Society calls someone who suffers so that another person can benefit a victim.
Society calls someone who suffers so that society can benefit a hero.
When a mugger assaults a helpless victim, injures them, and steals a week's worth of wages, society calls that a terrible crime that should never happen to anyone.
When a hero puts in a week's worth of heroing on society's behalf, not only do they lose out on the potential wages that they could have made by working for their own benefit, they also bear a great risk of injury or even death, yet for some reason, society calls this a privilege and an honor that should go only to the most deserving.
Simply put, society is stealing from heroes. The great masses of ordinary people who expect to be defended and saved from disaster every day are no more than parasites on the backs of the powerful, escaping being blamed for the hero's losses through the virtues of collective responsibility. Since each person is no weaker or needier than the people around them, it naturally must not be their fault that they had to be helped, therefore they must have deserved to be helped, therefore stealing from those that helped you is perfectly just.
Of course, society claims that heroes are paid for their help, but are they really? If I take 500 yen from someone, and 'pay' them 100 yen for the privilege, is that really payment? Most Pro Heroes make the comfortable wages of civil servants, yet so do most civil servants or salarymen. Society demands that salarymen work in air-conditioned office buildings, and demands that heroes rush into buildings that are on fire, yet has somehow decided that both are deserving of equivalent financial rewards. As for those wealthy heroes that do exist, they tend to be the heads of agencies, the exceptionally attractive, the ones with business-related Quirks, and so on; if they had become CEOs / actresses / businessmen instead of heroes, who's to say that they wouldn't have made more?
Of course, there are some people whose Quirk has no business applications, and who would not have been successful in non-heroic employment who could be said to have made money off of being a hero - but even they are making less than they could. Society has decreed that anyone in possession of an incredibly deadly and dangerous Quirk who uses it to its fullest potential is a Villain, and must therefore be apprehended by those people with violent and dangerous Quirks who have bowed to the whims of society.
Naturally, as a member of the current society who appreciates living in an enlightened democracy rather than the All Might or Endeavor Shogunate, I have no complaints with this particular instance of 'theft'. Nevertheless, if you were to ask whether All Might would make more money as a volunteer hero or as a ruthless warlord, the balance obviously leans towards the latter.
So then, why do heroes, those members of society with the most useful and powerful perks, allow society to steal from them? Why don't they insist on fairer wages? Why are there so many heroes who accept very low-paying hero positions even though they could get a more profitable job? Or who donate the majority of their heroic earnings to charity? If they're already being stolen from by society, why do so many heroes go out of their way to give society even more?
Many people would say that it is out of the innate goodness and kindness of their hearts, but that is ridiculous propaganda intended to placate the masses. Humans are rational animals, and don't take actions without reasons for doing so. Saying that someone is 'good' or 'kind' is just another way of saying that someone is more motivated than usual by intangible benefits.
Fame, approval, respect, praise awe, worship, satisfaction, meaningfulness of life, heroes receive all of these things from society. The heroes that are most esteemed and respected are those that are motivated to do the most for society's benefit, and those who do not receive enough accolades to make up for the strenuous demands that a hero career places upon them burn out and fade away.
Since heroes give their time and energy away and receive accolades in return, you might be tempted to say that rather than theft, heroism might better be classified as a trade. Consider, though, that society has a monopoly on fame, near-monopolies on praise, worship, respect and approval, and is by far the cheapest supplier for satisfaction and meaning in life. Furthermore, it is obvious that the majority of people in life are unhappy and unfulfilled, that more people apply to become heroes than ever succeed, and that those who do become heroes are often targets of jealousy and envy. Although praise and respect are intangible and cost nothing to create, clearly there is not enough to go around. As society is the only supplier of this good, it is clear that society is creating artificial scarcity in order to raise the price that it can demand that heroes pay to receive it. Consider the fact that vigilantism is illegal. On the one side, some people are so desperate for praise and respect that they have no other recourse than breaking the law in order to acquire it; on the other side its illegality restricts the supply of praise and respect further. In short, when society shakes down a hero for their services in exchange for public praise and approval, it is not a trade but rather an extortion, which is a form of theft. QED.
