In his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut portrays a future dystopian society where everyone is “finally… equal in every which way.” This equality is thanks to the agents of the United States Handicapper General, who use a number of methods to bring those with greater skills or looks down to a baseline level: earphones that give off jolting sound to discourage intelligent thought, bags of weight to minimize physical strength, agility, and speed, and masks or other applied disfigurements to reduce physical beauty. These methods are referred to as “handicaps,” a term for disability that is now considered archaic and offensive. With the inclusion of such terminology, a key question in examination of the text becomes what of those who are truly disabled?
Harrison has a level of skill that outlies the society’s strict baseline so greatly that he cannot be contained by manufactured “handicaps,” and thus he is shot and killed by the Handicapper General, Diana Moons Glampers. It can be assumed that those whose disability status cannot be removed to create “equality” are also executed by the government, in a fashion similar to many tyrannical groups that promoted, and continue to promote, eugenics, including the Nazis, who in Germany during WWII took many disabled people in to be experimented on and murdered.
With this aspect of the “equal” society considered, it becomes all the clearer that this world is a dystopian one that has real-world implications for readers to consider. Members of the disability community often assert that disability is not a natural state caused by medical conditions, but is in fact a construct formed by society’s insistence upon created limited “ideals” in which people must fall in order to be included by the structure of that society. These “ideals” are ultimately arbitrary and prejudiced; they assign greater worth to certain states of being that have no intrinsic worth more than that of others. This means that often, those who fall outside of the set of “ideals” in their society are either forced to conform or are cast to the side. This can be seen in the cases of many people, dismissed for being mentally ill or just “weird,” who later, despite their social “exile,” managed to create great works of art, science, or technology that benefited the very society from which they had been shunned.
In the world of “Harrison Bergeron,” this set of “ideals” is so limited as to be a baseline onto which everyone must fit or die, but the placement of this baseline must also, by nature, be arbitrary. Through depicting this world in which almost no one fits naturally on this arbitrary baseline, Vonnegut warns the reader to beware of the limited way their own societies accept states of being into their structures, often ignoring the positive aspects of states that don’t fit into the “norm” in favor of the negatives. We too, Vonnegut poses, are in some manner or another killing off our Harrison Bergerons.