It’s time to “level the playing field so that everyone can play.” We hear this phrase over and over from politicians, social justice advocates, and educators, all clamoring for programs that redress “inequalities” by, ironically, treating people unequally. As education specialist Adam Bauserman explains, “fairness” requires an “equitable lens.” Sometimes educators hold students to equal standards, and sometimes they give certain students advantages to help them compete.
Bauserman is not alone in these ideals, though his article is especially compelling due to its visual cues: an image of children laughing as they race together across a field. But we see a very different picture in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (1961), a dystopian story in which government regulations and agents have finally forced individuals into “equality.” No one is smiling, much less laughing.
In fact, the protagonist, fourteen-year-old Harrison, is grossly handicapped to render him “equal” to his fellow citizens: earphones distract him with auditory assaults, black caps disguise his perfect teeth, and massive weights slow him down. “In the race of life,” the narrator explains, “Harrison carried three hundred pounds.”
Vonnegut’s tale remains a classic because, as others have observed, it illustrates the consequences of totalitarian attempts to impose “equality”: they limit individual rights, impose unfair rules, and undermine productivity, which leads to greater poverty and even death. Defy the rules, like Harrison, and risk execution by the Handicapper General.
But the urgent question is not whether we want government officials with double-barreled shotguns hunting down teenagers. It’s why people in Vonnegut’s tale ceded not only their own rights but those of everyone else, including their children. Where did George and Hazel Bergeron go wrong? And how can we avoid the same mistakes?
The Politics of Envy
The first step is understanding the current use of “equity” and how it differs from “equality.” The latter term refers to treating individuals equally, even if applying the same rules to everyone leads to unequal outcomes. “Equity,” as used in a recent executive order, refers to correcting this imbalance, striving toward equal outcomes by treating people differently. For the political and educational elite, unequal treatment of individuals is therefore the only way to be “fair.”
Vonnegut’s tale explores the same government imperative toward “fairness,” though in this dystopia, it physically tries to make individuals “equal” in order to achieve equity. He begins,
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law, they were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else; nobody was better looking than anybody else; nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Of course, the existence of a Handicapper General proves that such equality cannot be legislated. Only the semblance of it can be achieved by hamstringing people.
So the goal is not really equal treatment but equal outcomes. In this dystopia, such outcomes protect feelings. Ballerinas, for instance, perform on a television program while masked and weighed down with bags of birdshot, “so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat dragged in.”
George Bergeron is required to wear a radio in his ear that emits distracting noises so that he cannot take “unfair advantage” of his brain or think of his “abnormal son,” who has been taken by the Handicapper General’s men. His average wife, Hazel, “couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts,” so she has no handicap.
Yet this lack only reminds her of George’s superior intelligence. Hazel, “a little envious,” says she thinks hearing the sounds in his ear radio would be “real interesting.” No laws or handicaps can eliminate envy, which Vonnegut associates with sadistic impulses.
In fact, Hazel fantasizes about being the Handicapper General so that she could select torturous sounds, such as chimes on Sunday. When George says that he could actually think if he only heard chimes, she replies, “Well—maybe make ‘em real loud.” Hazel, the narrator notes, resembles the real Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers.
The Sanction of the Victim
George agrees that Hazel would fulfill that role “good as anybody.” Such equality is the norm, though George’s acceptance seems slightly masochistic. While he is not being literally shot for his strength, he wears a reminder of violence in his handicap: “forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck.”
Hazel encourages him to “rest the bag for a little while,” generously adding, “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.” But George resists: “I don’t notice it any more. It’s just a part of me.” At some point, Vonnegut suggests, individuals come to accept the punishment for their gifts and talents. And in ceasing to use those gifts, they lose what makes them unique.
But why do individuals agree to a system that punishes them for their strengths? In addition to the violence, there are financial penalties. If George attempted to lighten his load by removing the birdshot, the cost would be $2000 per ball. But the real issue is more philosophical:
“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 everyone else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”
“I’d hate it,” said Hazel.
“There you are,” said George. “The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?”
George has internalized this principle of “equality” as surely as he has accepted the weight of the birdshot. He believes that to compete against others is an immoral regression to the “dark ages.”
