How to Play Games with Words: Three More Tactics Critical Social Justice Advocates Use to Win Arguments
by Mike Young
Essay originally from Counterweight.
This essay is the second instalment of my series on woke tactics. This series is dedicated to helping you understand the way that Critical Social Justice advocates try to win arguments so they can advance their cause socially, politically, and institutionally.
As I mentioned in my last essay, it is often the case that CSJ activists are not trying to defeat you intellectually with evidence and arguments, they are trying to defeat you socially using power moves and social maneuvering. The CSJ activists – in many cases – are not trying to convince you on rational grounds, they are trying to gain social power and influence over society so they have the ability to spread CSJ everywhere. It is important to understand this as we look at their strategies. There may be times that the CSJ activists will try to use fair arguments to make their case and when that happens we ought to engage in good faith. However, we have to be aware that often they do not argue in good faith and instead use different tactics for which we must be prepared.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the next three tactics Critical Social Justice advocates use to win arguments.
- The Kafka Trap.
Put simply, the Kafka Trap is a fallacy where someone is accused of something terrible and, when the accused person insists they are innocent, the accuser twists the insistence of innocence and uses it as evidence of guilt. Here is a simple illustration of the tactic:
Police: “You robbed the bank.”
You: “I did not.”
Police: “That is exactly what a bank robber would say. I knew you were guilty.”
The mechanism of a Kafka Trap works like this: someone goes about accusing someone else of something terrible and when the accused person insists they are innocent the person making the accusation twists the insistence of innocence and uses it as evidence of guilt. In this way, all the accused persons claims are treated as though they imply guilt.
The Kafka Trap was first discussed by Eric Raymond and named for the author Franz Kafka who illustrated this fallacy beautifully in his book The Trial. In The Trial the main character is accused of crimes and placed on trial without being told what he actually did wrong, and with no evidence being brought against him. He is then put through a process to destroy his reputation and credibility. The only way the trial ends is if he admits guilt, and his refusal to admit that he is guilty of these unnamed crimes is used as proof of how evil he is; after all, he is so remorseless that he won’t even be honest and admit guilt!
A typical Kafka Trap in the world of CSJ is to say that we are all complicit in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) and then when someone denies that they are complicit in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) the CSJ advocate will say that only a (racist, sexist, homophobe, etc) could be blind to their complicity in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc).
As you can see, the way this works is to say that denial of the accusation proves that the accusation is true. If you deny you are a racist, then you are a racist for denying that you are a racist. There is no way out.
When laid out that simply the Kafka Trap becomes obvious. It becomes less obvious when dressed up as a sort of academic jargon. The most obvious example of this is “white fragility.”
The concept of White Fragility was created by Robin DiAngelo in 2011. DiAngelo says that white Fragility refers to the agitation, anger, frustration, and shock that white people go through when they are confronted with their own racism. She claims that white fragility is the result of a lack of stamina in white people to confront racial issues honestly. According to DiAngelo, a white person’s denial and refusal to accept their complicity in racism is a result of white fragility. It is white fragility which explains why white people deny their complicity in racism.
“White fragility” is a Kafka Trap disguised as an academic idea. The way it works is that if you are accused of complicity in racism, and deny that you are complicit in racism, you will then be considered guilty of white fragility. Since, according to CSJ advocates, white fragility has the effect of preserving white people at the top of the racial hierarchy, exhibiting white fragility means you are complicit in racism. This means that when you are accused of being complicit in racism you have two choices:
- Admit to your complicity in racism, or
- Deny your complicity in racism in which case your denial is taken as proof that you have white fragility and are therefore complicit in racism.
As you can see, there is no way out because white fragility is a Kafka Trap.
Reframing is a tactic that is as old as the hills. In practice the way that this works is to change the terms on which the debate or conversation is being had. This is done all over the political spectrum and is a common tactic. A simple example of how re-framing works can be seen in conversations around gun legislation. Let’s suppose someone suggests some sort of regulation to make guns more difficult to purchase, the frame from both the left and right would go something like this:
Pro-gun person: “This is an issue of the right to bear arms.”
Anti-gun person: “This is an issue of gun violence.”
