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Mechon, titan, black and white} ?> Sometimes it’s easier to determine what isn’t a human rather than what is.
What constitutes a human being? Is it our physiology? Our spiritual nature? Perhaps our unique ability to reason and use critical thinking, or our tendency to form intricate relationships?
In the world of Attack on Titan, humanity survives on the cusp of extinction, barricaded behind fifty-meter-high walls—the only thing separating them from the carnivorous titans roaming outside. Within this post-apocalyptic microcosm, the lines between man and monster become blurred, with the greedy and needy turning to crime and causing as much havoc as the titans themselves.
Even so, it’s an unspoken law that while a human may be “friend,” a titan will always be “foe,” and with most of the living having lost a comrade between a titan’s teeth, that notion isn’t too difficult to enforce.
Things get tricky, however, with the discovery of Titan Shifters—humans with the ability to morph titan bodies around themselves at will. And if that doesn’t throw an ethical dilemma into the encroaching uneasiness, then the discovery that most—if not all—titans were once human beings certainly does.
Captain Levi—whose human hit-list once surpassed his number of titan kills—actually lowers his face in guilt at the realization that “all the flesh I’ve risked everything to slice is actually human flesh.”
For Levi and the other titan-slaying soldiers, the battle for humanity suddenly becomes a twisted tug-of-war between saving the lost souls trapped within the titans’ bodies and killing the rampaging titans in order to preserve themselves. But in killing these humans-turned-monsters, do they risk destroying the very thing they aim to save? With titans bearing the familiar faces of family and friends, the monsters begin to gain a disturbing sense of humanity.
A similar conundrum occurs in Xenoblade Chronicles, where the main character, Shulk, goes on a quest for vengeance after his friend, Fiora, is killed by the Mechon—robotic machines with AI for brains. That quest comes to a halt when humans are discovered inside certain Mechon suits—one of which contains Fiora, whose life was preserved by the technology.
It’s easy to define the titans and Mechons as not human and decide they don’t deserve to be treated as such—until you realize there are people inside. I think the same misconception occurs in our society towards certain communities and people groups.
I wonder how I would react if my best friend joined a religious, political, or social group and I didn’t agree with their ideals; maybe I even vehemently disapproved of that group. Would I feel betrayed? Would I refuse to speak to her? Or would I be forced to re-evaluate my perceptions of the group? I would probably look at that community differently because of the face of a loved one overshadowing it.
Dehumanizing people makes hatred easy. It’s simple and painless to forget that the objects of your hatred breathe the same air that you do, and that returning hatred for hatred only breeds more in kind.
In Attack on Titan, Scout Jean Kirstein says, “Fighting fire with fire… Is that the only option we’ve got? If it’s that easy for the fight to turn us all into monsters, then maybe we don’t deserve to win.”
Hange Zoe, a scientist, also has an epiphany after kicking a titan’s severed head in cold fury and finding it weighs as much as a feather; namely, that she and the rest of humanity are ignorant. She realizes that understanding the titans themselves is the key to humanity’s survival. And so she spends the remainder of her time in the Scouts studying the giants in captivity and searching for a solution to their unexplainable transformations. Her research marks the beginning of a mission to reach the lost souls trapped within the titans’ bodies.
Likewise, Shulk’s inherent hatred and quest for revenge morphs into a quest for the truth—to understand the roots behind the bloody conflict between the humans and Mechon and put a stop to it. But before he can do that, Shulk has to undo a history’s worth of prejudice and “humanize” the Mechon.
That requires him to take a difficult stand—sometimes literally—between the blades of his human friends and the metallic hearts of the Mechon. When Shulk stands between a Mechon and Fiora’s elder brother, Dunban, and asks him if he is willing to kill the people inside the Mechon suits, Dunban replies that yes, he is willing (a horrifying response in the world of Xenoblade, where killing another human is the ultimate betrayal).
“Even if it’s Fiora?” Shulk then asks.
Dunban lowers his sword in response. As he’d prepared to end this traitor’s life, he’d seen nothing but the Mechon suit and not the human inside it. But imagining Fiora at the other end of his blade changed his perspective. Sparing her but killing another of her kind would not only be the ultimate form of hypocrisy, it would also be the beginning of his own dehumanization.
I don’t pretend to have “the solution” to prejudice, but throwing away my own hatred and seeking understanding is a good place to start. At the end of the day, I have to live with myself and answer to my God, who asks me to love my neighbour as myself, and that means being willing to humanize those around me—even those who seem locked beneath metallic suits or hidden behind titan-sized teeth.