Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The god of Black-and-White fallacies

This post comes out of a series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to the audio version. For 5$, you get access to the mini-podcasts I'm doing with illustrious co-hosts answering questions by listeners of the podcast. At 10$, you get exclusive access to the Boiled Leather Audio Conversation bonus podcasts. Give the Patreon a look! 
Thor Ragnarok poses a great example for the black-and-white fallacy. You might wonder what I'm talking about. What do logical fallacies and the construction of arguments have to do with that fun romp of a movie? Don't worry, I'll explain. 
Other, sharper minds than mine have pointed out the myriad of allusions and allegories to colonialism in the movie, so I'm not going to retread that ground. There is, however, another great structural element in the movie: it's use of the black-and-white fallacy as a major weakness of the main character. 
The black-and-white fallacy describes the state of holding a set of two alternatives as the ONLY alternatives. Usually this is done to disparage someone from pursuing something, especially in the political realm. For example, I could argue that a border wall along Mexico is clearly an impossible task and financially ruinous, throw my hands in the air and exclaim there's nothing to be done. Black and white. Two options. A savvy conservative mind would immediately find the fallacy. These are not the only two options at hand; in truth, there's a wide variety between the stupid wall and camps for children on the one hand and doing nothing at all on the other hand. 
This brings us back to Thor. He as well as his brother Loki see the whole plot in stark black-and-white terms. Either Hela wins the battle for Asgar, or they do. There's nothing in between. And fighting the literal goddess of death, one would assume that, yes, that's the case. And you'd expect them to win in the end since the victory of the goddess of death seems a bit problematic, long-term.
But throughout the movie, we get hints that this is indeed a fallacy. Thor loses his fight and gets thrown to the end of the universe, where he finds yet another person mired in it: the Valkyrie, thinking that there can only be her meaningless existence drowned in booze or doom. Loki thinks he can only ever betray Thor all the time and look out for his own advantage. And Thor himself believes it's either total victory or bust. Because that's what heroes do. 
In the final scene, however, this whole fallacy comes crashing down, and it's rendered in the visuals in a beautiful way. Thor, egged on by his father Odin, has an epiphany: "Are you Thor, god of hammers?" asks Odin, when Thor bemoans the loss of his famous weapon, equating it - black and white again - with the source of his fighting strength. Of course he's not, and he finds a third way to combat Hela: evacuate Asgard, since "it's not a place, it's where our people make a stand".
To evacuate, they need to reach the Bifrost, which is located inconveniently at the end of a very long, very open bridge. And so the refugees soon find themselves on a two-dimensional plane, hemmed in by either side: the Bifrost in front of them is guarded by Fenris and the undead:
While Asgard behind them is controlled by Hela, who leisurely strolls along the bridge. 
The camera pans sideways to really hammer this point home. Both alternatives are unworkable.
And then, having learned his lesson as have Thor and the Valkyrie earlier in the fight, Loki descends with a giant spaceship directly behind the bridge, expanding the battlefield in a third dimension and offering an alternative. 
This is great visual storytelling, using the place to drive home the theme. It's also something that's done by other great writers, by the way, such as George R. R. Martin. Think of the Bridge of Skulls that proves such a death-trap in "A Storm of Swords", think of the Battle of the Blackwater in "A Clash of Kings", making great use of its geography and breaking the black-and-white structure of Stannis vs. Tyrion just at the very end. And so on and so forth. The place is a character, too, is what I'm saying. It should be paid attention.

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