“Harrison Bergeron” offers vigorous political and social criticisms of both America in general and the America of the 1960s. The political system depicted in Vonnegut’s story is distinctly American and founded on the principles of egalitarianism, which holds that people should be equal in every way. Equality is a beloved principle enshrined in America’s Declaration of Independence in the phrase “All men are created equal,” but Vonnegut suggests that the ideals of egalitarianism can be dangerous if they are interpreted too literally. If the goal of equality is taken to its logical conclusion, we may decide that people must be forced to be equal to one another in their appearance, behavior, and achievements. “Harrison Bergeron” can also be interpreted as a direct critique of communism. In the 1960s, America was engaged with Russia in the Cold War and had recently struggled through the McCarthy era, when suspected communists were accused and blacklisted from artistic, literary, and political communities. The futuristic American society of “Harrison Bergeron” operates on communist principles, supporting the idea that wealth and power should be distributed equally and class hierarchies should not exist. Like the accused communists of the McCarthy era, anyone not conforming to society’s accepted standards—in a reversal of sorts, anyone not adhering to the communist structure—is sought out and punished. In his story, Vonnegut argues that such principles are foolish. It is unnatural to distribute wealth and power equally, he suggests, and it is only by literally handicapping the best and brightest citizens that the misguided goal of equal distribution can be attained. Similarly, it is unnatural to seek out and punish those who reject social norms.
Some modern readers have interpreted the dystopia depicted in “Harrison Bergeron” as a preview of what might happen to America if such trends as psychiatric drugs and political correctness are allowed to proliferate. The characters in Vonnegut’s story are passive, unthinking, and calm. Although the means of achieving this mental state are externally applied to the body, rather than internally applied to the mind, some readers draw a parallel between the noises that destroy George’s ability to think and the drugs that make modern Americans tranquil and detached. These critics argue that the characters in “Harrison Bergeron,” who lack all passion, intelligence, and creative ability, should be interpreted as a warning about what happens to the members of a society that prizes calm happiness above artistry or intelligence. Other readers see “Harrison Bergeron” as a socially conservative argument against political correctness. Vonnegut himself has connected the story to recent attempts to make people equal using the language of political correctness. According to this argument, the respectful treatment of all marginalized groups may be a slippery slope, as “Harrison Bergeron” suggests. If we begin with the equal treatment of male athletes and their weaker female counterparts, for example, we may end with the insistence that ugly people should be treated as if they are beautiful, and so forth.
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