On September 17, 2015, Dan Olsen, also known as Folding Ideas, uploaded a video where he discusses what he calls the ‘Thermian Argument’.
The ‘Thermian Argument’ is composed to two parts and his conclusion:
- Some elements in media are criticized, usually for racism or sexism.
- Fans defend these elements by citing in-universe reasons for why the story is written the way it is.
- Dan argues that this defense is not valid because stories are “eternally mutable by creators”, i.e. the only reason why the story is written the way it is is because the writer made it that way.
Dan adds that making a story-based argument to refute criticism against the implementation of an offensive element is only a dismissal tactic. He criticizes the notion of the story given importance over the text as a cultural product by putting forth two different medieval games as example. The first medieval game is historically accurate whereas the other has female warriors wear chainmail bikinis in combat. Dan points out that in this scenario, the ‘Thermian Argument’ contradicts itself as these two games belong to a similar subgenre, but contain different settings.
He reiterates that this the ‘Thermian Argument’ is deeply flawed because fiction is not real and is “eternally mutable by creators”. The only part that exists is the text and the ideas the stories represent.
Dan brings the audience back to the question he began with, “How do you kill a vampire?”, to which he answered:
“It doesn’t matter what you wrote, the answer is irrelevant. Vampires aren’t real. While the rules for how to kill a vampire may be codified within any game, book, movie, or show, nothing exists to enforce the rules of a fictional space. Writers routinely alter the rules to suit their interests or the needs of their story.”
In conclusion, Dan claims that in the world outside of the fictional story, i.e. the real world, only the implications and impact of the story actually matter and therefore, justifying the implementation of a controversial element by citing the in-universe rules and logic of the story is a ‘chump’ argument. He also claims that the ‘Thermian Argument’ only serves to shut down discussion. Criticism of fictional works are ultimately criticism of the author’s decisions when putting their stories together.
However, Dan’s defense of the ‘Thermian Argument’ as a legitimate logical fallacy is riddled with several logical issues and hasty assumptions. The reasons Dan uses to justify his claim that the ‘Thermian Argument’ is a fallacy are dependent on emotional appeals and attacking the characters of the people who use this ‘chump’ argument. This piece will dissect Dan’s claim under a metaphorical microscope.
The Misleading Nomenclature
Dan describes the defense of controversial element via citing in-universe reasons as a ‘Thermian Argument’. He explains what the Thermians are in his video:
“In the scifi classic, Galaxy Quest, the Thermians don’t understand fiction as a concept. It doesn’t exist in their language, and thus they see all texts as historical documents.
While not identical, the root figure of thought is similar here. The diegesis is given primacy over the text as a cultural product.”
This is a non sequitur the following reason: the Thermians do not give the story primacy over the text as a cultural product. As Dan describes, the Thermians cannot differentiate fiction from non-fiction. Any text that they see is a historical document and think the events that transpired in a fictional work happened for real. As a result, the concept of diegesis would also not exist in the Thermian race because they think every text is a record of real events.
The other flaw to the nomenclature is that the Thermians are a fictional race. The Thermian people and their mannerisms do not exist in real life. Humans, on the other hand, can spot the difference between fiction and non-fiction. They are aware that the events that happen in a work of fiction is not real. And if a person is not able to differentiate between reality and fiction, the problems lie more with that person than the work of fiction.
Deconstructing Dan’s Thesis
Recall that Dan considers the use of in-story reasons to defend controversial elements as an invalid argument because “stories are eternally mutable by creators”. While creators can technically change their stories whenever they want, this is not how fictional writing is done in practice.
Creators of fiction are bound by the rules and logic that they have established at the beginning of their stories. Yes, they can change the rules around, but the reason why this does not commonly occur is because this would violate one of the core tenets of good storytelling: continuity. Audiences are drawn to a good story due to the believably of the plot, characters, and settings. If the in-universe rules and logic are liberally shifted around, the story will lose audience engagement substantially.
