From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 18, 1995
Suppose you suddenly found yourself in the body of a twelve-year-old child. Suppose that despite this physical transformation, your personality, your knowledge and every other aspect of your mind remained unchanged. How might this affect your life?
This was the theme of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (entitled Rascals). A transporter malfunction physically rejuvenates four of the Starship Enterprise’s crew, including Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
The Ship’s Doctor, Beverly Crusher, runs some tests and determines that the bodies of the Captain and the others are the bodies of twelve-year-olds, but their minds are entirely unaffected. She explains the results of her tests to the First Officer, Commander William Riker. The striking thing about this scene is that the Captain is right there, next to her, but she is not reporting to him. She is talking about him, but over him, as though he were not present at all. This sort of casual discourtesy towards children is familiar enough. But this is not a child. It is the Captain of the Enterprise. Her commanding officer.
The Captain gives Riker an order. When Riker replies, we immediately see that there is something embarrassed and tentative about his manner. He hesitates before adding the word “sir”.
What is going on here? The Captain of a Starship is not being taken seriously by his own subordinates. Why? Whatever the reason is, it must be very powerful if it takes precedence over these people’s loyalty, their training, their personal respect and admiration for Picard – to say nothing of elementary decency and common-sense! For when it comes down to it, nothing of any significance has really changed.
The Captain has merely changed shape. Now, admittedly, that sort of thing is a rarity in our mundane 20th-century world. But to the Enterprise crew, coping with shape-changes, in oneself and in others, is all in a day’s work. When the crew of the first Starship Enterprise found themselves ageing at several years per day, everyone naturally began to worry about how long Captain James T. Kirk would remain up to the job. But what they were worrying about was his mind, not his shape. His face became very wrinkled, but he was still the undisputed Captain. Even when his personality did seem to change, Kirk was given every possible benefit of the doubt.
Captain Picard himself was once kidnapped by the Borg, who transformed him into one of themselves (which involved surgically altering one side of his head) and assimilated his mind into their collective consciousness. He began to collaborate with them in their plan to conquer the galaxy. He ceased to be Captain Picard and became Locutus of Borg. Yet there again, it was his mind that counted. It was not his shape-change but his robotic mouthing of Borg slogans that told the crew, and the audience, that he was no longer the Captain. Later in the same episode, Lieutenant Commander Data managed to weaken the link between Picard and the Borg collective. Picard only needed to say one word (“sleep”) in what was clearly his old character, for him to be accepted as himself again. He still looked like a Borg.
In every other Star Trek episode that deals with shape changes, or with unusually-shaped sentient beings, the overriding consideration is: it’s the mind that counts. A person is a mind, not a body. That is the attitude we have come to expect from those good people of the 24th century, to whom racism and all similar prejudices are incomprehensible historical aberrations.
Yet when it becomes clear that Captain Picard intends to get on with his job of running the Enterprise, Dr Crusher immediately tries to stop him, on the pretext of needing to conduct further tests. He tells her that she can continue testing the other three, and leaves the Sick Bay, whereupon Dr Crusher and Counsellor Deanna Troi exchange glances, like worried parents.
When the Captain reaches the Bridge and issues orders, Lieutenant Worf and the others can barely bring themselves to comply. The Captain reminds them that he is still the Captain. Still they hesitate, until Riker’s nod of confirmation pushes them into uneasy obedience. The crew know that the Captain’s mind is unaffected, but they are simply unable to take him seriously in a child’s body.
Dr Crusher arrives on the bridge and asks, in a worried voice, to see the Captain privately in his ready-room. He accompanies her there and orders his usual Earl Grey tea – just to remind the audience that his personality is unaffected by the physical change. At this point, the strain seems to be getting to him, but nevertheless, he tries to brazen it out by talking about work. Dr Crusher, looking every bit the concerned parent, won’t let him. Outrageously, she wants to persuade him to relinquish command. She cobbles together the excuse that his condition could possibly at some time in the future affect his mind.
“You have no evidence for that,” is the Captain’s last defence. Indeed not. Not only is there no evidence for this possibility: it would not remotely justify his stepping down even if it were a known risk. Dr Crusher would merely have to repeat her tests regularly to check that there was no sign of mental deterioration. After all, there is a possibility that the Captain will at any moment contract a rare brain disease, or suffer a flashback to his Locutus of Borg days, or drop dead.
