Lies Told To Children

Growing up, as a kid, I was always told that every sapient life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself -

Yes, this is a tale about lies-told-to-children. You’ll probably figure it out yourself before too long. For now, just listen.

Where was I? Right. As children, we were always told that every sapient life is precious. It was told to us by the teachers, and shown to us in children’s television—though I saw less children’s television than most children in our age cohort—children’s TV was censored where I grew up, though, of course, I didn’t find that out until much later -

I see you’re starting to guess under what sort of circumstances I grew up. Go ahead, write down the prediction if you want. Maybe you already see where this entire thing is headed. But you asked me for a story about the lies I was told as a child, and that’s what you’re getting. It’s not my fault, if a lot of stories like that are predictable; people who lie to children have other things to optimize for than unpredictability.

So where was I? Right. I grew up in a remote village of about three thousand people, the sort that’s more hills than houses. Charming travel-pathways that cut through forests. Not everyone knows everyone, but you sure know somebody who knows anybody.

Children’s television in my region was censored, though of course they didn’t tell us that as children. But the children’s television that we saw had aliens and monsters and creatures of fantasy, with four legs or fourteen legs, three faces or no face at all, and all of them were treated by the television show as having lives that meant something. Sometimes in the children’s show there were alien monsters who only thought their own kind of life was valuable, and then maybe you couldn’t trade with them as friends. Maybe they’d already lied to you once and you couldn’t trust them enough to bargain with them, maybe you couldn’t talk to them at all. But their lives still had meaning to the story’s human protagonists, even some aliens whose lives had no meaning to themselves. You didn’t cause them pain if there was any way to avoid it; you didn’t kill them unless their biology was sufficiently similar to human that you were confident in your ability to cryopreserve them afterwards.

The shows never spelled it out, never said, ‘And this is because of a universal rule in every case that sapient life has value.’ Our teachers said that explicitly, though.

And they treated every one of us children, too, as if our lives had meaning.

Except the children with the red hair; those dirty reds.

You’re nodding along with a knowing look, I see. Was it what you predicted? Not exactly, maybe, but rough ballpark? I suppose I’ll find out when we open your prediction afterwards.

The red-haired children hardly needed the red hair, as their targeting-mark; they looked different from the rest of us in other ways too. When I was old enough to first ask, I was told that they were the children’s children of people who’d been exiled from a faraway city for committing terrible crimes there, who’d been given sanctuary by the grace and mercy of our own benevolent kind. The red-haired children tended bigger than the rest of us, with more adult facial structures, to the point where you could’ve maybe mistaken them for very small adults in disguise. The red-haired adults, what few of them we ever saw, were correspondingly huge and muscular. You could see, in retrospect—if you were actually trying to think at all, which we weren’t really—how somebody might have felt threatened by such big muscular people, even while graciously granting them sanctuary.

There weren’t many of the red-haired children being educated alongside us; a handful, four or six. I can’t recall how many by counting names, because they kept to themselves and did not try to be friends with the rest of us.

They were slower than the rest of us in class to answer. On the rare occasions a teacher called on them, they’d often get the question wrong. We were kids, young kids, so of course we didn’t ask ourselves anything like “Is this in fact an intrinsic deficit of intelligence or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy about who gets more effort from the teachers?” or come up with any experiments to test that one way or another. We just wordlessly thought that red-haired kids were stupider; and that this too was a universal rule just like gravity.

We did not, in fact, treat our red-headed fellow kids all that well. We were of an age where kids take their cues from adults without carefully rethinking everything they’re seeing. We noticed how the older kids treated red-haired kids, we noticed how teachers treated red-haired kids, we noticed the huge red-headed adults who were silently sweeping the hallways and not doing any intellectual labor. We noticed how the adult reds got casually shoved aside by other adults or even non-red-headed older kids, and how the red-headed adults just silently took that.

There were names to call them, ‘dirty reds’, worse things than that, scatological profanities to giggle over amongst ourselves.

Now and then you’d see a Security Officer come by and ask some reds some questions. One time Security took one of the janitors away, and then after that, nobody ever saw him again. I think one of the kids did ask, in class, what happened to that guy, and the teacher shut her right down and said that any questions about dirty reds or for that matter Security were things best asked in private if you asked at all.

And meanwhile the television shows, those that we got to watch, went right on teaching the lesson that all sapient life is precious, with no exceptions for fourteen legs or not having a face.

Eventually, of course, it started coming to a point, and then it did come to a point.

It started to come to a point, at the point where a red-haired kid was called on in class and answered a question wrong, and the teacher asked if his parents were too busy stealing other people’s books to teach him how to read. The red-haired kid didn’t say anything back, but I flinched, visibly.