At very beginning of writing a story, the author has theoretically an infinite amount of ideas he/she can use. However, once the author decides on a set piece, that limits his/her choices going forward. To maintain a quality story, the author must adhere to the in-universe mechanics established from the beginning. Yes, you can create a fantasy game where magic works in an n spells per day basis and then, change the mechanics to an MP system where characters can replenish their MP via potions. However, that will leave the audience confused and consequently, disengaged with the story. The author needs to engage in a series of “If… then” statements to make the story believable.
Take Leia using the Force to drag herself back to the Raddus in space as a real life example. Much of the Star Wars audience criticized this scene because it broke consistency of Leia’s abilities in movie canon and thus, the event came off extremely contrived. Up to this point in the series, the audience has not seen Leia training to use the Force before. But all of a sudden, she just happened to be proficient enough to use the Force to save herself from dying in cold space.
The other problem with Dan’s thesis is that it is an emotional argument. He opposes a story’s implementation of elements that involve unacceptable behaviors like racism or sexism. Because those behaviors are unacceptable, to him, the fictional work’s use of those elements is also unacceptable. He rejects in-universe explanations for why those elements are used and posits that the author can change the story at any time. For what reason why Dan would want the author to change the story? So that it no longer utilizes those uncomfortable elements. Dan demands that the story should be “fixed” to fit more closely with his sensibilities. This is a flawed notion to hold as this kidn of criticism is based on feelings rather than the author’s writing.
Lastly, Dan’s assertion that people who use the ‘Thermian Argument’ do it to shut down discussion is an ironic hasty assumption. This is a statement that is devoid of proof. No one is saying that people are not allowed to criticize a game based on their sensibilities. They are absolutely free to do that, but their argumentative opponents also have the liberty to say that their criticisms are wrong. Explaining why a story’s use of a controversial element is valid via in-universe citations is not shutting down the discussion.
There may be a possible explanation behind why Dan thinks this way, though. It may have to do with his claim that only the impact and implications of a story matter and that fiction should be judged based on those aspects. As a result, when his opponents use cite in-universe reasons, he sees that as “shutting down discussion” because they are not talking about the implications which I will discuss in the next section.
Do only the Impact and Implications in Fiction Matter?
In fact, do they matter at all? Dan argues in the affirmative because of the possible real-world ramifications that may arise. According to him, the only things that exist are the text and the ideas the fictional work represents. As a result, justifying the implementation of a controversial element by citing the in-universe rules and logic of the story is a ‘chump’ argument.
This line of reasoning is fallacious. The fallacy in question that Dan makes is the Appeal to Consequences. This fallacy can come in four forms. The format that Dan’s argument follows, in particular, is this: “X is false because if people did not accept X as being false, then there would be negative consequences.”
To make this more digestible, let’s use the depiction of slavery in The Rising of the Shield Hero as an example. Some people thought that the depiction of slavery was indefensible because it would serve as a dog whistle for pro-slavery advocates and that the audience would end up being more receptive to slavery. To follow the Appeal to Consequences format above, “Shield Hero’s depiction of slavery is morally wrong because if people did not accept its depiction of slavery as being morally wrong, then people will think slavery is moral”. This is a bad argument because the desirability of the perceived consequences is not related to the believability of Shield Hero’s depiction of slavery.
Another problem with Dan’s argument is with this particular phrase: “the only things that exist are the text and the ideas the fictional work represents”. His choice of the word, “represents”, is curious and ultimately, misleading. He claims that a fictional work is representative of the ideas it depicts. And if I were to pry into this thinking process more, because the story is “eternally mutable by its creator”, the author is therefore a representative of the ideas depicted in the story. Ultimately, the author implicitly or tacitly approves of the featured element in his/her work. So if the story had slavery in it, for example, then the author tacitly approves of slavery.
This line of reasoning has multiple argumentative issues. For one thing, it focuses too much on the character of the author rather than the merits of the story itself. To judge the validity of a featured element in the story based on the author’s perceived intentions is ad hominem. In addition, to assume that the author approves of the featured element is a baseless assumption and misses the point of fiction entirely. This misplaced focus on the author’s cognition has nothing to do with the work story-wise and becomes a pointless exercise of “finding” thought crimes. (If you are curious about Shield Hero’s “controversy” of its depiction of slavery, I recommend this article).
