The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.
The society depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron, sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Well, what does “equal every which way” mean exactly?
Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution…
How can nobody be smarter than anybody else? How can nobody be stronger or quicker than anybody else?
Kurt Vonnegut paints a picture of a society whose definition of equality has become a twisted and absurd understanding of the word. And how do the authorities in Vonnegut ensure that everyone is “equal every which way”? They place handicaps on people with greater skill. Weights to slow down the fast and the strong. And for those with superior intellect, a transmitter affixed to one’s ear would emit a piercing noise to prevent individuals “from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”
Is this really an idyllic society? Hardly.
The protagonist, Harrison Bergeron, is a genius – perhaps the most intelligent individual in the country. He is so intelligent and so above average in every way that he poses a threat to his government.
He’s a towering figure in every way – physically and intellectually. He is so different and above everyone else that his greatness is impossible to ignore. So, for him to be equal to everyone else, what has to happen? Can those less intelligent be brought up to his level? Of course not. The only way is to ensure that Harrison’s genius and other gifts are impeded.
So what are the consequences? We are left with a society whose ambition is to be the lowest common denominator. No one can be a faster runner than anyone else. No one can be a more graceful dancer than anyone else. No one can be a superior physician. And at the end of it all, we are left with a little less than mediocrity in every field.
“You Can Achieve Anything You Set Your Mind To”
We don’t live in such a society today, thank goodness. But some of the ideas Kurt Vonnegut explores are not completely foreign to us. We often praise people for the slightest effort – any effort. I remember seeing episodes of American Idol in which candidates who had gotten cut because they were simply not good enough are outraged. Why? Because, for years, everyone around them told them they were great. In some of these situations, they were cases of positive re-enforcement run amok.
But it’s not completely outlandish. We grew up being told that we can be anything we want to be. Nothing can stop us. If we set our minds to it, we can achieve anything. And who taught us these ideas? Books. Songs. Television. Movies. Celebrities. Well-meaning people.
These ideas are wonderful. They truly are. I don’t want to live my life believing I am limited. How can achieve anything if I am limited?
But the truth is, you can’t be anything you want to be. I, for example, can’t be a basketball player in the NBA. I can’t be a hockey player. So that mantra – “you can be anything you want to be” – is a misnomer. The reality is that you can be anything you want to be… within your abilities. A better slogan, one that actually makes more sense to me, is “be all that you can be”. It’s a question of potential and doing what you can to reach that potential.
In this week’s parasha, Korah challenges Moses. But what he says isn’t so outlandish.
All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?
That doesn’t sound like a power-hungry or irrational rant. The accusation seems to have merit. If we are all holy, then why is one person above the rest?
Would you, had you been there, have trusted Moses as God’s anointed or would you have agreed with Korah? I know that I, for one, would have had trouble believing anyone who said that God had asked him to lead my people. How do I know for certain that God chose him? I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear God’s voice. And what Korah says does appear to make sense.
The key point, for me, is not that God chose Moses. It’s the evidence. It’s that Moses has earned the right to lead the people. He successfully delivered us out of slavery and out of Egypt. He has returned from Mount Sinai with a code of law that is to be the constitution of the Israelite nation and its faith.
Like Harrison Bergeron in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Moses is a towering figure whose gifts are evident to everyone. To say that everyone is equal is true. To say that everyone is holy is also true. But what Korah expresses is a misunderstanding of equality and holiness. Just because he is equal to Moses and holy like Moses, that does not give him the gifts required to be leader of the Israelite people.
Yes, we are all holy. But being equal does not mean being the same. God has given us gifts and it is our right and even our obligation to achieve everything possible with those gifts. And so, when someone shows greatness in his or her field, we should not scorn them; we should praise them. After all, these gifts are God’s gifts to humanity; an individual’s achievements are, in fact, a triumph of the holiness with which God has imbued us.