There is no case for stepping down. Yet the Captain is beaten. Not only does he transfer command to Riker, he retires to his cabin and plays no further part in the ship’s officers’ deliberations about this and other emergencies that are facing the Enterprise. Why? What has suddenly made his opinions worthless even as advice?
Captain Picard gives up his command so easily because he himself is just as susceptible as the rest of the crew to the sinister force that this episode is really about. He too finds it difficult to conceive of himself as Captain of a Starship in a child’s body.
Later, in his cabin, the Captain looks at himself in a mirror. Three expressions cross his face in rapid succession. First, he is worried, trying to come to terms with his situation; then he feels his chin, and finds no stubble: he is no longer a man; finally, he feels his hair, and a faint smile crosses his lips, as though he is thinking “ah well, there is one consolation – hair!” (Before rejuvenation he was bald.)
The Captain is putting on his adult-size jacket as Counsellor Troi enters. “This is so ridiculous,” he says. “I can’t take myself seriously like this. If Dr Crusher can’t find a cure – if I have to stay this way – nobody is going to take me seriously are they?” Counsellor Troi answers carefully that people who know him well will eventually make the adjustment, but that there will be some who will never be able to accept a twelve-year-old captain.
She is right – but think about it: they can take seriously an android like Data as a Starfleet officer (though he had to fight a court case to establish this right); they accept aliens, such as Vulcans, as Starship Captains; they take alien beings of pure energy, or silicon life forms, or what have you, seriously as first-class citizens. They are not shape-prejudiced. But there is one shape – one shape only – that disqualifies a person from receiving the respect of his fellow human beings. And that is the shape of a human child.
Why? Something in our culture powerfully compels it (and it is our culture that this is really all about – we must hope that such irrationality will be forgotten long before the real 24th century).
Captain Picard concludes that he will have to give up his captaincy for the next ten to fifteen years, and wonders what to do in the meantime. Troi suggests that he can go back to the Academy. Back to school, as it were. Just the sort of thing adults advise young people to do in lieu of taking genuine forward steps in their lives. Naturally, he rejects the idea. Then Troi suggests the right thing – that he could spend the time exploring other interests. She says he could go and crawl through caves and do archaeology (which he is passionate about) and still have time to become the youngest admiral in Starfleet history. This last idea is false, of course: he would be the oldest admiral perhaps; certainly not the youngest.
Keiko O’Brien is another of the changed crew members. In their quarters, her husband Chief Miles O’Brien is having great difficulty coming to terms with her shape. When she tries to be close to him physically, an expression of revulsion crosses his face. When she brings him some coffee, he nervously tells her “Careful! That’s hot!”
Meanwhile the superhuman Guinan, who runs 10-Forward, the ship’s bar, relaxation area, and alternative counselling service, is taking her rejuvenation in her stride. She too has been relieved of her duties. (Why, by the way? Is she now too young to be allowed in the bar?) She views this as an opportunity to live without adult responsibilities and engage in some childlike fun. The remaining rejuvenated officer, Ensign Ro Laren, sees nothing good in the change and feels terribly dislocated by it. She tells Guinan that she just wants to get back to normal as soon as possible. Guinan tries to cheer her up but she huffily replies that she is going to her room. Guinan accuses her of “pouting”, to which she responds: “I am nottwelve years old. If I want to go back to my room and contemplate my situation, that does not mean I am ‘pouting’.”
She is right. We call the same behaviour “pouting” when it is done by a twelve-year-old, and “contemplating one’s situation” when it is done by an adult. Shame on us!
Later, the Doctor is discussing the Captain’s medical condition. But again, not with the Captain: with the First Officer, in loco parentis! It seems that even in the 24th century, children still have no right to elementary privacy, and a doctor’s primary duty is still not to the patient, but to the patient’s parent (or in this case, ‘guardian’).
The story moves on, and the Enterprise is hijacked by a band of renegade Ferengi. All the adults are taken off the ship to work as temporary slaves in the Ferengi’s mines. The children, including the four adults in children’s bodies, are confined to the ship’s school. (Yes. They still have schools in this imaginary 24th century – and no doubt their starships are powered by rubber bands.) Captain Picard decides to try to take over the ship from the children’s computer terminal. He is greeted by a cartoon fish saying in a patronising voice: “Hello, what can I do for you today?”
