Since the beginning of civilization, mankind has always been somewhat concerned with the idea of equality. Although the definition of who is an equal member of society changes over time, most societies enjoy proclaiming themselves as societies that have equality for all. You can trace the evolution of equality in the United States by examining the legislation that governs our society. In the beginning there was the Declaration of Independence, “We the people believe that all men are created equal.” At that point men referred to only white males who owned property. Eventually, with the incorporation of the 15th and 19th Amendments into our Constitution, the definition of equality evolved and non-whites and women were considered equals in the eyes of the law as well. In the short story Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut Jr takes the role equality plays in society to a whole new level.
The society of this story attempts to make all people equal by regulating mental and physical advantages any person might have by making all citizens subject to handicaps that are supposed to make all people physically and mentally equal. Instead of acknowledging the benefits that most societies have enjoyed because of equality, Vonnegut exposes the drawbacks of over equalization of society. Vonnegut uses a plethora of exaggerations and ludicrous situations to show that the ability to make all people equal by the elimination of competition allows for members of society to stop progressing on an individual level while also allowing for society as a whole to stop progressing as well. Ultimately, this allows for those in power to stay in power. For a society to survive it has to be moving forward in an attempt to better the lives of its inhabitants. Part of this process of moving forward includes change.
When a society no longer has the ability to change, or chooses not to change it is sentencing itself to death. Because the natural world around and within any given society is always modifying itself, the society must also evolve to compete and survive in this new environment. To be able to cure new viruses and disease society must have an evolving medical field. Not only is the environment always changing, but other societies are also in a state of constant change. To keep up militarily and economically with surrounding and competing countries, every society must find a way to change and move forward towards a better lifestyle for its citizens. A society that is always changing for the better is a society that is always advancing and improving the lives of its citizens.
By not changing the society does not leave room for improvement. If a society cannot improve, then a society is at a standstill and makes itself very susceptible to these outside dangers. In the case of Harrison Bergeron, that is not how the society works. The person(s) who created the system of handicaps so that all people were equal on all levels also decided that they wanted their society to cease moving forward. In this society the persons in charge decided somehow it was imperative that everyone be equal. Vonnegut indicates it has something to do with the excessive competition that society experienced sometime in the past.
If I tried to get away with it, then everyone would try to get away with it-and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. (9) This statement by Harrison’s father, George, allows the reader to understand why this society wants everyone to be subjected to the same handicaps, but more importantly it shows that the citizens of this society conform to this regimented society because they have been made afraid of how society used to be.
These people are not just protecting themselves from the law, but they actually believe that this society is fair, and the only way that society can work. This general respect for the law and the society are what help keep this society running smoothly. George is afraid of what he refers to as the “dark ages”, and that is reason enough to obey. Most members of society share his fear of competition, and therefore share his complacency. This complacency keeps the government from having to worry about a rebellion from the masses due to general unhappiness.
If the people think that the society is for their own good, then they have no reason to change it. Because our society places a strong emphasis on competition, it is difficult for us to understand how all competition could be eliminated. Vonnegut’s method for eliminating competition is really rather ingenious. If you believe that one engages in competition to determine a winner and/or a superior, then by eliminating the idea of a winner or a superior you can eliminate competition. For example, what purpose is there in playing a football game if you were told at the beginning that the end result would be a tie? Although you play a game for fun, the concept of winning and competing are still the driving forces behind the will to play.