In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut suggests that total equality is not an ideal worth striving for, as many people believe, but a mistaken goal that is dangerous in both execution and outcome. To achieve physical and mental equality among all Americans, the government in Vonnegut’s story tortures its citizens. The beautiful must wear hideous masks or disfigure themselves, the intelligent must listen to earsplitting noises that impede their ability to think, and the graceful and strong must wear weights around their necks at all hours of the day. The insistence on total equality seeps into the citizens, who begin to dumb themselves down or hide their special attributes. Some behave this way because they have internalized the government’s goals, and others because they fear that the government will punish them severely if they display any remarkable abilities. The outcome of this quest for equality is disastrous. America becomes a land of cowed, stupid, slow people. Government officials murder the extremely gifted with no fear of reprisal. Equality is more or less achieved, but at the cost of freedom and individual achievement.
Television is an immensely powerful force that sedates, rules, and terrorizes the characters in “Harrison Bergeron.” To emphasize television’s overwhelming importance in society, Vonnegut makes it a constant presence in his story: the entire narrative takes place as George and Hazel sit in front of the TV. Television functions primarily as a sedative for the masses. Hazel’s cheeks are wet with tears, but because she is distracted by the ballerinas on the screen, she doesn’t remember why she is crying. The government also uses television as a way of enforcing its laws. When dangerously talented people like Harrison are on the loose, for example, the government broadcasts warnings about them. They show a photograph of Harrison with his good looks mutilated and his strength dissipated. The photo is a way of identifying the supposedly dangerous escapee, but it is also a way of intimidating television viewers. It gives them a visual example of the handicaps imposed on those who do not suppress their own abilities. Television further turns into a means of terrorizing the citizens when Diana Moon Glampers shoots Harrison. The live execution is an effective way of showing viewers what will happen to those who dare to disobey the law.
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