The Terrifying Truth of Harrison Bergeron

The word “equal” means many things. In the dictionary, it’s defined as being either, “the same in quantity, size, and value” or “as good as.” In terms of objects, such as the price of two books, the term “equal” is very simple and easy to understand. They both cost the same. However, when you start thinking about “equals” with people, the waters become muddy and undefined.

There are two main arguments for what human equality could be: equal opportunity, and equal outcome (also known as equal equity). Equal opportunity, to put it simply, states that every person is equal under the law, and has the same rights. A person’s merit determines their success. However, equal outcome, states that every individual must end up equal, no matter where they started or how hard they worked. Overall, a society governed by equal opportunity is equal under the law, and a society governed by equal outcome is equal in results. However, while an equal opportunity society tries to ensure that anyone who works hard and has merit will succeed, an equal outcome society will have everyone succeed to the same degree purely for the sake of “equality”. In an equal equity society, a person who works a 9-5 job would end up in the same place as a person who watches TV all day. One person works hard, the other does nothing, but both put the same food on the table. That isn’t equal. But, despite how different these ideologies are, both are incredibly influential to our modern society.

The idea of equal equity, or equal outcome, leads me to what I want to talk about: a particular short story called Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. There is a lot of things to talk about in this story, but I will focus on its main theme of “equal equity.” Harrison Bergeron takes place in the year 2081, only 58 years from now. In this time, as is stated by the story, “Everybody was finally equal.” As I explained before, the word “equal” in regard to people is shockingly complicated. However, in this story, “they weren’t only equal before God and the Law,” which is the extent of the equality equal opportunity provides, but also “equal in every which way.” This type of equality was only achieved by the “211th, 212th, and 213th amendments in the constitution and to the unceasing agents of the handicapper general.” There are two major worldbuilding elements in this phrase. One, the number of amendments in the constitution, and two, the handicapper general. The first one is very simple. The fact that, in this future, there are over 200 amendments in the constitution, implies a very strong cultural and leadership change from our current one. After all, no amendments have been ratified in the past 30 years. However, the second one is a little more complicated.

In this timeline, the handicapper general is an authority figure who is in charge of assigning handicaps to individuals across the country. As an authority figure with power over others, the handicapper general is inherently breaking the system of equal equity by having higher power than others. And, to make an ideal equal outcome society, there must be a person to govern and maintain it. Therefore, a truly equal equity-based society is impossible, not to mention unnatural. Someone will always be more equal than others.

In Harrison Bergeron, handicaps are meant to make every individual, essentially, the same, or, in their eyes, equal by lowering people’s natural talents or appearance. These handicaps could be a mask, if you are attractive, an earpiece that inhibits brain function, or, large weights if you are graceful. In Harrison Bergeron’s case, he had to have the handicaps of a large pair of earphones, large glasses, a clown nose, shaved eyebrows, and fake teeth. As if that wasn’t enough, at the age of 14, he was sent to jail, and later, shot in public for being “too dangerous.” In other words, Harrison was too good, and the government couldn’t make him “equal” to everyone else.

However, Harrison Bergeron is absolutely exceptional in every way, and he may not be the best example for the idea of equal equity. So, let’s look at his parents, who are sitting at home on their couch, watching a ballet. Harrison’s parents, George and Hazel, are by no means as exceptional as their son. Hazel “had a perfectly average intelligence” while George’s “was way above normal.” One had a handicap, the other didn’t. George has to wear an earpiece that transmits painful sounds into his mind so that, due to those distractions, has the same capacity as an average person. However, since Hazel has a perfectly average intelligence, she does not need a painful handicap. On its face, this system seems equal. After all, both now have the same mental capabilities. However, if you look deeper, one person is going through pain, and the other isn’t. One is being punished; the other isn’t. That isn’t true equality, since those who are “average” are not getting the same treatment as those who are “above average.”

Following the idea of unequal treatment, think back to segregation. Those who were different, at that time by skin color, were looked down upon and had fewer rights than those who were white. We all can see that isn’t equality. In Harrison Bergeron, those who are above average, or different, are punished for being that way. More than that, those punishments are visual, since others are able to tell what handicaps a person has. These situations aren’t as different as they may first seem. Sadly, though, in the latter situation, it has been almost universally accepted, and those who fight back, as was the case with segregation, got severely punished.

