How Changing Landscapes and Realities Foster Radicalisation in Attack on Titan
by Ellie Zhang
In the popular Japanese animation series, Attack on Titan (2013), viewers are introduced to the Eldian civilization, a nation that lives within cities surrounded by three 50-meter walls that, for generations, protected them from Titans, a colossal humanoid, emotionless and mindless predator of humans. They follow the personal narratives of the main character, Eren Yeager, and the Eldians through a series of changing landscapes that were triggered upon the destruction of the walls with the sudden attack of Titans. The story eventually pivots upon the revelation of their Eldian history: that they were descendants of the titan bloodline, the Eldian empire that once used their titan power to conquer and exploit the rest of the world with their “blood-soaked legacy”.
This truth is met with a fundamental shift in their identities: from a victim, an innocent player, and gallant nation that learns to fight back against the Titans that have devastated their home, and threatened their livelihoods, into a vilified presence that is loathed upon and feared by the other nations, given their preordained antecedents. Such dichotomy and tension are especially vivid in Yeager’s character as we see his intimate involvement at the forefront of the battles against the Titans, juxtaposed against the fact that he inherited the founding titan powers, and his father’s legacy, as a Restorationist, to champion the rise of the Eldian Empire. This essentially negates his role as a protector, a “hero”, into one of an aggressor, antagonist, even a victimiser.
The change is further reinforced by the discovery of the existence of other nations beyond the walls and the attitude of these nations, particularly the Marleyans towards the Eldian community, which is characterised by a deep-seated disgust and discrimination. The series paints a desolating, oppressive, and dystopian atmosphere of the social milieu surrounding the Eldians. We see individuals from other nations, specifically Marleyans, being portrayed in a sadistic light as they derive pleasure from the humiliation, suffering, and exploitation of the Eldians beyond the walls. We see the government segregating Eldians into internment zones, homogenising them as “second-class citizens”, brainwashing them to believe that their race was “sinful” and “lowly-beings”, while militarising their inborn abilities to permanently transform into Titans, so as to fulfill their political motives; all the while as they used their new influence to push for anti-Eldian propaganda. This development to the story in the later seasons seems to hint at a new enemy to the Eldians, the Marleyans, in place of the Titans, as they become the main perpetrators of their misery.
These eventually lead to Yeager’s transformation from a noble, loyal, kind-hearted warrior into a ruthless overload and anti-hero, who gives up on his fundamental principles and values to achieve his radical goals. This is seen in many of his actions nearing the end of the series, particularly, in initiating a titan attack on the Marley nation, that lead to the death of many innocent, ordinary citizens, and pushing for similar attacks in other nations so as to re-establish the ascendancy of the Eldian Empire. Moreso, in the series, we see the uprising of some Eldians, who call themselves “Jaegerists”, as they amalgamate in support of this shared ambition: to rebuild the former glory of their nation, as a counter-attack to the other nations’ injustice and incrimination towards the Eldians.
What particularly stood out to me in the apocalyptic landscape of Attack on Titan is how this disruptive change in their social identity and context can trigger the rise of fanatical insurgents. Why is it that seemingly ordinary individuals and unlikely personalities could undergo such absolute transformation towards radicalised polarities in their choices, behavior, and response? In this analysis, I hope to focus on features of these changing social realities surrounding the Eldian community, particularly Eren Yeager, in Attack on Titan so as to argue for my thesis that specific aspects of the changes in their self- and worldview that comes with the apocalypse within the series can promote the rise of extremist tendencies and eventual corruption due to the downstream psychological effects, resulting from their social reorientation.
The argument will be premised through Arie Kruglanski et al.’s “The making of violent extremists” (2018) which frames the rise in violent extremism through the three essential drivers in the psychology of human motivations: the need for personal significance, the “narrative” characterising one’s social context, and the “network” of people who share common ideologies and values (Kruglanski et al., 2018, pp 107-120). Firstly, a need for personal significance is an innate desire “to matter, to merit respect, and to be someone”, stemming from a fundamental human need for self-esteem. In “meaning-making theories”, it is noted that when there exists a dissonance and disconnect between one’s subjective perception of who they are and their place in the world – “global meaning” – and others’ perception of them and how they are defined in the specific contextual setting – “situational meaning”, “a sense of frustration is induced” that compels one to seek a new sense of consistency to their self-conception and purpose in life (2018, pp 107-120). This is particularly pertinent when the new situational meaning is seen to reduce their personal worth. Such de valorisation would propel individuals to seek new significance that would boost their social value, especially in those with a narcissistic disposition and strong pride. Secondly, the “narrative” refers to the individual or community’s understanding of reality and how the world operates around them, which is then used to define a goal that affirms their personal significance in their specific socio-environment (2018, pp 107-120). In this case, if the need for significance and resonance with a violent-promoting narrative is strong enough, it may even propel one towards extremist tendencies. Lastly, the “network” is defined by the group that subscribes to the same narrative. It is what essentially creates the echo chamber, in which this violent-justifying ideology is made more “cognitively accessible” to the individual and serves as a “proof of veracity and soundness”, given the shared common consensus (2018, pp 107-120).