As you can see, the pro-gun person is putting the issue in terms of their right to posses a gun, and the anti-gun person is putting the issue in terms of the prevention of gun violence. Both of these statements are instances of people trying to decide the terms on which the debate will be had. The idea of re-framing is that if you get to frame the debate, you can determine the terms of the debate and essentially bake the conclusion right into them. In most debates we are usually trying to balance several competing interests, and if one of those interests gets to define the debate, they can tip the playing field in their side’s favor.
De-centering is similar to re-framing, but it works in a different way. De-centering is changing the focus of the debate. That is, de-centering is not so much about changing the terms on which the debate is had, but changing whose concerns get to be central to the debate and whose concerns get to take all the conversational oxygen. An example of de-centering might look like this:
Enlightenment Liberal: “I am not sure I agree with this policy position, we should analyze this reasonably and carefully using the methods of science.”
CSJ advocate: “White male scientists have been front and centre in this debate for too long. They need to sit down and be quiet so that the concerns of trans-women can be central to this conversation.”
Enlightenment Liberal: “But this is a scientific question.”
CSJ advocate: “We’re going to be centering the lived experiences of trans-women of color in this conversation. Sit down.”
The reason this tactic is used is that CSJ is very concerned with discourses and they think society is put together by a set of interwoven discourses and culture wide “conversations” as it were. CSJ thinks white people and “whiteness” have monopolized the cultural conversation in the west for far too long, and the way to end this is to “decenter” both of those by marginalizing people that argue from any position the CSJ advocates consider to be a product of white people, or whiteness. The idea is that it is time for white people to be quiet and let other groups dominate the conversation.
Decentering does not seek to tell you that you are wrong, or that your view is incorrect, or that you do not have your facts in order. The goal of decentering is to “win” by turning down the volume of any view opposed to CSJ, and turning up the volume of the CSJ worldview. In other words, decentering is a social power move that seeks to marginalize Enlightenment liberalism by moving it to the fringes of the discourse. Thus, with the use of this tactic CSJ advocates can bully their way into a place of prominence in the conversation.
Decentering seeks to move the CSJ view into a place of prominence and move any other view to the fringes of the debate by using social power. Rather than allowing people to use reason to decide which views ought to be central in the debate, CSJ advocates attempt to bully their way into a place of prominence in the conversation by claiming that any idea they do not like is “whiteness”
This tactic may be the most common tactic that the CSJ advocates use when they spread their ideas. The way this works is pretty simple: they take a simple word like “racism” and then redefine it to fit their needs. This is how the word racism goes from being defined as:
- Bigotry against a person or persons due to their race.
To being defined as
- “White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of people of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and people of Color.”
Typically when someone says “America has a problem with racism” people take this to mean that America has too many people who are bigoted against other people because of their race. Most of the time they do not think that America is beset by institutional white privilege, nor do they think there is an institutionalized authority that is reinforcing racism. The result of this is that CSJ advocates can garner support and agreement from those who naturally support pleas to “help end racism” without realizing this redefinition has gone on. When people realize the definitions in play are not the usual ones, the CSJ advocate will insist that the CSJ definitions are the “correct” ones. It’s the linguistic equivalent of pouring out the wine, filling the bottle with Kool-Aid, pouring someone a glass without telling them what you did, and then when they complain, responding by saying “why are you upset, that’s how it’s supposed to taste.”
Now, to be completely fair it is not always the case that this is done dishonestly. CSJ thinks about the world in a different way then the rest of us so it “translates” any concept it likes into something that fits with the CSJ conception of the world. This means all the concepts that we use, they will redefine to fit their conception of the world. The redefinition of basic concepts is a hallmark of CSJ, which is why, as James Lindsey points out, “ this worldview is only ever communicated to us in reformulated perversions of our own concepts”. For this reason it is very important, when confronted with a CSJ advocate, to get the specific definitions for any term they use lest you get more than you bargained for.
I said this in my last essay, but I want to say it again for emphasis: The CSJ worldview progresses not through clarity and truth, but by muddying the intellectual waters and making social power moves.
The first step in preventing Critical Social Justice advocates from turning a discussion of truth into a struggle for power is to be able to know and understand the tactics that CSJ advocates employ. Being prepared for the ways in which the CSJ advocate will attempt to take the conversation off of the solid ground of truth, evidence, rationality, and warrant, and move it onto the quicksand of power struggle will allow you to push back against it more effectively.
Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/wokal_distance.