Discussion Topic

The concept of equality and its implications in "Harrison Bergeron."

Summary:

In "Harrison Bergeron," the concept of equality is taken to extremes, resulting in a dystopian society where individuals are forced into artificial uniformity. To ensure no one is superior in any way, the government imposes physical and mental handicaps. This illustrates the dangers of pursuing absolute equality, highlighting the loss of individuality, freedom, and the suppression of excellence.

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How does "Harrison Bergeron" contradict the idea of human equality?

One of the main themes of Vonnegut's story is the inherent contradiction in any assumption of human equality.  He does not necessarily suggest that one human is more valuable or inherently of greater worth than another, but he does suggest that people have different abilities and different strengths.

If you were attempting to defend the idea of equality after reading the story or going along with the story, you would likely focus on the fact that the various handicaps appear to be placed on everyone.  Of course some handicaps appear more onerous than others, but just because some people appear to be physically more gifted or mentally more gifted doesn't mean that on another level there is a kind of equality.  But it does not mean that all humans can achieve the same results in the same arena.

A person who is 4' tall cannot achieve the same results in the NBA as someone 7' tall, but the celebration of physical prowess is arbitrary and does not mean that both people are not equal in some other sense.

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What is the distorted notion of equality in "Harrison Bergeron" and its relevance today?

In this story, the Handicapper General and her agents force handicaps upon citizens based upon their physical and mental abilities. If an individual is mentally gifted, that person is forced to wear a device that will distract and disrupt his/her thinking. Likewise, if a person is physically gifted, he/she is given physical handicaps. These handicaps are forced upon people in order to make everyone equal. If someone is beautiful, she/he is made to wear an ugly mask. In other words, the goal of this society is to have everyone as equal as possible in as many ways as possible. As a result, gifted people are deprived of using those gifts. 

In contemporary society, there are plenty of examples of inequality which would not be applicable in making similar comparisons with this story. For example, in many instances/jobs, women do not earn the same wages as men. Racism is still a problem. And the wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 90% has never been greater. We have professional athletes who are clearly superior to most people in terms of athletic ability. We have scientists who build particle accelerators and are learning about the origins of the universe. Nothing is holding them back other than bureaucratic red tape. 

But note that in the story, Harrison showcases his abilities on television. It stands to reason that Vonnegut is making a criticism of media, television, and/or popular culture. Similarly to how the handicaps mentally and physically numb people in this story, television does have the potential to numb our sensitivities to violence, starvation, poverty, racism, inequality, and even stories of hope. There are certainly programs that bring awareness to these issues but there are also programs that desensitize the populace as well. And if they numb us to the point that we don't care to think about them, we essentially become like the characters in the story. In other words, in this numb state, we behave as if everything is fine and everyone is equal. To be insensitive and thoughtless about real inequalities in the world is to behave as if everyone is equal. So, this is an example in contemporary society of how popular entertainment can numb our senses and sensibilities to the point where we stop paying attention to inequality. In a sense, when we stop paying attention to inequality, we mentally handicap ourselves. 

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What does "Harrison Bergeron" teach about the limits of ensuring equality?

Before discussing the idea of "equality" in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," I think it's important to establish what type of "equality" he is writing about. Although the story was published in 1961, a year in which African Americans and their allies were fighting to achieve equal rights under the law, Vonnegut is really discussing ability and the tendency to reduce ourselves in order to ensure others feel okay. This is obvious due to the fact that there is no discussion of race or gender in the story, but rather a discussion of ability. The handicaps are meant to make those who are great equal to those who are at the bottom in regards of a specific talent or ability.

In this story, Vonnegut clearly intends to show that no matter how much society or the government aims to suppress someone's ability and uniqueness, that ability and uniqueness always has the potential to reach the forefront. There are several examples of this in the story, but for me, the most persuasive of these is the ballerina who reads the news. Despite the handicapper general's requirement that she wear a "hideous" mask, it was clear to the viewers that "[s]he must have been extraordinarily beautiful." In addition, her voice was "a warm, luminous, timeless melody." All attempts to mask these traits ultimately fail because the viewer still recognizes exceptionalism.

This is Vonnegut's point in this story. Society and the government can attempt to make sure no one is extraordinary, but no matter how hard they try, the exceptionalism of certain individuals' abilities or traits is impossible to mask.

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How is equality defined in "Harrison Bergeron"?

In Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," the Constitution of the United States has been amended to create a completely uniform society, where everybody is equal in all facets of life. In the future, dystopian America is defined as a lack of disparity and complete homogeneity among citizens on an intellectual and physical level. In order to create a completely uniform society, where everyone is equal in virtually every way possible, the Handicapper General and her agents enforce laws that restrict and limit citizens' intelligence and physical talents. Agents of the Handicapper General require that citizens with above average intelligence wear mental handicap radios in their ears, which transmit sharp noises every twenty seconds to interrupt their thoughts. Physically talented individuals are forced to wear cumbersome handicaps that limit their mobility while attractive citizens are required to wear ugly masks. Overall, equality in Vonnegut's dystopian, future America is comprehensive and the laws that maintain perfect uniformity among citizens are strictly enforced and presented as being oppressive.

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How is equality defined in "Harrison Bergeron"?

A very timely story, "Harrison Bergeron" indicates with its opening lines how "equality" has been established,

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal...every which way.

By enforced equality, no one is smarter than anyone else; no one is better looking than anyone else; and no one is stronger than anyone else. For, earphones are placed on people's heads to drown out intelligent thoughts with noise; weights are worn by stronger and more athletic people so that they will not excel; and facial disfigurements are placed upon the beautiful. 

This equality, of course, is no real equality since it is enforced with cruel devices and even violence. When Harrison Bergeron, a handsome, athletic genius breaks free from incarceration and attempts a coup, he is shot by the Handicapper General;

Diana Moon Galmpers lcame into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

So, if anyone causes trouble, equality is even enforced by death.

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What does equality signify and what is being satirized in "Harrison Bergeron"?

In "Harrison Bergeron," Vonnegut is satirizing our collective notion that all people must be equal.  In the story, the fictional society that Vonnegut creates is made to be equal in all ways:  the smarter people are given mental handicaps to prevent them from thinking, the graceful dancers are given weighted bags to prevent them from being so graceful, and beautiful people are given physical props to mask their true appearance.  In the story, the members of society get nowhere--they cannot even function on a level that makes anyone productive.  The satire presents the people as absurd and ridiculous to voice the message that our attempts to always make people equal are similarly absurd and ridiculous.  In the advent of civil rights and other rights such as equality in the workplace, our society has gone to an extreme by suggesting that people should be equal in all areas, not simply that we should be treated with equal respect.  Vonnegut uses the story to suggest that our human differences are the avenue to our advances.  For example, what would the Olympics be without superior athletes to engage in competition?  So, "Harrison Bergeron" challenges the notion of blanket human equality.

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How has the society in "Harrison Bergeron" misunderstood equality?

Equality refers to the state of being equal under the law and of being equal in terms of social status, rights and privileges, and available opportunities. For example, women suffragists in the early twentieth century demanded equality in terms of gaining the right to vote. Legally, women were not allowed to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and this discrepancy resulted in legal inequality between men and women. Likewise, gay people were not allowed to have their marriages legally recognized until just a few years ago; this discrepancy between the rights afforded to straight couples and those denied gay couples resulted in inequality.

In “Harrison Bergeron,” society has misunderstood equality as something that can be achieved not in terms of status, rights, and opportunities afforded to individuals, but as something that can be achieved in terms of individual ability. For example, George is more intelligent by nature than his wife, Hazel. In order to make them “equals,” George is forced, by law, to wear a “mental handicap” device that plays a loud and awful noise in his ears every few seconds, disrupting his train of thought and thereby bringing his ability to think down to an equal level with the average person.

George and Hazel are made “equals” in intellectual ability by compelling George to be less intelligent than he naturally is. Because he is physically strong, George is also forced to wear heavy “physical handicaps” that are meant to make him less physically capable than he naturally is. In a society where exceptional ability is outlawed, individuals are made “equals” in a backward, illogical way, especially considering that equality really means shaping society to be more fair to all rather than shaping individuals to be less exceptional.

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How does "Harrison Bergeron" contradict the idea of human equality in democracy?

In the story "Harrison Bergeron," through the passage of the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments of the Constitution and "the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General," an equality of intellectual and physical abilities has been established in America: "It is the year 2081 and everyone is finally equal."

These amendments have made the equality of sameness mandatory by forcing anyone who has too much athletic ability, intelligence, beauty, or talent to wear handicaps in order to become equal to those who possess what is considered the standard. In the society of 2081 in which Harrison Bergeron and his family live, a compulsory sameness is enforced. As requirements of this standard of equality, the people must accept oppressive measures or risk imprisonment. Harrison is imprisoned because he has plotted to overthrow the government. In a police photograph, Harrison is shown wearing three hundred pounds of handicaps.

