Working With Monsters

post by johnswentworth · 2021-07-20T15:23:20.762Z · LW · GW · 10 comments

This is a fictional piece based on Sort By Controversial. You do not need to read that first, though it may make Scissor Statements feel more real. Content Warning: semipolitical. Views expressed by characters in this piece are not necessarily the views of the author.

I stared out at a parking lot, the pavement cracked and growing grass. A few cars could still be seen, every one with a shattered windshield or no tires or bashed-in roof, one even laying on its side. Of the buildings in sight, two had clearly burned, only blackened reinforced concrete skeletons left behind. To the left, an overpass had collapsed. To the right, the road was cut by a hole four meters across. Everywhere, trees and vines climbed the remains of the small city. The collapsed ceilings and shattered windows and nests of small animals in the once-hospital behind me seemed remarkably minor damage, relatively speaking.

Eighty years of cryonic freeze, and I woke to a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

“It’s all like that,” said a voice behind me. One of my… rescuers? Awakeners. He went by Red. “Whole world’s like that.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Bioweapon?”

“Scissor,” replied a woman, walking through the empty doorway behind Red. Judge, he’d called her earlier.

I raised an eyebrow, and waited for elaboration. Apparently they expected a long conversation - both took a few seconds to get comfortable, Red leaning up against the wall in a patch of shade, Judge righting an overturned bench to sit on. It was Red who took up the conversation thread.

“Let’s start with an ethical question,” he began, then laid out a simple scenario. “So,” he asked once finished, “blue or green?”.

“Blue,” I replied. “Obviously. Is this one of those things where you try to draw an analogy from this nice obvious case to a more complicated one where it isn’t so obvious?”

“No,” Judge cut in, “It’s just that question. But you need some more background.”

“There was a writer in your time who coined the term ‘scissor statement’,” Red explained, “It’s a statement optimized to be as controversial as possible, to generate maximum conflict. To get a really powerful scissor, you need AI, but the media environment of your time was already selecting for controversy in order to draw clicks.”

“Oh no,” I said, “I read about that… and the question you asked, green or blue, it seems completely obvious, like anyone who’d say green would have to be trolling or delusional or a threat to society or something… but that’s exactly how scissor statements work…”

“Exactly,” replied Judge. “The answer seems completely obvious to everyone, yet people disagree about which answer is obviously-correct. And someone with the opposite answer seems like a monster, a threat to the world, like a serial killer or a child torturer or a war criminal. They need to be put down for the good of society.”

I hesitated. I knew I shouldn’t ask, but… “So, you two…”

Judge casually shifted position, placing a hand on some kind of weapon on her belt. I glanced at Red, and only then noticed that his body was slightly tensed, as if ready to run. Or fight.

“I’m a blue, same as you,” said Judge. Then she pointed to Red. “He’s a green.”

I felt a wave of disbelief, then disgust, then fury. It was so wrong, how could anyone even consider green... I took a step toward him, intent on punching his empty face even if I got shot in the process.

“Stop,” said Judge, “unless you want to get tazed.” She was holding her weapon aimed at me, now. Red hadn’t moved. If he had, I’d probably have charged him. But Judge wasn’t the monster here… wait.

I turned to Judge, and felt a different sort of anger.

“How can you just stand there?”, I asked. “You know that he’s in the wrong, that he’s a monster, that he deserves to be put down, preferably slowly and painfully!” I was yelling at Judge, now, pointing at Red with one hand and gesticulating with the other. “How can you work with him!?”

Judge held my eyes for a moment, unruffled, before replying. “Take a deep breath,” she finally said, “calm yourself down, take a seat, and I’ll explain.”

I looked down, eyed the tazer for a moment, closed my eyes, then did as she asked. Breathe in, breathe out. After a few slow breaths, I glanced around, then chose a fallen tree for a seat - positioning Judge between Red and myself. Judge raised an eyebrow, I nodded, and she resumed her explanation.

“You can guess, now, how it went down. There were warning shots, controversies which were bad but not bad enough to destroy the world. But then the green/blue question came along, the same question you just heard. It was almost perfectly split, 50/50, cutting across political and geographical and cultural lines. Brothers and sisters came to blows. Bosses fired employees, and employees sued.  Everyone thought they were in the right, that the other side was blatantly lying, that the other side deserved punishment while their side deserved an apology for the other side’s punishments. That they had to stand for what was right, bravely fight injustice, that it would be wrong to back down.”

I could imagine it. What I felt, toward Red - it felt wrong to overlook that, to back down. To let injustice pass unanswered.

“It just kept escalating, until bodies started to pile up, and soon ninety-five percent of the world population was dead. Most people didn’t even try to hole up and ride out the storm - they wanted to fight for what was right, to bring justice, to keep the light in the world.”

Judge shrugged, then continued. “There are still pockets here and there, where one side or the other gained the upper hand and built a stronghold. Those groups still fight each other. But most of what’s left is ruins, and people like us who pick over them.”

