“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every which way.” Sobering words by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961. We have been throwing words around like inequality, being equal, and on and on it goes. But Vonnegut describes a time where the government has forced everyone to be equal. Through the power of amending the Constitution, the government was able to create an equality to end all inequality, enforced by the “vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”
Vonnegut describes George and Hazel as they watch ballerinas on TV who are wearing masks. The masks are to ensure no one is prettier than the other. As the ballerinas dance they are wearing weights on their feet to ensure they all dance the same. No one can be better than anyone else.
Vonnegut describes how those that are smarter than others are forced to wear a mental handicap radio in their ear, and whenever they had a thought that was better than anyone else there would be a sharp sound in their brain discouraging thoughts that are different. Everyone needed to be equal.
However, George and Hazel had a son who was extra-ordinary. He was seven feet tall, which was a problem because everyone needed to be equal in height. Harrison was also smarter than others. He would not give in to the Handicapper General; therefore, at fourteen Harrison was arrested.
Everyone was to be “as good as everyone else.” Vonnegut, ever the storyteller, has Harrison breaking out of jail and storming the TV station. He chooses a ballerina to be his mate, and removes her mask to show the world that she is beautiful. She is above average. They dance without the weights, and prove that some people can dance better than others.
Eventually the Handicapper general enters the TV station and shoots and kills Harrison and his empress, she then caused the screen to blackout. George, who had missed the whole thing comes back from the kitchen, and sees that Hazel has been crying. She saw her son killed on TV. He asks, “have you been crying? She answers, “yup.” George asks, “What about?” Hazel answers, “I forget. Something real sad on television.” George says, “forget sad things.” Hazel responds, “I always do.”
Even though I had read many of Vonnegut’s books in the early 70’s, I had never heard of this short story. When I found out about it I had to read it. It is incredibly thought provoking.
I for one do not want to live in a world of forced equality, where all of us are the same. There is a sadness to Vonnegut’s story. I love the beauty of diversity and difference. And I think that those who can do certain things better than others should be rewarded for those exceptional skills.
So all of this discussion of inequality needs to be bracketed by the phrase “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.
And that is my thought for the day!