If heroism is theft, then the best heroes are those individuals that make the best victims for society's predation. Society clearly agrees with me, as children with obviously powerful or useful Quirks are given access to praise and respect at an early age, causing as many as possible children who are 'hero material' to become addicted to society's approval and therefore to seek ever greater and higher levels of fame and respect. Those with more ordinary Quirks, on the other hand, are doled out praise and respect in minimal doses so that the neediest and greediest among the mundanes will work hard enough to match with skill the natural usefulness to society of the powerful.
If society wanted to create an ideal hero, they would take someone who had never received any praise or respect in their life, who had never thought they would amount to anything, and then suddenly grant them incredible amounts of both fame and power simultaneously. Unlike children who began powerful, they would know what it felt like to have nothing, would have no acquired immunity to the addicting effects of society's approval, and would furthermore feel indebted to the society that awarded them the chance for success.
However, it is impossible to grant super-powerful Quirks to Quirkless nobodies, so that is wishful thinking. The next best thing, therefore, would likely be an individual whose Quirk everyone thought was useless, but who suddenly discovered a way to become powerful with it. Someone like that would be desperate to escape from the feeling of worthlessness, unlikely to return to a meaningless life once they had the chance to excel, and would be just as dedicated as someone who had had the hope of success from the beginning.
I, Hikigaya Hachiman, have no particular record of prior service to the community. Neither have I exhibited any signs of leadership or teamwork in the past. In point of fact, I have spent the majority of my elementary and junior high school careers despised by the community, with a Quirk so useless that people used to call me Zero-man instead of Hachiman. Nevertheless, I believe that I would make a good candidate to attend the Heroics Program at U.A. High School, precisely because I am exactly the type of friendless nobody who is likely to fall for society's blandishments and become addicted to a life of underpaid prestige. Despite the fact that I have no illusions about the devil's bargain that society offers, it is one that I am still willing to accept.
Because ultimately, I can guarantee that my greed for meaningfulness in life is superior to anyone else's.
Of course, even as I signed the essay in front of me, I knew that I was lying. For one thing, even if I had a vague interest in a meaningful life, I was absolutely the last person who would ever be motivated by what society thought of me. I was a Loner with a capital L, the sort of person who had existed separate from such concepts as friendship and camaraderie for long enough that they were no longer necessary, a fish that had survived on land for long enough that it had figured out how to breathe air. As a side note, when I do interact with people, they have a distressing tendency to tell me that I have the eyes of a dead fish, but I'm pretty sure that that's unrelated. And although I did have a Quirk that had formerly been judged as useless, a designation that could lead to social ostracism for even the friendliest person in the world, if I was honest with myself I realized that my lack of friends had more to do with my personality than my Quirk. Charitably, my personality could be described as 'cynical' and 'overly honest'; more typically, it was usually described as 'rotten'. Where the average person who applied for UA's Heroics course was an idealistic youth dedicated to achieving their dreams, I was the sort of person who denounced ideals, youth, dedication, and dreams as lies, both separately and collectively.
No, rather than taking a grueling test with a 1-in-300 rate of passing out of a love for heroism and public service, I was trying to get into U.A.'s Heroics program for reasons that might be more accurately described as a combination of 'enlightened self-interest', 'stubborn refusal to admit one's own error', and 'spite'.
If that sounds strange, well, maybe I should start at the beginning.
My story, like most peoples' stories these days, starts with my Quirk. Personally, I've always believed that was a lazy form of storytelling; reducing a character's personality down to their Quirk is the hallmark of a middle-school-syndrome hack who can't be bothered to describe their protagonists in any way more complicated than a set of superpowers attached to a generically shonen archetype. Certainly, my Quirk isn't directly responsible for my generalized feelings of misanthropy towards society, nor is it responsible for my decision to apply to U.A. despite those feelings, but somehow my Quirk lurks around the edges of those thoughts regardless.