The Need for Personal Significance
Parallels to how these three factors interact to promote radicalisation can be observed in the Attack on Titan. To start with, the need for personal significance essentially stems from the momentous change in the social identities of the Eldians following the revelation. In the series, we see their long-held ego regarding their “global meaning” being invalidated by the “situational meaning” that is imposed upon them, given their inherent ancestral roots, that as a result, brought about a sense of personal loss and upheaval. This psychological “void” that is created henceforth, promoted a strong need for a new personal meaning to fill this gap in their concept of self, in order to achieve human’s innate exigency for self-actualisation and self-importance. The missing link between how this search for personal significance results in extremist tendencies is addressed in the nature of their new “situational meaning” – an identity that besmirches them as an inferior existence. Based on Kruglanski, this inferiority would create a strong compulsion to seek available remedies to re-establish their amour proper (2018. pp 107-120). In this case, the extremist choice involved in rebuilding the Eldian Empire may be the most obvious and direct one that would reinstate pride in their nation, so as to yield respect and esteem. This is especially pertinent in Yeager’s character, given his, fundamentally, narcissistic and prideful personality. Throughout the series, we see his recurrent role as the trailblazer in the battles against Titans, which thereby, bestows upon him a savior’s complex. Yet, this persona was infringed upon with the shift in their social realities. Hence, there would be a certain preoccupation with restoring his former level of supremacy and prominence that is fundamental to his character, even when it means resorting to violent extremism against the Marleyans, the new enemy, to reinstate his status as (what he perceives to be) a martyr.
Following which, the “narrative” (2018, pp 107-120) is presented as the immanent cynicism to the hopeless circumstances surrounding the Eldians in the Attack on Titan.
As Eren once said…
This shows that Eren and the Jaegerists ultimately believe that there would always be a gulf between the Eldians and the other nations, and the only way to protect themselves and earn their freedom, rights, and peace is to dominate over others. Hence, there would never be a state of peaceful coexistence between ordinary humans and the titan descendants because of their entrenched, historical feud, national indoctrination, and selfish governments that would heedlessly exploit the Eldians for their own interest.
However, what essentially led to their “violent-justifying ideology” was the Marleyan’s cold-hearted, almost inhuman, treatment and stigmatisation of the Eldians and their likewise, ruthlessness in denying their right to live. This mercilessness hence legitimises and morally justifies their own radicalisation as a counter-attack to those that have offended them. The extreme acts of the Marleyans in devaluing the Eldians further reinforce the need to seek personal significance that can provide them with a new sense of superiority, even when this involves violent deeds against their penetrator, that would, in this case, be represented as an act of honorable retaliation, to “give them what they deserved”.
Lastly, in the “network”, Kruglanski states that violent extremism becomes “cognitively-accessible” when it is espoused by someone of “epistemic authority” in their social network (2018, pp 107-120). Among the Jaegerists, we can see that this role is taken up by Eren Yeager himself. Because of Yeager’s profound involvement at the cornerstone of the hot-blooded battle against the enemy of the Eldians at each point in time, be it the Titans or the Marleyans, he is often seen as a figure that warrants admiration and respect given his bravery, and nobility. This thereby establishes his persona as a hero to the nation. Hence, even when he starts to advocate for more extremist behaviors and violence, it is perceived to be “acceptable, and even commendable”.
So, for the Jaegerists, this violent extremism would appear to be an attractive option for them to establish their purpose and significance upon. And when this ideology is embedded into the network of individuals that share the same violent-justifying narrative, it creates the perfect ecosystem that reinforces and validates this radicalisation. The “network”, in this context, becomes a strong motivator because it fundamentally provides them with a sense of belonging (in addition to a newfound purpose), which was paramount given the discrimination and isolation that the Eldians were experiencing in these changing social landscapes. Hence, having found a group of individuals who share a common goal and values provides them with an intrinsic sense of comfort and security. With this strong us-them dichotomy between the Eldians and the rest of the world, the ability to band together against external threats, even when it means resorting to violence, becomes irresistible, thereby, potentially propagating a meme of mindless conformities.
However, despite similar circumstances and apprehension, it is observed that not all Eldians resorted to violent extremism, in responding to their new identities, including many of Yeager’s comrades and close friends, even when the three motivators, likewise, held strong and dominant influences on them from a theoretical perspective. Instead, they chose to stick with their core principles to rationalise the situation. This is an aspect that Kruglanski’s argument failed to account for and could potentially hint at additional factors that contribute to the corruptibility of an individual. For instance, it is observed that those who are more prone to Yeager’s ideologies were idealistic individuals driven by a deep-rooted obsession for values including free will and honor, as opposed to realistic, practical incentives. Hence, this could mean certain personalities are disproportionately more susceptible to the effects of Kruglanski’s motivators.
As in the Attack on Titan, anyone can succumb to radical thoughts and choices given the right contextual conditioning that interplays with one’s intrinsic heuristics. Hence, I hope this article would help us gain a better insight into societies that have undergone analogous “apocalyptic” changes, which eventually yield to extremism.
Arie Kruglanski, Katarzyna Jasko, David Webber, Marina Chernikova, and Erica Molinario (2018). The Making of Violent Extremists. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 107-120. doi: 10.1037/gpr0000144.