Conditions in Society
In his Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s Kurt Vonnegut reflected on a 1983 speech he gave at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City:
American TV, operating in the Free Market of Ideas ... was holding audiences with simulations of one of the two things most human beings, and especially young ones, can't help watching when given the opportunity: murder. TV, and of course movies, too, were and still are making us as callous about killing and death as Hitler's propaganda made the German people during the frenzied prelude to the death camps and World War II.... What I should have said from the pulpit was that we weren't going to Hell. We were in Hell, thanks to technology which was telling us what to do, instead of the other way around. And it wasn't just TV.
With these words, Vonnegut reminds us of his 1961 story ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ particularly its use of television, which desensitized Hazel Bergeron, Harrison's mother, to the murder of her own son, which she witnesses while watching television. True, she sheds tears over what she sees, but she has become so numbed by watching television that she cannot remember why she is crying. Robert Uphaus, in his 1975 essay, ‘‘Expected Meaning in Vonnegut's Dead-End Fiction,’’ pointed out that ‘‘The history of mankind, Vonnegut implies in the story, is a history of progressive desensitization partly spurred on by the advent of television.’’
No doubt, Vonnegut—either while writing the story or after sending it for publication—heard about Newton Minow's famous 1961 speech about television programming, called "The Vast Wasteland’’ [Reprinted in The Annals of America, Vol. 18, 1961-1968: The Burdens of World Power]. Minow specifically mentioned violence as a contributor to this wasteland when he listed what a viewer of television would see in a typical day:
game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And, most of all, boredom.
Near the end of the speech, talking about programming, Minow pleaded for ‘‘imagination ... not sterility; creativity, not imitation; experimentation, not conformity; excellence, not mediocrity.’’ He added, "The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind's history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good—and for evil.’’
In ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ Vonnegut uses some of the same ideas when he portrays television as a kind of desensitizing, numbing, and clearly thought-stifling, rather than thought-provoking, medium. When Harrison goes not to the seat of government to start his revolution but instead to the television station, Vonnegut illustrates that "awesome power’’ Minow describes in his speech. Harrison's power to reach the people and make a new reality (declaring himself emperor), Vonnegut agrees, stems from controlling television. Clearly, the government, in the form of the Handicapper General, also understands that power.
While it would be facile to blame television completely for the condition of society in the story, the negative consequences of television, such as encouraging people to not think, form a basis for the rest of the story. The ratification of ludicrously absurd amendments to the constitution requiring a "Big Sister'' (United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers) to monitor the population vigilantly for compliance, effectively creating a police state which ruthlessly enforces the laws, probably results from an uninformed and frightened population. We could see television as a first cause, even though several other causes for the social and political setting of the story likely contributed directly to the ignorance and fear. These...
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