What if the world was perfect and we were all made equal? Kurt Vonnegut’s October 1961 short story, Harrison Bergeron, humorously poses this very serious and extremely timely question to society in a story that is easy to read, easy to digest and interesting to decode. Vonnegut’s treatise takes a critical look at equality to question whether society could handle everyone being average and every extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent or talented person being handicapped so that the average people do not feel envious. It may not be realistic to hope that no would ever excel at anything or that competition would be completely eliminated but this also might not be the most important point of Vonnegut’s science fiction story. Are we wannabes who cannot handle second place, failures too sore to lose and cannot stand Mister or Missus perfect? Is it possible to stop measuring our successes against those of other people or just to accept our differences however inferior they may be? In this futuristic version of Utopia, Kurt Vonnegut employs satire to make a statement about this notion that all people should have equal status in society and seems to ask an important question: is true equality what society really needs (Vonnegut #)?
Moreover, if it was the job of government to make everyone worse and to hammer in equality at every cost, we would surely have equality, but would the world be made more perfect? In fact, Vonnegut allows that in attempting to make everything more perfect and fairer, we actually create a lot of discomfort and unfairness for those who are at the top rungs of exceptional personal attributes. George and Harrison are perfect examples of this. George wears a transmitter that mangles his thoughts and keeps him from being able to think at a high level. Harrison is locked up like a criminal because his ability to think makes him dangerous. Ironically, in its attempts to engender equality, the government is forced to take some pretty severe measures and perpetuate unthinkable things so that the masses are in control and the exceptional face the tyranny of masks to cover beauty, transmitters to block thoughts and poor performance in favor of the talented, beautiful and brilliant (Vonnegut #).
Moreover, the notion of equality inherently owns a specialized contempt for the talented. Equality, Vonnegut seems to suggest, goes beyond trying to pull others in society up to the level of those who excel; instead, equality asks those who excel to be lesser than. Vonnegut’s ballerinas where “sashweights” which “burden” their steps and dampen their flight, beauty and gracefulness. These terrible dancers and there be-labored steps make an exaggerated point. Equality turns people with natural rhythm into talentless, graceless nobodies, it is absurd to think that society would ever want true equality so bad as to rob the world of art, music and color. The author is criticizing this view that sameness is ideal and showing the world what it looks like when it is devoid of difference and separation.
But what happens when someone dares to break the mold? If society were not equal, there would be people who were better and worse than average. For those for whom “average” is an improvement, Vonnegut’s utopia is ideal. But, for those for whom the average has never been good enough, they would be forced to face and endure undue hardship with no way to benefit from the “extras” they might have earned or acquired thanks to schooling, former family wealth or a good background. Vonnegut notices the importance of maintaining a strict hold over a society that has been pigeonholed into such a condition. In this sense, no one could be allowed to step outside of the mold for fear that everyone would try to push the limits of law and society. In effect, everyone would be equally likely to face punishment for offenses. In this short story, difference is likened to “the dark ages” and the reader is led to see an entirely new set of values and beliefs about how government should run or react to problems with everyday citizens accepting completely different statutes. In fact, Vonnegut also seems to comment that sometimes the solutions for society’s so-called problems create even bigger problems and a lot more awkwardness than the original problems themselves (Vonnegut #).
Doubtless, Vonnegut makes some strong arguments against equality and seems to prove that this sameness destroys diversity and difference, which is beautiful. But there seems to be a message behind the humorous, satirical and absurd elements of this story, especially when it is considered in light of the day and age in which it was written. The 1960s were a period of social and political upheaval. The Civil Rights era was all about equality and having a place on the bus, at the lunch counters, and in the space and company of white people. When the type of equality that blacks were asking for – equal housing, equal schools, equal access to education, employment and opportunity – is considered, it seems unusual that Vonnegut would use satire to poke holes at the theory that equality bridges gaps in society. It almost forces one to wonder if there is not still another layer to the question of what a perfect society entails. Perhaps Vonnegut hoped to point out that the common-mode attacks against socialism were just as absurd as the lives and histories of the characters in this story. Either way, it is almost impossible to know just what direction Vonnegut may have been leaning in (Vonnegut #).
The perfect society is honestly one where differences are allowed to run up against one another and are enjoyed as the natural and regular course of human history. Does this mean that society should run aground any attempts to stamp out bias and inequality? No. But a perfect society has very few excesses because there is no perfection on the extreme right or left of political theory and policy. A perfect society has inequality, but inequality motivates people to work harder to excel when they can, and when they survive, to reach back and help another person. If everyone was equal, there would be no “big sisters” or “big brothers” who were training, mentoring and developing a young, eager and waiting youth.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Fifth ed. Eds. John Schilb and John Clifford. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2012. pp. 1554-1559. Print.