My older daughter pressed me for the past month to read Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Harrison Bergeron. I finally did. Published in 1961, it’s a short story that occurs in a dystopian future, in 2081 to be precise, where people are under the control of the Handicapper General, who uses its agents to maintain the population under control by providing the means to avoid anybody with above average talent to stand out over everybody else. In this portrayal of the future, beauty is suppressed by masks, athletic ability is suppressed by chaining bags of lead birdshot to people’s bodies, and radio transmitters in people’s ears interfere with thoughts to suppress gifted intelligence and analytical ability. Everybody is held down and kept equal by force and by the prospect of severe penalties for non-compliance or rebellion. The story is six or seven pages long, a stimulating short read with some supernatural imagery, available as a free PDF online. I would encourage you to read it.
One subtlety that I did not get from the first read, and my daughter pointed out to me as we discussed it, was the apparent circular nature of the story. Without giving away details, Harrison’s parents, Hazel and George, watch “live” on TV the consequences of their gifted son’s rebellious ways, as he removes the handicaps placed on him by the tyrannical system. The parents – and presumably everyone else – watch incredible action unfold while the handicaps placed on each of them impair their reasoning and incapacitate their will. If you carefully read the story a second time, you conclude that it seems like the story begins right after its very end and repeats itself in a continuous cycle in which Harrison’s parents – and presumably everyone else – is kept prisoner, numbed to the core because of the forces operating in their environment.
Although the story uses satire to portray how the suppression of individuality stifles the will for extraordinary and almost supernatural achievement, it still makes you reflect on the ideas it conveys. As my daughter and I discussed the story during our drive downtown, I pointed out how all around us, sitting in traffic, and accelerating or slowing down as dictated by the traffic lights on their daily journey to work, there were perhaps some Hazels and Georges around us, going through the motions and repeating a daily cycle they have fallen complacent with and from which they cannot or will not exit.
Don’t get me wrong. At the same time, many of the commuters around us were probably very happy and satisfied with their professions, and embarking on their daily mission to joyfully exchange value with their employers for a commensurate pay by applying their very best talents to their assigned tasks. There is nothing wrong with that, and a lot of innovation and progress gets achieved within their organizations the more independence and authority they are given, in accordance with their talents and capabilities. There is nothing wrong with the exchange of some measure of stability from a paycheck for a dignifying and productive job that improves the lives of all parties to the transaction. Though we may be very far from the societal environment described in the story, and hopefully will never face a future like that, there is still the possibility that the Handicapper General lives within ourselves. That it is tyrannically imposed from within.
Go look up this story online. It is a call for analysis. Take stock of your talents and if there is no outside force oppressing you, don’t counteract against your potential by hiding behind a mask, taking on deadweight or dulling your focus or perceptiveness with self-imposed noise in a continuous and stagnant cycle.