It came to the point, two days after that, when I was walking home from class, and I heard a groan from off the pathway home, what sounded like a moan of pain.

I left the pathway and ran around a hill to find one of those dirty reds hiding behind it, with blood all over his left pants-leg.

He asked me not to get an adult.

He said that he was hiding from Security.

He asked me to help him walk, help him get away.

It didn’t feel real. It felt like I was inside one of the children’s television shows.

Of course, in children’s television shows, they always show the heroes reminding themselves that things are real and that they’ve got to do what’s right, because it’s real, so I knew that I needed to remember that this was real because that’s what you do when you’re inside a television show.

I think I was probably very scared, though I don’t remember noticing myself being scared.

I asked him what he’d done to get Security looking for him.

He said that he had, a few days ago, said something about red-haired people deserving better treatment than they currently got, around a non-red-haired person he’d thought, hoped, was a friend.

I gave him a hand so he could stand up, on the leg that wasn’t covered with blood, and then he leaned on me and we hopped away through the hills until we got to where a red-haired woman—you saw fewer of those—whispered a thank-you to me and took him away with herself.

I ran back to the pathway and ran home, though I was still late, of course. My dad asked me where I’d been and I said I’d seen a funny-looking butterfly and run off to chase it. I remember believing, even then, that he knew I was lying, but dad didn’t ask me any more questions, and I didn’t tell him anything.

About an hour later, Security knocked on our door and asked everyone if they’d seen a red-haired person who looked like—and of course the picture was of the man I’d helped to get away.

I said no, I hadn’t seen him. But because I was a kid and kids that age aren’t taught theory-of-deception, I asked what the man had done and if he was considered dangerous. And I didn’t think, until too late, about whether that was something I was much more likely to ask if -

The Security officer asked me if I maybe wanted to change my mind about having seen the fugitive.

I gave him my best surprised look and said no.

The Security officer noted that Security officers get special training in reading emotions, and I seemed pretty frightened to him.

I said yes, I was, because the Security officer was suggesting that I was lying and that was scary.

The Security officer said he knew perfectly well, at this point, that I was lying. But I wouldn’t end up in trouble if I showed him where the fugitive went and identified anyone else he was with.

I said that he didn’t know what he was talking about.

The Security officer gave me a sort of stern look and said that he’d detected another lie, and did I really want to get in trouble for some dirty red.

I told him that I wasn’t stupid and I knew he was bluffing, to try to trick me, because he suspected me, even though I hadn’t done it.

He took a photo out of his pocket and showed it to me.

It was me helping the red-haired man walk on his one good leg.

Why, said the Security. He just looked sad, now. Why had I done it? Why was a dirty red worth it?

And I remember, by that point, that I’d noticed I was scared, and I think I was trying to get out of it—by proving that I was, in the end, obeying adult authority—when I said that we’d all been told in class that every sapient life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself, that was the rule we’d been given, and nobody had reasonably argued at any point that there was an exception for people with red hair, and also we’d all been told that hurting people is wrong and you shouldn’t let social conformity push you into it.

The rest of it went the way you’d expect.

The Security officer smiled.

My parents rushed in and hugged me and told me I’d been so brave and so good and scored in what would’ve been the upper 5th percentile twenty years ago for the age where I started to object and not go along with it anymore; and explained about Civilization needing to test some kids now and then, to find out how well we were doing environment-wise and heredity-wise on people’s kindness and resistance to conformity-pushed cruelty; and test against an earlier-reported bug where general rules about fair and okay treatment of people would somehow end up not being applied to some subgroup; and our little village was settling an important conditional prediction market from twenty years earlier, that had millions of labor-hours wagered on it; and that children growing up to be good people was a vital figure-of-merit for all of Civilization and lots of big policy decisions turned around it, which was why it had been worth specializing our village to do Science about that, and they hoped I understood all that and wouldn’t tell the other children right away. There wasn’t actually any such thing as Security, and if there ever was it would mean that it was time to overthrow the government immediately.

I nodded along in a wise, understanding, and rather numb fashion. I think the main thing I said, at the end, was that I’d better be getting paid for this, and they all laughed and said of course I was, lots of money, at least as much as my parents were getting, because children are sapient beings too.

So that’s my story about the-lies-we-tell-to-children. And the part that I value now the most, even more than the money I got then and when I was older, even more than knowing that I was good and brave in the only sort of real test that most people in Civilization ever get, is that I approximately always win any Lies-Told-To-Children storytelling night.