In reality, Vonnegut shows that forced “equality” leads to the very cultural and economic decline George fears. In “Harrison Bergeron,” the lack of competition has not only leveled the playing field but flattened the entire society.
Now all are “equal,” so anyone can pursue any occupation. Witness Vonnegut’s television announcer, whose speech impediment prevents him from articulating even three words. He finally passes his announcement to a ballerina with “a very unfair voice”: the prisoner Harrison Bergeron has escaped.
The Endgame of Equity
Fortuitously, this fourteen-year-old prodigy then enters the television studio, his grotesque handicaps making visible the consequences of “leveling the playing field.” If Vonnegut’s characters are stunned, readers might reflect on how this scene illustrates the consequences of “equity” in education or employment or government funding. How do some colleges practice similar crimes in handicapping Asian-American students, insisting on higher admissions standards for them? Why should Chinese-Americans, like Harrison Bergeron, carry a heavier burden than others?
Or consider how some high schools are eliminating regular classes in favor of honors for everyone, regardless of academic level. Educators tout this approach as necessary to correct group imbalances in honors classes, and students embrace it because it creates “a more even playing field.” Many parents are unpersuaded: “That’s like saying our entire population is gifted.”
It is a lie, just as “equality” is a lie in “Harrison Bergeron.” Such lies advance the careers of educators and politicians; they may even soothe the envy of the world’s Hazel Bergerons, or pacify the qualms of those like George who have “unfair” advantages. But they do incalculable damage to students at all levels seeking to achieve their best as individuals.
Harrison is unconvinced that his own handicaps benefit him or anyone else, and his actions—escaping prison and rushing to a television studio—are desperate moves toward freedom. While the government tries to control everyone, shifting them around the chessboard of equity, Vonnegut’s story suggests that is not always possible. People are not simply playing pieces. As Adam Smith warned, sometimes they move of their own accord, generating chaos.
What motivates Harrison is a teenager’s sense of possibility. He casts aside his handicaps and bellows, “Now watch me become what I can become!” Talented yet immature, he forces the orchestra to play and invites a ballerina to join him in his dance.
This is the only moment of beauty in the story. The two whirl, leap, float to the ceiling, and kiss each other. Fantastically, “not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.” Rather than hiding their individual abilities, they cultivate and enjoy them.
Vonnegut invites us to imagine the magic of releasing that potential. Freed from society’s unjust regulations, what might Harrison be able to accomplish? And how might his brilliance benefit society as surely as the dance mesmerizes his audience?
Perhaps it is that potential that motivates Diana Moon Glampers, Handicapper General, to execute Harrison and his partner. Perhaps she, like Hazel, envies the brilliant. Or perhaps she fears the chaos they represent. What if others imitated Harrison? In any case, she arrives with a loaded gun and fires without warning, determined to enforce equality in the only way truly possible: death.
Fortunately, we have no United States Handicapper General to compel citizens into equity. We do have advocates for giving greater power in businesses and schools to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racist (DEIA) Committees. Such committees, writes one advocate in a recent Newsweek essay, can “require changes in daily behavior.” But to achieve these goals, “DEIA must be effectively implemented. It is not possible for DEIA to have too much power” (emphasis original).
Diana Moon Glampers would agree: pursuing equal outcomes requires unlimited power, whether of one’s local DEIA administrator or the federal government. Do we really want our government officials—unelected as well as elected—to wield such power?
The Quick and the Woke
In Vonnegut’s dystopia, citizens like Harrison’s parents have ceded power over their own lives as well as their children’s. George does not even know that Harrison died. Distracted by noises in his ear radio, he wanders into the kitchen for a beer. When he returns, Hazel is still on the couch, having witnessed the execution and now crying without knowing why: “It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind.”
This is the second tragedy of Vonnegut’s tale. The Bergerons are “woke” in their commitment to equality, even if it entails handicaps like George’s. But having embraced such conformity, they remain unable to think or protect the son dependent on them.
Conversely, Harrison shows what it means to reach for joy and possibility. However briefly, he lived.
If Vonnegut’s tale teaches us anything, it is to protect our future Harrison Bergerons by rejecting government attempts to engineer equity, even when our leaders insist it is what “faith and morality call us to do.” Betraying the next generation into mediocrity while limiting their freedom can never be “moral.” Like Harrison, they deserve a chance to become what they can become.