The Final Prejudice
By David Deutsch
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
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
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 commonsense! For
when it comes down to it, nothing of any significance has really
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
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 not
twelve 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
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
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
David Deutsch is among our growing number of English correspondents.
He is a physicist at the University of Oxford, author of The Fabric of
Reality, and maintains a web site at
This article first appeared in the Taking Children Seriously Journal,
their web site is http://www.tcs.ac/