This article is about ‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s as brilliant as it is short and you can read it here. Best to do so before continuing if you’re unfamiliar with the work as MASSIVE SPOILERS lie ahead.
I was never one for literature when I was at school. Despite enjoying reading the books and plays I could never analyse them in depth. It was easy enough to pass the exams by regurgitating the notes dictated by the teacher but where’s the fun in that?
The exception to this rule was ‘Harrison Bergeron’, which we covered as part of a short story collection, and which left such a mark on me that I find myself writing about it 25 years later, spurred on by the depressing introduction of Cognitive Privilege.
In the future you see, there has been a levelling. Anyone whose abilities exceed the norm in some way is handicapped to bring them back to the mean. An old couple sit watching TV. As the husband is brighter, his mental processes are interfered with by means of an earpiece emitting a noise every twenty seconds, thus negating his ability to form complex thoughts (his wife needs no such handicap due to her lower IQ).
The couple are watching a ballet on TV. The dancers wear masks, and are weighed down by bags of birdshot to negative their excessive beauty and ability.
All of a sudden their desultory shuffling is interrupted by the arrival in the studio of our hero, Harrison Bergeron, the son of the watching couple, who was removed from them by the government at age 14 and is ‘a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous’.
Harrison proceeds to remove all the handicaps placed on him, from three hundred pounds of scrap iron to negate his strength, to a red nose to offset his good looks and calls for an Empress (having pronounced himself Emperor). One of the dancers answers the call and he removes her weights and her mask and she’s beautiful and he’s handsome and they proceed to dance and dance divinely until the Handicapper General, who needs no mask, no earpiece and no weights arrives, takes out a shotgun and shoots them both dead. The husband, having gone for a beer, missed the dénouement and Hazel is unable to express her thoughts regarding the importance of what she’s just witnessed. As he comforts her, his earpiece goes off again. Curtain.
What’s interesting is that, according to Wiki, the story was originally intended to satirise the American Cold War overreaction to Soviet society.
Be that as it may, it’s particularly apt for the current day and age as there would appear to be no lack of volunteers to replace Diana Moon Clampers as Handicapper General, and the ending still has the power to show us why this must be resisted, even if, like my schoolboy self, we lack the ability to enunciate exactly why this should be the case.
More from Ozymandias here.