In fact, the idea that only the implications and impact of fictional works matter has already been tested multiple times. Jack Thompson used this line of reasoning with violent video games. Anita Sarkeesian did the same with games that featured visually attractive female characters. Most recently, Extra Credits uploaded a video on YouTube titled “Stop Normalizing Nazis” in which the channel’s thesis was that multiplayer games that let you play as a Nazi or a terrorist will cause you to have Nazi or terrorist tendencies. These people’s claims were rejected wholesale because they assumed that the video games are representatives of the featured elements they found unpalatable and in turn, will lead to the undesirable outcome of the audience practicing those unacceptable behaviors.
Is the ‘Thermian Argument’ Contradictory from One Case to Another?
Dan names two hypothetical medieval games to show that the ‘Thermian Argument’ is contradictory. One game is historically accurate whereas the other has female warriors wearing chainmail bikinis in combat. Dan claims that the argument of “that’s the way the games were designed” is not a valid point because one game is striving for accuracy while the other of a “similar” setting is not. Therefore, using the same argumentative framework for these two games is paradoxical.
However, Dan’s assertion falls flat because medieval games are not a monolith. Just because the two hypothetical games Dan has described take place in a medieval setting, that does not mean they should be held to the same standard. These are two separate different products made by different people with different ideas. Because these two hypothetical games have different sets of rules and logic, they should be judged by the standards they set for themselves.
For instance, I would not judge a game like Dragon’s Crown for its historical accuracy because that was not what its creators strove for. The game is fantastical with magic, runes, and different races. In the same way, I would also not judge Kingdom Come: Deliverance for its implementation of fantastical elements because that was not the creators’ vision. However, Dan insists that they should be judged by one standard because they are both medieval games when in fact, these are two wholly different products. The example that Dan puts forth is ultimately a false equivalence.
Poisoning the Well with ‘Creepy Garbage’
What may be the centerpiece of Dan’s video is his orc-rape anime hypothetical. In his video, he creates a hypothetical conversation between the Folding Ideas puppet and the “AngryGamemasher”:
Folding Ideas: “Hi, I’m Folding Ideas. I recently watched the anime Women Getting Ripped Apart by Orcs, and was, y’know, disturbed by the seeming perverse glee the show takes in the way it frames the frequent and excessive dismemberment of its female cast members. In fact, the entire purpose of the show seems to be little more than showing women being brutally violated by orcs. Minor characters with little plot significance are often subjected to two- or three-minute sequences that focus an almost pornographic lens on their suffering, and the enjoyment the orcs take in the process.”
Angry Gamesmasher: “Dan Olsen is wrong to complain. If he thinks this is a big deal then he clearly wasn’t paying attention. The orcs were created by the Dread God who hates all light. The Dread God wanted an army that would rape and shred its way across the land of Thule. So the orcs aren’t violent for no reason. They are compelled to be violent. It all makes sense if you were paying attention to the backstory.”
Straightaway, there are multiple obvious issues with this hypothetical. For one thing, this hypothetical relies on Poisoning the Well, an ad hominem tactic that primes the audience with adverse information about Dan’s opponent. Dan describes his hypothetical opponent as “angry” which is disingenuous and constitutes what is called spin. Spin is dramatic and sensational language that strays from the objective, measurable facts. Before the “Angry Gamesmasher” even says his piece, he is already sandbagged by the negative connotation from Dan’s subjective description of his opponent.
And this is not even the only instance of Poisoning the Well. His deliberate use of an extreme example also falls under this fallacy. He relies on the instant revulsion of his audience to the hypothetical orc rape anime. It is a shaming tactic that attacks the character of Dan’s dissenters instead of an argument.
In addition, Dan’s rejection of this hypothetical anime is not an argument. Instead, it is a bunch of emotional appeals and qualifiers. He is personally disturbed by the seeming perverse glee in the dismemberment of women and the anime seems to be more than just women getting raped that it is almost pornographic. In the hypothetical conversation, Dan does not make an attempt to argue against the merits of the orc rape anime and just makes an opinion as shown by his frequent use of qualifiers. As a matter of fact, he dismisses any in-universe explanation as a defense of ‘creepy garbage’.
