Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most acclaimed authors of the 20th centruy and one of the few whose works were able to transcend the ‘literary ghetto’ of science fiction and find success in the mainstream.
His 1961 short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’ was one of these works. Like many overlooked science fiction tales, the social commentary in Harrison Bergeron is possibly even more relevant and scathing today than it was when Vonnegut penned it over fifty years ago.
I’m not going to summarise the story here as it is very short and very accessible online. But I am going to talk about how the story critiques one of the misguided aims of the post modern left. Equity over equality. A complex argument summed up by a simple comic:
You’ve probably seen some incarnation of this image on social media, most likely shared or posted by a self proclaimed progressive. And while it does assert a rational argument in this highly-specific 2D context, I am unable to think of any practical real world applications besides those Vonnegut laid out over half a century ago.
In Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut, who fought against real fascist Nazis in the second world war, who served as the honourary President of the American Humanist Association, creates a world where equality of outcome (equity) is law. A world where “everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.”
(Okay, so maybe I will summarise the story a little but you should still look it up and read it!)
In Harrison Bergeron’s reality, the United States Handicapper General enforces the 211th, 212th and 213th amendments of the constitution to make every citizen equal. Except the HG don’t rely on blanket laws that apply to everyone in society, they cater the law to each individual, ensuring an equal outcome, what is called equity. This results in a world where “Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”
How do the HG achieve this?
They force mental handicaps on those with above average intellects – radios that emit unfathomable amounts of noise to stop smart people “from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” They force debilitating weights on those who are naturally strong and force attractive people to wear masks “so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat dragged in.”
While the story is obviously meant to be a dystopia, it worries me how similar the actions of the fictional oppressors are to the hopes of real people who claim to fight oppression. A post modern, Neo-Marxist, social justice warrior could too easily interpret the blatant dystopia of Harrison Bergeron as a utopia, a harmonious world where anyone with ambition is held back.
Yes, society is far from perfect but equality always ought to remain the goal. Obviously, those unfortunate enough to be born into a ghetto should receive extra help, but they should not be exempt from laws that apply to the rest of society. The schools and hospitals in the area should not provide a superior service to those in affluent areas. And the unlucky inhabitants should not be treated differently on a face-to-face basis.
The biggest problem with the 2D logic of the equity-over-equality argument is that there is no inherent decider of who needs unequal help in order to provide an equal outcome. That will always be left up to the discretion of those with power. And isn’t power itself an unequal privilege?