His father, George Bergeron, is handicapped physically with forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a bag that hangs from his neck, and he wears a mental handicap that issues sounds that drown out his higher-level thoughts. His wife, Hazel Bergeron, needs no handicaps because she has been judged to be "perfectly average." These handicaps make all citizens equal to everyone else in their society.

As Hazel and George watch television, they notice that the ballerina wears a hideous mask to cover her beauty, along with several handicap bags to prevent her from being stronger or more graceful than any of the other dancers. She must also apologize for her voice, which is "a very unfair voice for a woman to use."

In this futuristic society, the concept of equality is considered to be sameness; everyone must be on the same level. Sameness supposedly ensures that all citizens are on what is metaphorically called a fair playing field. No one can be smarter than anyone else, no one can be stronger, no one can be better-looking, and so on. This sameness is strictly enforced, and those who do not comply are incarcerated or even shot and killed by the Handicapper General.

[In "Harrison Bergeron"] Vonnegut pokes fun at the absurd and extreme steps taken to ensure equality in the futuristic society, with cumbersome low-technology handicaps forced on above-average citizens upon pain of severe punishment. (eNotes)

The only way to defend the idea of placing everyone upon an even playing field and offering everyone opportunities is through programs that assist those who may be disadvantaged in some way. This is what is done in the contemporary United States with such programs as Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity programs, Outreach and Assistance programs, Head Start programs, voucher programs, HOPE schools, and other programs that work to assist people. These programs allow people to succeed and rise in their society. Also, their abilities and self-esteem are improved rather than destroyed as in the country of 2081, in which fortunate or talented people are forced to be made ugly, clumsy, dull, or apologetic for their talents.

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How does "Harrison Bergeron" contradict the idea of equality in U.S. democracy?

Seemingly, in "Harrison Bergeron," Vonnegut is critical of the idea of equality by showing what would happen if all people in a society were handicapped such that no one's capabilities could rise above those of another.  The consequences, of course, are ludicrous.  Intelligence, physical prowess, and beauty are not permitted. This is meant to be the opposite of Lake Woebegone, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average" (Keillor).  Such a society is easy to rule, since no one's intelligence or strength can question or oppose a dictator.  

However, while it is easy to poke fun at this form of equality, the fact is that this is not the kind of equality that is meant to exist in the democracy of the United States.  Equality of opportunity and equal treatment under the law are the forms of equality that are meant to be valued in our democracy.  Some people are more intelligent than others. Some people are stronger than others. Some people are more attractive than others. We anticipate that the outcomes for people will be different, and aspire to nurture the possibilities that lie in those differences.  What we intend to provide is a setting in which any child can hope to succeed with education and hard work and in which every citizen can expect to be treated equally by the government. 

The problem is that Vonnegut is half correct in his satire because we actually do hobble entire groups of people in the United States.  For example, there really is not any difference between subjecting a child to a homeless and hungry infancy and making someone carry an extra fifty pounds while someone yells in his or her ear all the time.  We choose to decline to hire people of a particular race or ethnic group.  We incarcerate people who have the metaphorical equivalent of a sack of bird shot around their necks.  We call it race.

So, for me, Vonnegut's little story is half a failure and half a success.  Equality is not the same as equal opportunity, and it is important that a reader understands this important distinction. But there is no doubt that in the United States and other democracies, too, I'm sure, we really do subject a significant part of our citizenry to crippling forces, and this provides a permanent underclass that we can then "rule."  

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In "Harrison Bergeron," how does the idea of equality relate to the story's conflict?

America has strived (and is still striving) to become a country where people are treated equally by fellow citizens and the government. For example, the phrase “justice is blind” refers to the ideal that anyone accused of a crime should receive a fair trial. In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” America’s obsession with equality is taken to an authoritarian extreme.

The reader learns at the beginning of the story that the government has passed nearly two hundred amendments to the US constitution to ensure equality among citizens. No one can be any prettier, smarter, or more athletic than anyone else. A person with an advantage is given a ‘handicap,’ a device to make him or her uglier, dumber, or weaker.

The story’s title character, Harrison, represents the opposite of American ideals about equality. On national television he rips off his countless handicaps and proclaims himself king, the very type of ruler America cast off through the American Revolution. Harrison believes that he deserves to rule because he is more handsome, stronger, and more intelligent than everyone else. This logic suggests that Harrison, if he had survived, would not have been any more of a compassionate ruler than the government that tried to restrain him.

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In "Harrison Bergeron," how does the idea of equality relate to the story's conflict?

