Since the beginning of civilization, mankind has always been somewhat concerned with the idea of equality. Although the definition of who is an equal member of society changes over time, most societies enjoy proclaiming themselves as societies that have equality for all.
You can trace the evolution of equality in the United States by examining the legislation that governs our society. In the beginning there was the Declaration of Independence, “We the people believe that all men are created equal. ” At that point men referred to only white males who owned property.Eventually, with the incorporation of the 15th and 19th Amendments into our Constitution, the definition of equality evolved and non-whites and women were considered equals in the eyes of the law as well.
In the short story Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut Jr takes the role equality plays in society to a whole new level. The society of this story attempts to make all people equal by regulating mental and physical advantages any person might have by making all citizens subject to handicaps that are supposed to make all people physically and mentally equal.Instead of acknowledging the benefits that most societies have enjoyed because of equality, Vonnegut exposes the drawbacks of over equalization of society. Vonnegut uses a plethora of exaggerations and ludicrous situations to show that the ability to make all people equal by the elimination of competition allows for members of society to stop progressing on an individual level while also allowing for society as a whole to stop progressing as well.
Ultimately, this allows for those in power to stay in power. For a society to survive it has to be moving forward in an attempt to better the lives of its inhabitants.Part of this process of moving forward includes change. When a society no longer has the ability to change, or chooses not to change it is sentencing itself to death.
Because the natural world around and within any given society is always modifying itself, the society must also evolve to compete and survive in this new environment. To be able to cure new viruses and disease society must have an evolving medical field. Not only is the environment always changing, but other societies are also in a state of constant change.To keep up militarily and economically with surrounding and competing countries, every society must find a way to change and move forward towards a better lifestyle for its citizens.
A society that is always changing for the better is a society that is always advancing and improving the lives of its citizens. By not changing the society does not leave room for improvement. If a society cannot improve, then a society is at a standstill and makes itself very susceptible to these outside dangers. In the case of Harrison Bergeron, that is not how the society works.
The person(s) who created the system of handicaps so that all people were equal on all levels also decided that they wanted their society to cease moving forward. In this society the persons in charge decided somehow it was imperative that everyone be equal. Vonnegut indicates it has something to do with the excessive competition that society experienced sometime in the past. If I tried to get away with it, then everyone would try to get away with it-and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else.
This statement by Harrison’s father, George, allows the reader to understand why this society wants everyone to be subjected to the same handicaps, but more importantly it shows that the citizens of this society conform to this regimented society because they have been made afraid of how society used to be. These people are not just protecting themselves from the law, but they actually believe that this society is fair, and the only way that society can work. This general respect for the law and the society are what help keep this society running smoothly.George is afraid of what he refers to as the “dark ages”, and that is reason enough to obey.
Most members of society share his fear of competition, and therefore share his complacency. This complacency keeps the government from having to worry about a rebellion from the masses due to general unhappiness. If the people think that the society is for their own good, then they have no reason to change it. Because our society places a strong emphasis on competition, it is difficult for us to understand how all competition could be eliminated.
Vonnegut’s method for eliminating competition is really rather ingenious.If you believe that one engages in competition to determine a winner and/or a superior, then by eliminating the idea of a winner or a superior you can eliminate competition. For example, what purpose is there in playing a football game if you were told at the beginning that the end result would be a tie? Although you play a game for fun, the concept of winning and competing are still the driving forces behind the will to play. The same holds true for the economic world as well.
If everyone graduating from any college receives the same job with the same pay, then there is no reason to compete in college for grades.In the end, everyone has achieved the same goal, and therefore can be seen as equals. In the case of Harrison Bergeron, everyone may not achieve the same goals, but they all are given the same potential to achieve these goals through the incorporation of mental and physical handicaps. Because eliminating the psychology of competition would be too difficult, Vonnegut realizes that you must eliminate the thing that drives competition, inequality.
If everyone is equal, then nobody can win, finish higher, make more money, etc. All things being equal, two individuals would achieve the same in the same environment.In Harrison Bergeron, by handicapping every person in the same manner, it gives every person the same potential to achieve a goal. Since everyone is supposedly the same, or has the same potential, there is no reason to compete, because everyone would just end up in the same spot.
Having already established that a society that lacks competition cannot move forward together as a society, this lack of competition begs another question. How do people who live in this society move up in the world? The answer is that they don’t. The lack of competition due to the fact that everyone is equal makes it nearly impossible to advance in this society.With the exception of the Handicapper General, everyone in this society is supposed to have the same capabilities based on the handicaps.