Picture if you will a typical elementary-school classroom. Odds are you're imagining rows of desks and chairs with a blackboard at the front of the room; shelves to the sides and posters on the walls. At the front of it, in front of the blackboard, imagine an idealistic young boy with messy dark hair and lively eyes, a Hikigaya Hachiman not yet resigned to the realities of social ostracism. Sure, he's never been the most popular kid, but today is Quirk show-and-tell day, and he's sure that when he shows everyone else how awesome his Quirk is he'll be sure to finally make some friends!
"Uhm, hi everybody! My name is Hikigaya Hachiman, and, um, I have a power copy Quirk!"
"Oooh!" "Ohhh!" "Eeeh?!"
"Um, it's called '108 Skills!' It lets me copy up to 108 other peoples' Quirks by touching them!"
"Whaaaat?" "Wow!" "No way!"
"Um, every Quirk is 108 times weaker, though, and I can only use one at a time, so it's not like a super duper Quirk or anything, but it lets me do a lot of different things so I like it!"
"Show us a Quirk you copied! Can you copy Rekka-kun's flame Quirk?"
"Uhm, I'll try…"
Cue a long session of sweating, concentration, and finally the barest flicker of flame hovering over the palm of the black-haired youth.
"Ehhhh… Oh! I get it! You have 108 Quirks, but they're all completely useless! Right?"
"Uhm, that is…"
"It's like we learned in math class! 108 times 0 still equals 0!"
And thus, the friendless students hopes were dashed. In addition to being called Creepy-gaya and Hikki-germ, his fellow elementary students now also called him Zero-gaya, and had an excuse not to let him touch them so that he wouldn't copy their Quirks. And of course by him, I mean me. Still, I wasn't the first child in the world to be handed a useless Quirk, and I won't be the last. If I had been popular or likeable to begin with, my classmates probably would have been kind enough not to point out my deficiencies, and would have just treated me normally. At the time, though, I had the impulse to somehow prove that my Quirk could be useful, that it could be so useful that I could be a super-awesome hero with it, and so on.
In other words, I developed chuunibyou delusions at a precocious age. Not to brag, but I was developing unrealistic expectations of my future at a middle-school level when I was only in elementary school. You could even say that I had the impractical fantasies of a child twice my age. So if you were to say that I had dreamed of being a hero since a young age, you would technically be correct. If, you know, you omitted the fact that I no longer desired any such thing.
Heroism is a lie. As lies go, it's very successful; virtually everyone would prefer to believe that their heroes are kind and just, that they are motivated to defend them due to some sort of intrinsic goodness, that the special qualities of their character lead them to devote themselves to a life of service. If everyone correctly believed that their lives were in the hands of a crowd of glory-seeking, fame-addicted celebrities who happened to have won the genetic lottery, they probably would sleep a lot less soundly at night. Luckily, one of my 108 skills is the ability to sleep soundly anytime, anywhere! It's less exciting than the Quirk of the person I copied from, who could make do with only 15 minutes of sleep a day, but even though it isn't flashy it's one of the last Quirks I'd 'forget' in order to learn something else. As to what led me to this realization, well….
Picture a kind, beautiful girl. The sort of person who spares a moment to chat with anyone who interacts with her, even social outcasts. The sort of girl who would give a creepy loser her cell phone number out of pity, just so that he wouldn't be left out while everyone else was exchanging contact information. The sort of girl who declares her desire to be a hero, and who is supported in turn by everyone around her. The sort of girl that even a cynical outcast could admire, and maybe even fall for. The sort of girl that would inspire a lazy slacker to apply to U.A.'s hero program in the hopes of impressing her.
