In “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. suggests that total equality is not an ideal worth striving for, as many people believe, but a mistaken goal that is dangerous in both execution and outcome. To achieve physical and mental equality among all Americans, the government in Vonnegut’s story tortures its citizens. The beautiful must wear hideous masks or disfigure themselves, the intelligent must listen to earsplitting noises that impede their ability to think, and the graceful and strong must wear weights around their necks at all hours of the day.
The insistence on total equality seeps into the citizens, who begin to dumb themselves down or hide their special attributes. Some behave this way because they have internalized the government’s goals, and others because they fear that the government will punish them severely if they display any remarkable abilities. In his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut argues that even in a society where all things are made to be equal, qualities such as intelligence, physical abilities, and looks are still overly important.
The outcome of this quest for equality is disastrous. America becomes a land of cowed, stupid, slow people. Government officials murder the extremely gifted with no fear of reprisal. Equality is more or less achieved, but at the cost of freedom and individual achievement. Television is an immensely powerful force that sedates, rules, and terrorizes the characters in “Harrison Bergeron.” To emphasize television’s overwhelming importance in society, Vonnegut makes it a constant presence in his story: the entire narrative takes place as George and Hazel sit in front of the TV. Television functions primarily as a sedative for the masses.
Hazel’s cheeks are wet with tears, but because she is distracted by the ballerinas on the screen, she doesn’t remember why she is crying. The government also uses television as a way of enforcing its laws. When dangerously talented people like Harrison are on the loose, for example, the government broadcasts warnings about them. They show a photograph of Harrison with his good looks mutilated and his strength dissipated.
The photo is a way of identifying the supposedly dangerous escapee, but it is also a way of intimidating television viewers. It gives them an example of the handicaps placed on those who don’t suppress their own abilities. Television further turns into a means of terrorizing the citizens when Diana Moon Glampers shoots Harrison. The live execution is an effective way of showing viewers what will happen to those who dare to disobey the law.
Therefore, people in this society lose their individuality, and humanity. Vonnegut seems to imply that the government intrudes the everyday lives of the people, and their everyday lives, trying to make everyone and everything equal. How can we improve as a society if all are handicapped. The intelligent wouldn’t be able to come up with any new technologies. We would slow down as a nation.
Others would surpass us, and we would be left behind in society. Suppose no one could invent a new phone, how could we contact our friends and families on the road? In conclusion, “Harrison Bergeron” portrays how people can lose their individuality and unwillingly accept illiberal control under the pretense of equality. The author wants to warn us how dangerous and unfair such a society would be. We can’t sacrifice individuality for equality.
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