The goal of countless societies throughout human history has been to establish both complete freedom and absolute equality. However, this goal is, by its very nature, unachievable. These two ideal states cannot coexist in their most perfect forms. Also, the perfect forms of either freedom or equality represent total chaos or total oppression, respectively. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” we see the consequences of sacrificing freedom for perfect equality. Vonnegut uses the story of this utopia gone wrong to demonstrate that a society in which total equality exists is not only oppressive, but also static and inefficient. He makes this point using his futuristic setting, the simplicity of the society, and the actions of his characters.
Societies that try to create total equality have almost always proven to be oppressive. We’ve seen this in recent times in the form of communist states such as China. The Nazis, whom Vonnegut fought against in World War II, also sought to create a society of equals through genocide which could have prompted the author’s thoughts on this type of utopian society. However, China during the Cultural Revolution more closely resembles the world of “Harrison Bergeron.” In the story, “Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains” (243). In China, intellectuals were highly oppressed as the government sought to create a workers society. In “Harrison Bergeron,” other handicaps, such as sashweights and masks placed on the heads of the beautiful, represent this oppression taken to an even further extreme. Also, in both of thes...
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Quite obviously, our society is not anywhere near the level of equality-based oppression portrayed in “Harrison Bergeron.” However, we do continue to deny social Darwinism by trying to create a society in which no ones feelings are ever hurt. The weak are protected through laws such as those that protect small, domestic business from larger, more efficient foreign firms. The strong are denied reaching their full potential by things like the No Child Left Behind Act. Vonnegut’s predictions for the future could still come into being if society continues along its current path. Freedom and equality cannot coexist, but they also cannot exist one without the other. The key to a functional society is a balance between the two. In other words, order must be maintained but not to the point where it preempts the personal freedom to better one’s self.
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