"Harrison Bergeron" uses the word "equality" ironically. Many political groups over the years have attempted to use this story as a way to criticize the implementation of policies that attempted to make American society more "equal" (Civil Rights Acts, affirmative action). However, these policies only attempt to raise the rights of minority groups and to make public institutions more accessible.

In "Harrison Bergeron," equality means lowering all of society to a lowest-common denominator. Competition, which America generally sees as a good thing, is reduced to a negative. When Hazel suggests that George reduce his handicaps, George replies that if he did it "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."

Now, there are ways in which standards can be lowered in order to give everyone a fair shot, which is bad. However, much of the time, this type of "equality" is self-inflicted. Like George with Hazel, people generally don't like making others feel bad. George is more intelligent than Hazel, but is okay reducing himself for her. Certain people are more talented than others and when placed on an equal playing field, the more talented person will generally come out ahead. 

Whether this is "fair" or not is a loaded question. What does "fair" mean? Does it mean that everyone has an equal opportunity? Or does it mean that everyone has to perform the same?

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What does "Harrison Bergeron" suggest about "equality" and equal opportunity?

In Vonnegut's short story, the United States Constitution has been amended hundreds of times and has resulted in an environment where every citizen is equal in every possible aspect. Physically talented, intelligent, and beautiful individuals have been forced to wear cumbersome weights, ugly masks, and devices that prevent them from thinking deeply about subjects in order to make them perfectly mediocre in every way, shape, and form. Vonnegut's dystopian society illustrates the dangers associated with attempting to force equality by punishing talented people instead of celebrating individual differences. Vonnegut depicts a clear difference between total equality and equal opportunity in his short story. While Vonnegut believes that society is responsible for protecting the weak and less fortunate by passing legislation that promotes equal opportunities in education, employment, and justice, he does not think society should celebrate the lazy, incompetent, and mediocre. Vonnegut also does not favor punishing individuals who are more talented, innovative, and beautiful in order to appease those who are less gifted. Essentially, Vonnegut is in favor of equal opportunity, but he rejects the idea that society should punish talented individuals while simultaneously promoting mediocrity.

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Is equality portrayed as good or bad in "Harrison Bergeron"?

Equality per se is not the problem in "Harrison Bergeron"; it's how the government goes about achieving it. The government doesn't understand that some people are naturally more gifted than others. Some people like Harrison are excellent athletes; others, like his father George are intellectually gifted. This is a perfectly natural condition, one that should be celebrated as conducing to a genuinely diverse society.

But the government in this dystopian world doesn't see things like that. It regards natural differences as a threat to be obliterated by extreme measures. So in order to achieve equality, those more gifted are forced to wear handicaps. Sporty types like Harrison must wear heavy weights that slow them down; intelligent people such as George have to wear radios that emit loud noises which interfere with their ability to think. Harrison's good looks are also a no-no in this nightmarish world. A pair of unsightly glasses and black caps on his teeth make him a truly ungodly sight to behold, which is precisely what they're intended to do.

The methods that the government uses to achieve its perfectly noble aim are wholly invalid. Harrison's implacable resistance shows us that whatever artificial means the powers that be may use to create an equal society are ultimately bound to fail. The human spirit, though present in everyone, is not present in equal proportions. In the noblest of spirits, such as Harrison, there will always be that inner world that no amount of government action, however tyrannical, may touch. Formal, legal equality is both necessary and desirable; it is vitally important that everyone is treated equally before the law, for example. But substantive equality, the kind that Diana Moon Glampers wishes to enforce, is presented in the story as both impossible and morally wrong.

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Is equality portrayed as good or bad in "Harrison Bergeron"?

Throughout Vonnegut's short story, "total" equality is portrayed as a negative thing. In 2081, the US Constitution has been amended numerous times to create a society where each individual is mentally and physically equal through the use of various devices that distort and handicap talented and beautiful people.

Athletically gifted individuals are forced to wear heavy, cumbersome devices that restrict their mobility, while intelligent citizens wear earphones that create high-pitched piercing sounds that disrupt their thinking. Even beautiful citizens are forced to wear ugly masks that distort their appearance in order to make them physically equal to everyone else.

Vonnegut's story addresses equality in a unique way and challenges readers to celebrate our differences, rather than focus on artificial equality. While providing equal opportunities for every citizen is positive and appropriate, creating unfair advantages for less-qualified citizens by harming excessively talented individuals creates an issue. Vonnegut's short story takes aim at society's motivation to make everyone equal at the expense of talented, qualified, and intelligent citizens.

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