How does "Harrison Bergeron" satirize and expose the flaws in society?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his famous essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.

This opinion was written almost a century before Vonnegut's story, yet it describes the society in which Harrison Bergeron finds himself. His is one of forced equality, even to the point of making everyone mediocre. Society is certainly in conspiracy against those with superior abilities in Vonnegut's satire. With black humor, Vonnegut depicts buzzers going off in people's ears, masks being worn to cover beautiful faces, lead weights inserted into clothing to weigh down those too athletic, and handicaps on the heads of the brillant.

Perhaps one of the most salient of examples of the ridiculousness of forcing everyone to be "equal," comes with the ridiculous Hazel, who is too limited naturally to have to wear handicaps.

"Who knows better' n' I do what normal is?" said Hazel.

Right," said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son...but a twenty-one gun salute in his head stopped that."  

Hazel's complete acceptance of the forced equality of everyone comes because many like Hazel are inadequate themselves. When an announcer with  a terrible voice and speech impediment tries to say, "Ladies and gentlemen," he has to give up because he cannot do it. The dull Hazel says words that echo those of some people today,

"That's all right--...he tried. That's the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard."

At the end of the story, Hazel has seen her son shot, but she cannot clearly remember, so George consoles her, "Forget sad things."

Vonnegut satirizes the superficialty that results in a society when one's natural talents are not developed, when competition no longer exists, when someone cannot be "better" than someone else...when a genius like Harrison Bergeron is not appreciated and is even killled so that everyone will be mdeiocre.