“So why aren’t you fighting?” I asked. “How can you overlook it?”

Judge sighed. “I was a lawyer, before Scissor.” She jerked her head toward Red. “He was too. We even came across each other, from time to time. We were both criminal defense attorneys, with similar clients in some ways, though very different motivations.

“Red was… not exactly a bleeding heart, but definitely a man of principles. He’d made a lot of money early on, and mostly did pro-bono work. He defended the people nobody else would take. Child abusers, serial killers, monsters who everyone knew were guilty. Even Red thought they were guilty, and deserved life in prison, maybe even a death sentence. But he was one of those people who believed that even the worst criminals had to have a proper trial and a strong defense, because it was the only way our system could work. So he defended the monsters. Man of principle.

“As for me, I was a mob lawyer. I defended gangsters, loan sharks, arms dealers… and their friends and families. It was the families who were the worst - the brothers and sons who sought sadistic thrills, knowing they’d be protected. But it was interesting work, the challenge of defending the undefendable, and it paid a fortune.

“We hated each other, back in the day. Still do, on some level. He was the martyr, the white knight putting on airs of morality while defending monsters. And I was the straightforward villain, fighting for money and kicks. But when Scissor came, we had one thing in common: we were both willing to work with monsters. And that turned out to be the only thing which mattered.”

I nodded. “So you hated each other, but you’d both spent years working with people you hated, so working with each other was… viable. You even had a basis to trust one another, in some weird way, because you each knew that the other could work with people they hated.”

“Exactly. In the post-scissor world, people who can work with monsters are basically the only people left. We form mixed groups - Red negotiates with Greens for us, I negotiate with Blues. They can tell, when they ask whether you’re Blue or Green - few people can lie convincingly, with that much emotion wrapped up in it. A single-color group would eventually encounter the opposite single-color group, and they’d kill each other. So when we meet other groups, they have some Blues and some Greens, and we don’t fight about it. We talk, we trade, we go our separate ways. We let the injustice sit, work with the monsters, because that’s the only way to survive in this world.

“And now you have to make a choice. You can go out in a blaze of glory, fight for what you know is right, and maybe take down a few moral monsters in the process. Or you can choose to live and let live, to let injustice go unanswered, to work with the monsters you hate. It’s up to you.”

10 comments

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comment by Measure · 2021-07-20T23:13:36.725Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Surely the story would be more believable if the POV character endorsed green rather than blue. As it is, I don't find them a very sympathetic character, and I can't imagine a reasonable audience would either.

Replies from: Radamantis
comment by NunoSempere (Radamantis) · 2021-07-22T09:02:15.073Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nice meta-comment. But it doesn't really work; green was very well chosen so that any right person with a modicum of brains and heart immediately detects it as both wrong and morally repugnant. To such an extent that I found it broke my suspension of disbelief that half of the future society would believe in green.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-07-21T10:08:06.252Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a nice story, and nicely captures the internal dissonance I feel about cooperating with people who disagree with me about my "pet issue", though like many good stories it's a little simpler and more extreme than what I actually feel.

comment by gwillen · 2021-07-20T19:28:00.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like it, but 95% seems surprisingly high. Surely there are plenty of other people out there with a similar psychological makeup to Red and Judge, or to the protagonist (who can at least be convinced, with a sufficient threat, to listen before punching.) But I shouldn't fight the hypothetical too much...

Replies from: antanaclasis
comment by antanaclasis · 2021-07-20T22:26:04.866Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you also consider the indirect deaths due to the collapse of civilization, I would say that 95% lies within the realm of reason. You don’t need anywhere close to 95% of the population to be fully affected by the scissor to bring about 95% destruction.

comment by NicholasKross · 2021-07-20T18:28:17.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Socially oblivious question: Is this part of that genre of "posts that are secretly about a specific person or employer"? (aka "subtweeting")

Replies from: johnswentworth
comment by johnswentworth · 2021-07-20T18:34:43.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good question. No.

Replies from: NicholasKross
comment by NicholasKross · 2021-07-21T17:15:47.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

phew!

comment by Algernoq · 2021-07-23T02:50:31.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a beautifully written story. One criticism is that it seems to have a Moral that assumes the Blue cryonicist acts as he does in the story... an entertaining story, but limits the applicability of the Moral. In particular, signing up for cryonics and going out in a blaze of glory are really quite opposite personality traits if you think about it.

comment by jmh · 2021-07-21T14:28:06.817Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This largely captures my views about myself and choosing to follow a generally civil life -- accepting that I am not the moral authority, judge and jury even when I find my own moral senses insulted by various actions from others.

I think for me though it's about not even making the choice between blue or green explicitly -- perhaps creating an internal ambiguity that I may well be a monster (when I decide to say eff it all for following civil conventions and laws) rather than the moral person I claim (make the appearance to be) by limiting my actions and let social rules govern various outcomes.