It is also hard to believe that the media Dan is describing is not a pornography. Orc porn and in general, monster porn are well-established in hentai and falls along the extreme end of the spectrum. One hentai that features orc porn, for instance, is the beginning of Himekishi Olivia where a woman got raped by a bunch of orcs in a dungeon. While it does not feature dismemberment, it does fit the rest of Dan’s description. The reason why one has to bear this in mind is because pornography and the average fictional work are fundamentally different. Pornography is sexual material for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal. Diagesis is secondary. Meanwhile, the majority of fictional works are written for the purpose to engage and entertain the audience through compelling and believable plot, worlds, and characters.
Is Goblin Slayer Dan’s Hypothetical Orc Rape Anime?
In the comments section of Dan’s video, a bunch of his viewers cite Goblin Slayer as the perfect example that fits his hypothetical orc rape anime. I would have to strongly disagree with this notion.
Other than the actual rape that occurred in Episode 1, some people also took issue with the scene where Fighter got her clothes ripped off and pinned down by the goblins in an “inviting” pose. One would think it was just a scene meant to titillate and by definition, that would make it strictly pornographic. However, I would argue that the scene was used as a dark foreshadowing tactic. A girl whose clothes got ripped off and is forcibly subdued by a bunch of goblins in a specific pose. Do the goblins intend to beat her to death? Well, they would have already done that if that was the case. In hentai, characters who are depicted in that kind of pose implies that intercourse will happen after. But what if you do not know what hentai is, you may ask? Even if the you never watched hentai, you can still put the pieces together as a sexual pose implies that sexual act will happen thereafter. And the series confirms this as the goblins proceeded to rape Fighter.
Was this scene pornographic, i.e. was it exclusively meant for sexual arousal? Not at all. It was meant to show how vile creatures goblins are when they get their way. Now some would not a satisfied enough with this explanation. They may dismiss this explanation because the show is just being edgy for the sake of it. And honestly, I would agree with that to an extent. However, later in Episode 1, the audience will discover the reasons why the goblins capture and rape women. When Goblin Slayer and Priestess rescued the captured women, Goblin Slayer discovered a hidden room with goblin children.
Where did those goblin children come from? How were they born? Piecing together the puzzle, the audience will realize that the goblin children came from the captured women and the victims were used as goblin baby-making machines. The point behind the rape scene was not for sexual arousal. It was to reveal a very dark, painful Darwinian truth.
Dan’s defense of the idea that the ‘Thermian Argument’ is a fallacy fails to logically hold up under close scrutiny. Its nomenclature is a non sequitur. Contrary to what Dan claims, the Thermians do not follow the similar root of thought where the diegesis is given priority over the text as a cultural product. Thermians have no concept of fiction and thus, have no concept of what diegesis is. Fiction is not a pile of choices, as well. Once an author decides on a set piece, the amount of choices are whittled down as the author needs to construct the story with “If… then” statements.
In addition, Dan relies too much on judging a fictional work based on the desirability or undesirability of real-world outcomes. Authors do not have a moral responsibility over how their audience acts after consuming their work. That is up to the personal choices of the audience itself. Much of the audience understands the difference between reality and fiction and will act accordingly. This line of reasoning from Dan also focuses too much on the author’s cognition rather than the merits of the story itself. Trying to read an author’s mind is a meaningless task and is basically nothing more than an ad hominem exercise of fishing for thought crimes.
His dependence on emotional arguments and ad hominems also drags the credibility of his thesis down to a significant degree. To dismiss a work of fiction because it is ‘creepy garbage’ is not an argument, but a statement of one’s personal feelings. His hypothetical orc rape anime is a misleading example meant to make his audience feel disgusted. To also label his hypothetical dissenter as “angry” and label the person as a defender of ‘creepy garbage’ is a cheap, underhanded attack on the dissenter’s character. Lastly, his use of an extreme hypothetical that may be describing a pornography is very disingenuous as porn has different goals from the average fictional work
In short summary: Dan Olsen’s claim that the ‘Thermian Fallacy’ is a fallacy is a non sequitur for a very specific, non-representative context that ignores the fundamentals of good storytelling, and depends too much on Appeals to Consequences and emotional arguments.