Before you immediately assume that I hate heroes because I was rejected by a girl like that, let me tell you. Yes, I was rejected - but that's not the point! By my third year of junior high, I was no stranger to being rejected, and had in fact been shot down by multiple girls in the past, not that that's a particularly important fact. Nothing about any of them drove me to any realizations in particular. It was the fact that after being rejected by the so-called most heroic girl in the school, I was subsequently used as a target of ridicule, mocked behind my back and occasionally to my face in order to reinforce her place in the pecking order, to insulate her from any losses of social capital that might have occurred from her giving the school loser the idea that he might have a chance with her. I had admired her for being kind to everyone, for being generous and helpful, for being someone that even a cynical person like me could admire as a good person. And then she decided to drag me through the dirt, tell all of her friends how creepy I was for hitting on her, and laugh at me for thinking that I could apply to the same hero school that she did.
And so I thought, if the most 'heroic' girl in school could do something like that so easily, what does that say about professional heroes? The 'best' heroes like All Might, of course, have their images so carefully managed that no hints of impropriety can slip out, but if you look at less-famous heroes like Captain Celebrity or Mount Lady or Native, the insincerity is plain to be seen. In the end, I discovered that Heroes are just as petty, flawed, and human as anyone else, which I suppose shouldn't really have been a surprise.
It's easy to be kind or heroic when doing so costs you nothing. Heroes and nice girls have powerful Quirks or pretty faces that allow them to make other peoples' days brighter with just a casual effort, and are more than willing to do so in order to maintain the places in the social order that they have become accustomed to. It's easy to forget when talking to one that someone who is kind to you is also kind to everyone else. That the hero who rescued you from a fire today will have no memory of you next week, and that the girl who returned your text is doing so only out of social obligation. In the end, the only reason that anyone does anything is because of benefits. Any perceived kindnesses that your receive unprompted, any time that a hero saves you seemingly out of the goodness of your heart, those actions are only performed because they are expected of people who wish to be viewed as altruistic. The truth might be cruel, but if lying is an act of kindness then it follows that kindness is a lie.
Unfortunately, that realization came only after the season for applications to high school had passed. Due to my infatuation with a supposedly 'heroic' girl, I had applied to the top heroics program in the country in order to try to impress her. In theory, after being rejected by her I should have withdrawn my application. True, UA was an incredibly selective school that virtually none of my classmates would be able to enter; if I successfully managed to be admitted there I would never have to see anyone from junior high and could have a fresh start However, the same could be said of Sobu Academy, a school that judged entirely on academics without any consideration of someone's Quirk. UA, and particularly UA's heroics program, was the sort of school that I should have realized was beyond my reach. And if I hadn't been approached on the streets one day by a trio of petty bullies who thought I had a punchable face, it would have been.
I was just walking down the street, doing some shopping before I headed home, when all of a sudden I heard someone swearing loudly. I turned around just in time to see a trio of middle school students from the other middle school in town, and a flying soda bottle full of green gunk that I ducked just in time to avoid having it hit me in the face. "Hey! Watch it!" I shouted.
The three kids from the other school turned towards me. The leader of the trio, a blonde boy with a permanently surly expression and wild hair, rolled his eyes at me. "Get lost. I'm in a shitty mood." With that, he hoisted up a soda can in one hand. With a miniscule flex of his fingers, the can erupted in flames, an explosion charring it to near-unrecognizability.
As a courageous, hot-blooded youth firmly opposed to bullying, I immediately responded with "Oh yeah of course never mind me I'll just be on my way now sorry to bother you hahaha see you later!" I also lowered my torso towards him a few times, signalling my readiness to charge him and in no way appearing like a submissive bow - look, when you've been beaten up as many times as I have, some things are just instinctual, okay?
Sure enough, my display of cowardice worked. When one of the blonde's sidekicks suggested "Hey, why don't we head down to the arcade and find a few easy marks? Heck, we could even pick up a few on our way," the blonde responded with something like "Idiot, I can't get caught with stuff like that on my permanent record if I want to go pro. Let's just go."