This would create a situation where the only way to achieve a better job or status would be a system where promotions were based on nepotism, not skill. It certainly couldn’t be based on merit, because everyone’s merit should be the same. Part of moving forward in a society is based on individual competition that spurs advancement for the society. This society lacks that competition, and therefore the society is out at a disadvantage in terms of ability to evolve and better the lives of its citizens.
There is another severe flaw with this type of society however. If no one person is superior to anyone else, then it seems everyone would be happy that they are equal to all. Without the burden of having to compete with others, life would become less of a race, and perhaps more enjoyable. The problem that then arises comes from nature.
Although in the eyes of the law all people are made to be equal, in the eyes of nature that is not the case. Nature may create a person however it wants to, without respect for the law.In Harrison Bergeron, the handicapper general has made sure that nature plays no part in the process of equality. Every aspect of every person’s life is regulated so that one person cannot have any advantage over another.
Earphones with sounds that resonate every 20 seconds so that they can interrupt thought process regulate intelligence. (7) Strength is regulated by the addition of heavy weights to the body. (8) Masks that cover up attractive faces regulate beauty. (8) Although this system might work for a period of time, inevitably there will be a person who supercedes all of these regulatory powers.
In this case it is Harrison Bergeron. Vonnegut uses the god-like Harrison to stress the idea that no matter how much you regulate everyone cannot be completely equal. If everyone were equal except for one individual, this one individual would have an extreme advantage over everyone else. Because of the human need for competition and power, this omnipotent person would attempt to become the new leader.
In this story it would be very easy for Harrison to say that he merely wanted to be rid of physical and mental handicaps. Instead, Harrison finds it necessary to proclaim himself emperor.It wasn’t good enough for Harrison to be a little more powerful; he had to be sovereign. Although Vonnegut’s society does have a few select people who are not subject to the handicaps of the society, it is not stressed that these “equal” people are subject to a tyrant.
This does not mean that there is not one person or group of people who are in charge, but it does suggest that perhaps the citizens of this society are pleased with the life that they live, and this allows the government in power to stay in power. The society protects them from people like Harrison; people who want to rule the world.In return, the citizens comply with the handicaps that the law mandates. The main problem with this whole society is not that they are preoccupied with handicapping, but they are neglecting the advancement of their society.
The main concern of the society is to figure out how to keep the masses physically and mentally equal. Only a fraction of the population is allowed to go without handicap, but this fraction spends its time creating laws to handicap people and then carries these laws out, or creating new handicap devices that work more efficiently.The author makes a point to show that certain people do have the job of creating handicaps for the members of society. “(Harrison) had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up.
”(10) These H-G men could spend their time thinking up ways for society to advance, but instead they spend their time dealing with ways to keep the members of society physically and mentally equal. It seems to me that society would better itself more efficiently by allowing the masses to think for themselves and develop other types of technology.The irony behind all of this is that the only people who are allowed to act freely spend their time trying to control those who don’t have that privilege. These people should be spending their time advancing society, not holding it back.
It is apparent that the government of the United States was responsible for the implementation of these handicaps, but the fact that the government was exceedingly involved brings about another issue.All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General. (7)This quote shows that these Handicaps are very much related to the government. More importantly it also acknowledges the fact that government has played a large role in regulatory issues in the past.
An increase of 175 amendments in 120 years certainly leads me to believe that government played a large role in the development of these equality issues.With such a large role in regulating the behavior of everyday people, and strict penalties inflicted for breaking the law, it seems as though the government is choosing to make sure that those in power remain in control and at the same time make it so that the general masses maintain their current positions in society. This government was making a concerted effort to make sure that nobody was mentally or physically superior to any one else in the handicapped society, let alone the Handicapper General. By protecting those in power by limiting the capabilities of everyday citizens, the government assures the fact that they will remain in power.
This aristocratic environment puts advancement of society at a standstill and enables the power to stay focused among one group of people with no serious threat from within. The society that Kurt Vonnegut creates in Harrison Bergeron is an exaggeration that probably is not a feasible forecast for the future. It does point out the dangers of what can happen to a society that is strictly regulated by a government. Specifically, the citizens become indifferent to the prospect of individual prosperity and the society as a whole is therefore condemned to a standstill.
This standstill by society and lack of ambition by the constituents allows for the government in power to retain their control. Although Vonnegut’s story is a farce, and something that most likely will never happen, it does bring up some very interesting issues about the power of government to regulate society and individual lives. Perhaps our society will never evolve to the status of the society in Harrison Bergeron, but the prospect of a powerful government is something we deal with every day.