How does "Harrison Bergeron" relate to current society?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kurt Vonnegut's story opens with this telling sentence, "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal."  In this year of 2081, the culture values "equality" so much that people have become so complaisant that they agree to oppressive measures in the name of equality. When, for instance, Hazel suggests that George removes the forty-seven pound handicapbag, he strongly demurs,

"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, with everybody competing against everybody else."

In the world of "Harrison Bergeron" being competitive is wrong; mediocrity is acceptable and lauded.  When an announcer on the television is unable to even say "Ladies and gentlemen--" Hazel comments,

"That's all right--...he tried.  That's the big thing.  he tried to do the best he could with what God gave him."

In this twenty-first century, this phrase is echoed repeatedly by parents and teachers alike. Often anyone who wants to be on small town football teams are allowed to be; there are no "try-outs" because these would make those not chosen "feel bad."  In sports, especially with the younger children, everyone on the team gets a trophy, no matter whether he or she never played in any of the games. Students are awarded Certificates of Participation so they feel equal to others. Everyone "tried."

Vonnegut's worries came in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, a movement for equality that had to be enacted by the force of the federal government in some states. With this exertion of Federal force, fears that the federal government would in some way propose schemes that would enforce equality of outcome entered the mind of Vonnegut and many others. Thus, Affirmative Action can be viewed as such a type of forced equality as certain people are given scholarships or extra points on entrance exams for law and medical schools or government jobs, for instance, to even the "playing field." Business firms were give quotas in the 1970s on hiring that they had to comply with, and many municipal employers such as Police and Fire Departments have been compelled by the federal government to hire in compliance with Affirmative Action, even when their town contains no minorities. These departments, then, must recruit from another township so that they can meet federal stipulations or risk discrimination charges.

The Federal Education bill of No Child Left Behind is also a type of forced mediocrity as ultimately children at the higher end are held back in achievement so that others can "catch up."

Ironically, when Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, delivered an attack on television five months before ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ was published, he called television "a vast wasteland'' of destructive or meaningless programs. The plethora of reality and talk shows underscores this statement about meaningless programs. Many videos and movies are perceived as counter-culture and damaging to ethical values, too.  

mdelmuro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kurt Vonnegut wrote "Harrison Bergeron" in 1961, which was in the midst of the Cold War and just after the end of the Joseph McCarthy-era of anti-Communist witch hunts by the U.S. Congress. While this story has been used by many different political groups to mean many different things, conservative groups have latched on to this story's anti-equality message. Conservative groups have read this story as a warning that the equality required by socialism and communism require conformity and reduces society to its lowest-common denominator instead of requiring the competition that is inherent to capitalism.

They take George Bergeron's warning to his wife as a warning of what would happen if equality was enforced by the U.S. government:

"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, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn't like that, would you?"

This idea has been applied to many other situations, including affirmative action and the promotion of the idea that standards will be lowered due to letting unqualified minority students into colleges and jobs before more qualified white students.

However, it is possible that Vonnegut meant this story to be a satirical challenge  to the conservative anxiety over equality and political correctness.

Regardless of the political intentions of the author, the eponymous hero of the story can serve as a guide for all readers today. In a society in which conformity—Instagram selfies, Snapchat filters, even the millennial generation's desire to be nonconformist stinks of conformity—is expected, Harrison makes a point of standing out by taking risks and challenging the status quo. Instead of demanding a political revolution by viewers while he has the attention of the country on him, he instructs a ballerina to dance her best and the musicians to play their best. 

This challenge Harrison throws down is the most timeless aspect of this story. It calls for all people to metaphorically leap as high as possible, "abandon the laws of gravity," and kiss the ceiling.