All men are created equal.” This famous phrase found in the Declaration of Independence is often thought to be an immortal declaration of the American Revolution with great continuing importance. This concept denotes the idea of equal opportunity for all American citizens, but what would happen if a government, or some other power, took this notion literally? Is it actually possible to make everyone perfectly equal in every aspect of life? Does leveling the playing field mean that everyone wins, or that no one does? There are many negative feelings and harsh criticisms expressed toward the idea of a socialist government. However, the consequences of this exact situation were actually forecast back in 1961 by Kurt Vonnegut in his short story Harrison Bergeron, which imagines a futuristic world based on literal equality.
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Through his use of satire in the short story, Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut mocks common fears of creating a socialist government in order to convince readers that socialism is not as dangerous as one might think.
Vonnegut argues how ridiculous some of these fears, such as enforced equality and the power of government officials, are through the continual use of apathetic tone. This is expressed through a lack of seriousness, calmly inadequate reactions, and frivolous sarcasm expressed through the shallow remarks of characters. This tone becomes especially prominent through the dialogue of George and Hazel Bergeron as they speak concerning their son, Harrison: There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about. The use of a careless, flippant tone expressed through Hazel’s response allows Vonnegut to make his point that socialism would never influence someone so greatly that it would control the individual thoughts and feelings that make us human. Even though George and Hazel witness the tragic death of their own son on live television, they respond in a completely passive and indifferent manner as if it meant nothing to them. Vonnegut uses this example to emphasize the distance placed between the character’s emotions and the reality of the event in order to show that the fear of socialism dehumanizing us is irrational. It is unfathomable in the minds of readers that someone could be desensitized to tragedy to such a great extent that he or she would forget the death of a child so easily and quickly. This concept supports Vonnegut’s claim by implying that a socialistic society could never have so much power over us that it would define who we are as people and limit the love and compassion we have for others.
Through his use of an apathetic tone, Vonnegut is able to subtly undermine the misconception that socialism would alienate individuals from basic human nature. Vonnegut successfully adds depth to this apathetic tone by incorporating humor to create a sense of sarcasm and dampen the seriousness of the issue being addressed.
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