“Computer, display internal security grid,” orders Picard.
But this computer is not accustomed to taking orders from its users. “I’m sorry,” it says, “but I can’t do that. Would you like to play a game?”
Picard is exasperated. “No I would not. Computer, display an internal schematic diagram.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. Would you like to see some interesting plants or animals?”
Guinan knows how to get blood out of a stone. She says: “Computer, can you show me a picture of the Enterprise?”
Finally, it complies. “Yes I can,” it says, showing an inadequate, simplified map of the ship. And then: “The Enterprise is a Galaxy Class Starship. Do you know how to spell ‘Enterprise’?”
Because it is running an “educational” program, the computer is stubbornly disregarding what the Captain is asking for, denying him the knowledge that he so desperately needs to save the ship. Instead it tries to foist upon him the information that it thinks he needs. We can guess how infuriated and humiliated the Captain feels. Why do we not sympathise quite so readily with children in our culture, to whom exactly the same thing is done every day?
So far I have been discussing this story as if it were about a “shape-prejudice”. But that is not really so. It is about something much deeper and more horrible. After all, no one in the story, or in real life, is fundamentally prejudiced against adults in child-shaped bodies. If such transformations were to become a common phenomenon, people would soon modify their disrespectful behaviour. Transformed adults would be re-admitted to the world. Perhaps they would have to wear special badges to identify them, with draconian penalties for lending one to a real child. (There would be no need to introduce any penalty for not wearing the badge. No badge-holder would dream of going anywhere without it.) At any rate, effective measures would soon be taken to ensure that transformed adults would be listened to and afforded ordinary respect and dignity. Only the genuine children would continue to be sidelined, overridden and humiliated as they always have been.
The real prejudice, then, is against children as people; not against their shapes but against their minds. And of course we are all familiar with the myriad supposed justifications of that prejudice, and of the consequent mistreatment of children, that are everywhere cited: justifications in terms of the children’s own good, or society’s good; in terms of parental rights or duties; in terms of supposed necessity, or God’s will, or whatever.
But which comes first? Are people first driven, by weighty (if ultimately flawed) arguments, reluctantly to the conclusion that it is right and necessary to treat children as second-class human beings? Or do people have the prejudice first, and only afterwards compile, or unconsciously invent, their rationalisations?
This story ingeniously sets up a fictional situation – a thought-experiment – that answers this question. It is carefully designed so that not one of the rationalisations applies. For instance, it is stressed from the outset that the rejuvenated people’s minds are unaffected; moreover they are adult minds, and not just any adult minds but extremely valuable minds of the highest competence. There are no “parental rights” involved, and the Bible contains no special injunction to chastise starship captains. In short, there is strictly nothing in the usual justifications that could support downgrading these people’s status. On the contrary, everything points to any such downgrading being an appalling injustice. Indisputably the right and proper thing would be to continue to treat Picard and the others as the people they are. The crew know this perfectly well – intellectually. Yet when it comes to action, they cannot help themselves. The prejudice does indeed come first. The rationalisations (such as Dr Crusher’s, described above) are indeed invented afterwards to justify it.
Back to the story. Eventually, with the help of the Enterprise’s real children, and despite the computer’s attempts to “educate” him, the Captain manages to outwit and capture the Ferengi hijackers and regain control of the ship.
At the end of the story, Dr Crusher has developed a “cure”.
But why exactly is this condition a disease? No one in the story seems to notice that, prejudice aside, the change is objectively for the better. Why aren’t they working on ways to reproduce the “malfunction” so that everyone can get this “disease”? For it amounts, in essence, to several decades of extra life. Troi had consoled the Captain by saying that he has “an opportunity here that others only dream of”. What opportunity did she mean? To live longer? To have a long holiday doing archaeology? No. She tells him it is an opportunity “to have a second childhood without the pain of growing up.”
But is it growing up that is painful, or childhood? Given the choice, the characters certainly behave as if it were the latter.
At the end, the four transformed individuals are “cured”. It is taken for granted that no one in their right mind would choose to be in a child’s body – in our culture, anyway. And who can argue with that?
- Dead Poets Society is not taking children seriously
- The Simpsons – the best teacher in the world
- It is impossible to control for all the variables in any experiment involving human psychology
David Deutsch, 1995, ‘The final prejudice’, Taking Children Seriously 18, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 13-16, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/the-final-prejudice/