Kurt Vonnegut published Harrison Bergeron, a dystopian science-fiction short story, in 1961. The story involves a society that is trying to accomplish perfection. Vonnegut contends that total equality is a mistaken goal that is harmful in both outcome and execution. In Harrison Bergeron’s futuristic world, the government in Vonnegut’s story tortures and harasses its citizens to achieve equal mental and physical equality. The government is highly oppressive as it applied mental and physical handicaps to people with above-average intelligence and strength. As suggested by Vonnegut, unlike what most people believe, total equality is not an ideal that people should strive for in contemporary America. The paper will discuss how Vonnegut’s sayings can be applied to the debate about equality in contemporary America.
Although equality is in most cases considered a positive democratic society condition, the dystopian portrayal by Vonnegut of an entirely equal society shows how equality requires to be balanced with individuality and freedom for a society to thrive. In the same way, the same debate about equality can be applied in contemporary America, in which the need for equality has surpassed logic in some cases. For example, people who indicate an interest in different views different from standard norms, such as activists, tend to be silenced and banned from participating in such activities. The situation in the story is much similar to contemporary American society, whereby the government places much emphasis on making people appear equal instead of considering individual needs for different people or diverse groups of people. In Vonnegut’s story, although all individuals are considered equal in every possible way, Vonnegut makes it clear that forbidding individualism will make society suffer more. Mental handicaps are distributed in the country, which hinders the citizens from thinking creatively and critically. George is an individual who possesses way above normal intelligence. Despite his ability to recognize dancers who are forbidden from exhibiting talent that is above average, the government regulation has imposed the installation of invasive ear radios that scatters George’s thoughts. This shows that restricting people from thinking freely will have devastating implications for contemporary America. There should be freedom to think freely because people are different and have different thinking abilities, likely to bring more progress in society. Such actions by the government lead to dormancy because people cannot come up with new ideas or innovations in various sectors like political, economic, or social. Although the government makes George fit into society, he no longer can act or think for himself.
In Vonnegut’s story, Harrison Bergeron is the only individual who managed to defy the handicap regulations set by the government. The news media and the government villainize him because he is not acting like the rest of the people in society. Harrison shows that he has the ability to disrupt state power and society’s status quo. Therefore, he is imprisoned and eventually murdered because he is considered “extremely dangerous.” Various issues have come up in contemporary America, including the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in multiple requirements. Some of these requirements that have come up with the pandemic include mandatory vaccination on everyone. Restrictions have been set on people who refuse to get vaccinated, including loss of jobs and lack of free entry to some institutions, travel restrictions, being barred from taking part in public gatherings, and financial penalties (Hayes & Pollock, pp. 374). Such requirements have led to much uproar, and debates have risen because people believe that people should be allowed to think freely and decide what happens to their bodies.
By exploiting the suppression of people in favor of equality in the totalitarian government, the story shows that the government’s lack of balancing their pursuit of social equality with an intention and commitment to individualism and freedom is likely to hinder/obstruct the well-being of its citizens and the state. The story shows the danger that contemporary America is expected to face in the case of adopting the totalitarian rule. Such a rule subdues individualism and opposition on the ideological grounds that invasive policies and regimes are meant for the “common good” of the people and the country. Also, one might interpret the story in that given the time of writing the book (around the time after World War II and during the Cold War), Vonnegut could have been giving an impression of how a nation can exist under the danger of a totalitarian regime. Contemporary America will suffer from devastating consequences if it falls in the hands of a totalitarian regime that dictates equality in various forms, not necessarily as seen in Vonnegut’s story.
Similarly, Harrison Bergeron has been written as a warning to contemporary American society about the drawbacks of the quest for equality. Harrison Bergeron indicates that in the search for equality in a country, most of the small things and traits that make every person unique and different are destroyed. Throughout the shot story, the story centers on the main character (Harrison Bergeron) and shows him of his hostile world’s saving grace. Harrison is an example of the courageous people in society who are willing to stand up against such change and oppose it. Joodaki, Abdol, & Hamideh (pp. 72) highlights that media in contemporary American society can be misused in passing misleading messages to maintain “equality,” which might have disastrous impacts on the American citizens.
