In the short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut portrays a society in which “everyone is equal”. Through the efforts of the Handicapper General, all persons who were endowed with anything more than moderate talents are forced to wear various devices meant to make everyone equal, intellectually and physically. Through showing his audience what a truly “equal” society could be, as well as how government could regulate equality, Kurt Vonnegut clearly makes the point that truly equality leads to a loss of true individuality within a society.
Each person in society has talents that another does not, which is what creates diversity in our communities and careers. By removing this diversity from society by making every person equal, the government is inviting its own demise. The first example of how idealistic equality creates a lack of individuality is in the scene where George and Hazel Bergeron are watching ballerinas on television. George notes, “They weren’t really very good – no better than anybody else would have been, anyway”.
By leveling the playing field, and forcing ballerinas to wear weights and masks to hide their talent and beauty, the Handicapper General has taken away from the dancers their unique talents for dancing and eliminating any competition between ballerinas. If all dancers must be equal, this eliminates the need for any one ballerina to spend extra time practicing, or trying to be a better ballerina. This, in turn, could create a less than desirable work ethic, as the ballerinas do not have to work as hard to be competitive.
As Philip Fetzer explains, “… even if it were possible to create a society based on equality of ability, it would not be desirable to do so. A society without differences of ability would generate no leaders, no great works of art or literature, no new ideas. The society would quickly stagnate”. The second instance in which Vonnegut shows his readers the impact of an equal society is when George and Hazel are talking about what society would be like without handicaps to make everyone equal.
George cannot think for more than a few seconds at a time because of the handicap that he must wear in his ear, to distract him from his thoughts by blaring loud noises at random. All people who have above “average” intelligence are required to wear such a device to eliminate any unfair intellectual advantage over others. However, by scaring off the thoughts of truly intelligent people, the government is also creating a society in which nothing will ever change.
Without the truly intelligent men and women in any society, there are no new inventions or new ideas that, in the past, have revolutionized a society. By making all people intellectually equal, the government and the society itself will remain unchanged and unadvanced. Ironically, George believes that without handicaps to keep everyone equal, “pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else”. However, without competition, society would revert to the dark ages, unable to compete with other societies and develop new technology and innovation.
As Christopher Alexion points out, human beings must be careful with creating equality, because of the risk of taking it “to extremes that eventually destroy whatever it was we were trying to protect. That’s why our efforts toward equality need vitally to be guided by a love of liberty. Naked equality is just another name for tyranny – for if everyone’s going to be equal in all aspects, then no one can really be free”. The final example of the effect of a truly equal society occurs when Harrison Bergeron appears on television with all of his clanking weights and extreme handicaps.
Harrison is athletic and intelligent, and has an obscene amount of handicaps because of this. Harrison attempts to overthrow the government, by declaring himself “the Emperor”, and removing all of his handicaps, as well as those of his chosen Empress. By having independent thoughts and beliefs, Harrison leads his own revolution in an attempt to change society for the better. Harrison sees that the constant equality means that people are no longer competitive, and he decides to try to change that.
However, he is killed by the government in the process, and any dreams of change die with him. As Steven Saus notes, “The maximization of human potential – and the potential of society – can only be achieved by allowing all individuals to have the best opportunity to succeed within the limits of their primary characteristics”. Any person who has new ideas or tries to initiate change within an equal society would be met with the same fate, and consequently, nothing would ever change.
By creating a society in which every person is equal, Kurt Vonnegut is able to show his readers how devastating to a society equality could be. At a time when political correctness is a must, and society strives for equality, it is easy to see how true equality could lead to a lack of diversity and competition within a society. Although Vonnegut’s society was a fictional one, a society similar to the one in “Harrison Bergeron” would become a stagnant and unmotivated environment, falling behind in innovation and invention. Ultimately, the equality in this story will lead to the demise of the society.