Though, the most important thing to realize about Harrison Bergeron is its application to today. As is shown with many systems or movements, such as the system of affirmative action, to the feminist movement, there is a lot of modern-day discrimination under the guise of equal equity, which mirrors the ideas in Harrison Bergeron

In the case of Affirmative Action, there are lowered standards for most people of color, both male and female, due to past marginalization and their socioeconomic status. However, because standards are lowered for some groups, such as Blacks and Hispanics, means that others, such as Asians, have much higher requirements for getting into college than the average. This is supposedly because, in general, Asian students tend to be higher achievers academically. On average, an Asian would have to score about 80 points higher than other groups to get into the same colleges. That isn’t equal at all, though Affirmative Action is designed to work towards equality. In truth, the “equality” that is really desired is equal equity, not equal opportunity. As I have argued before, equal equity is not truly equal. More than that, these requirements are discrimination because Asians have to achieve higher because of their race, but Blacks, and even Whites, do not have to. This discrimination based on supposed ability mirrors the idea of “handicaps” that appear in Harrison Bergeron.

Sadly, even before students get to college, the majority of Asian Americans in Fairfax County had National Merit Scholarships delayed because the Fairfax County public schools wanted equal equity for students. Again, this follows the idea of discrimination that Affirmative Action has, as well as the dangers Harrison Bergeron explores.

Now, to the hot-button issue of feminism. How does that tie into the theme of equal outcome? Well, the feminist movement used to be about equal rights and pay for women, which, at the time, was justified. That movement used to fight for equal opportunity. However, modern feminism is trying to push it further and make men and women equal in all ways, not just “before God and the law.” (Harrison Bergeron) Many feminists refuse to admit biological differences between men and women, such as emotional or physical differences. What feminists now want is equal outcome. They want all people, both men and women, to have the same abilities, no matter what the sex’s inclinations are. Feminists attempt to make this desire reality by, not just irrationally exaggerating their abilities, but also by tearing down men, or giving them “handicaps”. This example seems the most like the dystopian future of Harrison Bergeron, full of equal equity and stifling of talent.

Harrison Bergeron, while it is a short story written decades ago, is still a warning to the society of today. It warns us of the danger of trying to make everyone and everything fully and totally equal outside of the law. Because, fun fact, humans can’t naturally achieve equal outcome. We all have our inclinations and unique talents, and we can be better or worse at a skill than someone else. So, trying to make every single person entirely equal removes individuality, yet it is still trying to make its way into our mainstream culture today. Equal equity, at its core, is tyrannical, unnatural, harmful, and deprived of all humanity. That is the idea that this story tackles and warns us about. That is the terrifying truth of Harrison Bergeron.

This article may not strictly adhere to what I will write in the future, but I truly believe that this is an all-too-real threat that should be addressed. So, thank you for humoring me, and thank you for reading!

7 responses to “The Terrifying Truth of Harrison Bergeron”

  1. Timberline503 Avatar

    All I can say is, DANG GIRL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kayleigh Fryre Avatar

      Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Maryam Maghen Avatar
    Maryam Maghen

    Beautifully written and objectively analyzed! Excellent article. Yes, unfortunately EQUITY is all too pervasive in our culture. Like you correctly stated, inequality is inherent in nature; some people are smarter than others, shorter than others, richer than others, etc. People who complain about it are covetous, and instead of working hard to achieve their personal best, they play the victim. Ultimately, EQUITY is a discriminatory ideology which should have no place in our society. Thank you so much for writing this timely and very important article!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Erika L. Avatar
    Erika L.

    Very well explained and written!
    We are uniquely created.
    Continue to speak and write truth.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kayleigh Fryre Avatar

      I will, thank you so much!


  4. Brian Morgan Avatar
    Brian Morgan

    Yours is the finest essay written about “Harrison Bergeron.” Very well done, indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kayleigh Fryre Avatar

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.


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