouse, good luck.
When this becomes particularly scary is when it’s used by those in power. There’s a reason why it’s better to say nothing to police than that you didn’t do anything. This YouTube video from Regent University explains just how ridiculous this is. The Fifth Amendment states that no one can be compelled to be a witness against themselves, but that doesn’t mean you don’t accidentally do it yourself, compulsion unnecessary.
Lastly, we can all fall for Kafkatraps ourselves. Last year, I was cheated on in a really insidious way that took months to learn the full story of with there still being loose ends. It was a tough time for me, and her denials felt like evidence. Was there something underlying? Yes. But, I kept taking this further and further, assuming that everything — no matter how benign — was a lie. Obviously you should still try to find truth and have healthy skepticism, but don’t tear yourself apart with a Kafkatrap in your head. If there’s too much uncertainty, just leave. This can come up in less serious cases for you too with family or friends, so spot this unhealthy habit as soon as possible.