On the contrary, the other characters in the story indicate other views on the subject. For example, George is the story’s antagonist since he is a strong believer in the government and even defends it in numerous instances. For example when he states that “if I tried to get away with it, then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again” (Vonnegut, pp. 1180). He is scared of achieving his full potential, unlike Harrison. In the same way, contemporary American society has people of diverse races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and they all possess different qualities and abilities. Therefore the system should create an environment that accommodates all forms of diversity. Regardless of religion, gender, race, or economic status, all people should be free to throve in their ways without being restricted to maintain a specific amount of equality, as seen in the short story.
In Harrison Bergeron, the author utilizes irony and humor to illustrate how corrupt and unjust the utopian society is and why contemporary American society should never attempt to establish anything similar. Additionally, Kurt utilizes a lot of sarcastic tones regarding his characters. For example, Kurt writes, “I’d have chimes on Sunday-just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion” (Vonnegut, pp. 1179). Almost immediately after that, the character (Hazel Bergeron), who is regarded as the social base in the short story because he lacks handicaps, addresses George telling him to “rest your handicap bag on the pillows” (Vonnegut, pp. 1180). The situation is ironic because such regulations were implemented to benefit individuals like Hazel Bergeron. Yet, Hazel tells her evidently more intelligent husband to take the handicaps off.
Additionally, although George becomes disabled because of the 47-pound birdshot tied around him, he remains loyal and obedient to the same regime that had strapped the outrageous physical handicap on him. Through this story, Kurt Vonnegut’s argument can be used to debate equality. Vonnegut uses various types of irony, mockery, and humor to indicate how a government can control and manipulate its citizens individually, all in the name of equality. Such a situation would leave contemporary America devastated in all ways, whether economically, politically, or socially.
In the short story, Kurt Vonnegut’s opinion and perspective of equality involve making everything the same for everyone, including people’s intelligence, looks, abilities, talents, and strength. However, contemporary America should not consider implementing such regulations because true equality entails having every person treated equally with similar respect. This means that the people do not have to be the same but possess different attributes or qualities. In the short story, Kurt suggests that total equality is not an ideal worth aiming for, as most individuals believe. On the contrary, total equality is a dangerous aspect for contemporary American society in both outcome and execution.
The extreme attempts made by the government to achieve mental and physical equality among the people results in torture. For example, beautiful people are forced to disfigure themselves or wear hideous masks. The strong and graceful must endure having weights around their necks throught the day, and the intelligent people are forced to listen to earsplitting noises damaging their thinking abilities. The instance by the system to maintain total equality gets into the people who start to dumb themselves down as they hide their unique qualities. Most have internalized the system’s goals, and some fear the consequences of displaying such qualities; hence they hide such special attributes. The results are outrageous, whereby the country becomes full of slow, stupid, and cowed people. The government officials kill the super talented people with no fear of any form of reprisal. This means that if contemporary America risks adopting such a regime, equality will be more or less achieved. Still, it will happen at the expense of individual achievement and freedom of the American citizens.
In conclusion, as suggested by Vonnegut, unlike what most people believe, total equality is not an ideal that people should strive for in contemporary America. Although equality is considered a positive democratic society condition, the dystopian portrayal of an entirely equal society shows how equality requires to be balanced with individuality and freedom for a society to thrive. Bergeron is the only individual who managed to defy the handicap regulations set by the government. The news media and the government villainize him. Media in contemporary American society can be misused in passing misleading messages to maintain “equality,” which might have disastrous impacts. The story is a warning to contemporary American society about the drawbacks of the quest for equality. It indicates that in the search for equality in a country, most of the small things and traits that make every person unique and different are destroyed
Hayes, Lydia, and Allyson M. Pollock. “Mandatory covid-19 vaccination for care home workers.” BMJ 374 (2021).
Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, and Hamideh Mahdiany. “Equality versus Freedom in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 2.4 (2013): 70-73.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Harrison Bergerson. na, 1961.