Saturday, December 17, 2011

Of Monsters and Human Beings

Of Monsters and Human Beings

I got the new Legend of Zelda game as an early Christmas present and have been playing it.  I’m only at the first dungeon-crawl, but so far, Skyward Sword is pretty awesome.  I’m not sure I like the bird-flying so much; it’s hard for me to get a handle on.  Reminds me of the horse in Shadow of the Colossus, actually, and, of course, you have to jump off at just the right angle to hit whatever little sky-island you want to explore.  What I totally love about this game right now is the swordsmanship.  This is my first time playing a Wii (other than in-store displays) and the Motion Plus thing they have on the sword is meant to imitate the swinging of an actual sword.  Come on, Nintendo, keep pressing that technology and one day you will give us the Holosuite.  Watch your Star Trek and be inspired! 

Something interesting happened to me in the game that got me thinking about categorical-thinking.  I was moving Link (protagonist) around, cutting grass and flowers to find money and whoops, my sword hit an innocent butterfly.  It died, sending up a little ghost-graphic.  I didn’t know for sure what I’d hit so I purposefully targeted another butterfly and got the same graphic.  Then I was “I’m killing innocent butterflies! Aaaaw!”  In other games of the series, butterflies are present, but you cannot kill them (to my recollection).  You can get them to land on a stick or on Link if you stand really still… in this game, you can kill the buggers.   I felt remorseful over butterflies when I go and slaughter Keese (evil bats) and Moblins (goblin-beings) without a care at all. 

Of course, the “monster” creatures are always chaotic evil, right?  Not always.  Zelda games have a way of playing with that, having a few members of the “monster” races turn-loyalties. The very first game (8-bit debut title, the game I grew up with) features Moblins hiding in secret caves who will give you money if you promise to keep their help a secret.  Then you go back to slaughter their brethren on the surface who are throwing spears at you.  One of the games featured a Dark World in which some of the monsters had advice for you because they were transformed human beings who’d gotten trapped in the Dark World.  One of the games features a weird little “love affair” between a love-struck little girl and a Moblin who held her captive (one of the mini-quests is a love-letter delivery between them).  A friend who’s beaten Skyward Sword tells me that there’s a “good” monster in this game, too. 

Yet, most of them – I’m gonna have to set my sword to because they’re on the side of evil and want to kill me.  I won’t feel remorse for them like I did the stupid digital butterflies.  Because they’re monsters.

Which brings me to a statement I saw this morning in the Comments section of an article / eulogy I read online… Someone was telling the writer of the article that he needed to “become fully-human.”  It was a categorical attitude more than it was personal. It carried the implication that “all people of a certain stripe are not fully-human.”  I’ve seen this thrown around a lot, “fully-human,” “you need to do this/become like me to become a full human being.” 

It always bothers me – whatever side it comes from. I’ve seen this attitude thrown around by people who generally agree with me in a worldview as well as those who sharply disagree.  It seems like the first thing that some people go to is “the others are not fully-human.”  I find this hard to fathom because I think even people who are total jerks, even people who are brutal dictators and whatnot are human because, well… if you’ve got human DNA and a human brain, you’re a human.  Humans, at times, are beautiful creatures – we create art and go to the moon.  Sometimes, we are supremely messed-up creatures – inventing new ways to *dehumanize* and kill each other.    

Oh, I understand the impulse to label people as not-human.  I used it in one of my novels… I had my protagonists watching the hanging of a killer that one of them caught and when the killer was taunting him from the gallows (seeing how sensitive the boy was, that he was uncomfortable with the country’s idea of justice), the boy shot back “A man is not dying today!”  As I recall portraying it (I need to do a re-read), the kid said this as much to shield his own heart as anything.  (He didn’t like being responsible for a death, even that of a brutal murderer). 

I’ve known old Vietnam veterans who didn’t think of Asian people as full-humans.  “They’re all just gooks,” one of them said to me once when I was trying to explain anime to him in response to a question.  (Doesn’t matter that anime is of a different country… he had a racial category in his head).  I watched a Frontline special once about veterans of the Iraq war and their psychological issues upon returning to civilian life.  One young soldier told an interviewer that the people over there were all “just hadjis” to them, and not even the combatants.  It’s a kind of mentality that people under stress and surrounded by enemies develop to survive – and it seems to stay with some when the danger is over.  I can understand how it develops there.

But I’m dismayed when it develops in civilians that live in peaceful situations in free countries and on the physically-safe Internet rather than in combat-zones.  That “you need to become like me to become a full human being” thing disturbs me on the level of “If you don’t think I’m a full human being, what am I? An animal? An insect? A monster? Something worse?”  It leaves people (often entire categories thereof) open for abuse.  People who spew this garbage may not even realize what they are becoming, because, you know, they’re the ones that are “fully human” in their eyes.  

“Moblins” are easy to set your sword to.  Actual humans – not so much.  

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