Briefly, I congratulated myself on successfully portraying myself as beneath their notice. By defusing their irritation and accepting my place subordinate to them, I had made it not worth the risk to flout social norms and expectations in order to deal with me! I was all prepared to be on my way, when I suddenly saw a look of shock on the faces of the people threatening me, and felt a cold slimy sensation encircling my ankle. Suddenly, I heard a watery voice coming from behind me. "Whoa, what great human shields!" it said. I felt the hairs on my arms stand up straight, and my palms began to sweat. "And what interesting quirks they have!" And that's when I was yanked up by my ankle, smothered in goo, and used as a human shield by a supervillain.
A lot of things go through your mind while you're trying not to choke to death. As I fought greedily for air, straining myself against the ropy tendrils enveloping me, taking deep gasps of smoke and soot from the nearby burning buildings every time I was able to free my nose and mouth, I thought things like "Why haven't the heroes done anything yet? Why did that blonde asshole have to kick that soda bottle? Even if the heroes' quirks aren't helpful, why did they stop trying? If I die here, please, someone erase my hard drive before my parents see it!" But more and more as time went on, those thoughts all started to coalesce into just one thought: "No." No, I was not going to die in a shitty shopping center, smothered to death by some two-bit goo villain. No, I was not going to leave my sister alone in that empty house. No, even the villain said I had an interesting quirk, there had to be something I could do to get myself free of him, at least one of my '108 Skills' that would get me out!
And so I tried everything. Fire, Water, Lightning, Psychic, Fighting; I used every Emitter perk I had copied over the years. When those ran out, I switched to the Transformation perks; usually I hated using those because my body wasn't designed to stretch or shrink or grow like the bodies that I copied them from and they always left me feeling sore, but in my moment of desperation I didn't really care. Of course those were useless too - no amount of stretching my arms a few extra inches or squeezing myself to be a few inches skinnier could get me out of the predicament I was in. In desperation, I even tried copying the ooze guy's power, thinking that even if heteromorphic quirks were typically useless to me (stubbornly, my body insisted on remaining 100% human-shaped no matter what I did), then at least my Quirk would tell me what his did and maybe what his weaknesses were. But no, all that achieved was that I used my fractional power copying quirk to copy a fraction of another power copying quirk… and also I was now 1/108th ooze, a state of affairs that most people would say was only surprising in that the fraction wasn't higher.
Just as my vision was starting to go grey around the edges, I saw possible salvation approaching. A scrawny-looking green-haired kid, rushing into danger despite the fact that the local heroes had already half given up, risking it all to come save me. A real hero, not like the so-called 'pros' that had given up on us. My heart leapt in hope that he had some kind of powerful quirk that he knew would be helpful, that he would be able to save the day! Naturally, of course, my hero threw his book bag at the ooze villain and started shouting "Kacchan! Kacchan I'll get you out of there! Kacchan! Kacchan!"
Oi, even if it's only natural to want to save your friends first, I'm here too you know? Why isn't there someone to shout 'Hacchan, Hacchan?' Am I really that unpopular? Oh, wait, I know the answer to that one. Yeah, nobody's coming for me.
As I thought those words, I gave up. I stopped struggling.
I was completely, totally defeated.
If All Might hadn't shown up in literally the very next second and blown the Ooze Villain away with a Smash, I really would have resigned myself to death, thinking that I was so unimportant to anyone that it really wouldn't have mattered to anyone that I died. I still have nightmares about that moment sometimes, nightmares about an empty, meaningless death.
All Might saved me from that. And to repay that singular act of grace, I, without permission or any right to do so, reached out with my Quirk, copied his power, and learned his deepest secrets.
And I will probably never forgive myself for it.
But because of that one irredeemable sin, my quirk suddenly gained a level of power and flexibility I could only have dreamed of in the past. Suddenly, my 108 skills were things that could actually be useful. So I guess if you were going to point to a single reason that I was at U.A., taking the admission test to the toughest, most elite heroics course in the nation…
Naturally, it was to steal useful quirks from all of the other students taking the test who thought they were strong enough to make it in.