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The Year Was 2081

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March 30, 2022

“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. 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, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.” -Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The opening paragraph of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s dystopian tale “Harrison Bergeron” is a stark view of our world if everyone was ‘equal’.  The tale describes the diminishment of the intellectual and physical attributes of individuals until everyone was exactly the same.

The Handicapper General is responsible for coming up with creative means to handicap, applying weights to those who are strong, masks to those who are beautiful, and causing mental pain to those whose intelligence is high.

Vonnegut uses the term ‘equality’ – but we are now faced with the vaguer, thus more easily manipulated, term ‘equity’. The difference between equity and equality is stark. Equity refers to everyone having the same outcome (the gist of Vonnegut’s story). Those touting the need for equity neglect to account for individual attributes, drive and work ethic.

Equality refers to everyone having an equal chance to succeed based on their own merits. Those merits are completely individual and unique – the mental skills, physical abilities, strength of personality or other characteristics that recommend each of us to our peers.

People are not widgets. We are not manufactured products endlessly churned from the same mold. To treat people like the output of an assembly line, discarding those with defects, serves no grand Utopian purpose, it merely disposes of the inconveniences of dealing with humans who are relentlessly unique.

Every individual comes with their own array of experiences, which individually and in combination shape how they view the world. Every individual is born with combinations of traits that cannot be replicated. Those traits, leavened by a completely unique set of experiences, provide the foundation from which a life is built.

Outcomes cannot be identical, because inputs are necessarily unpredictable, as varied as the individuals involved.

Government can never ensure equal outcomes without stripping us of our humanity. The best government can hope to accomplish is to make certain opportunities are not hoarded by the powerful, or the advantaged.

A government that keeps doors open for all is a successful government indeed. History announces the dangers of attempting to guarantee outcomes with tragic repetition; the lesson is invariably written in blood.

In today’s highly politicized society, demonizing the successful has become more than simply acceptable, it has morphed into a form of currency with which the aggrieved purchase their desired outcomes at the expense of excellence, achievement and ambition.

Harrison Bergeron is naturally handsome, very strong and highly intelligent. He is weighed down by 300lbs of scrap metal – far more than anyone else – with glasses to impair his eyesight, earphones to disrupt his thoughts and facial disfigurations to hide his looks.

In Vonnegut’s story, the Handicapper General never realizes the number and type of handicaps imposed on an individual were not equally assigned – because to get everyone to “average” different amounts of handicapping would be required. The very nature of handicapping an individual inversely reveals their strength, beauty and intelligence by the number and type of handicaps applied.

Differences make life interesting, and competition makes us better. Pursuing equity over equality is to create Harrison Bergeron’s dystopian world.

We have already started down this slippery slope as evidenced by schools no longer assigning grades or using test scores for admission; by companies (and the Supreme Court) elevating immutable characteristics above merit in hiring decisions; a dance of diversity, equity and inclusion dysfunction set to the throbbing music of “fairness.”

The price of admission is a complete loss of self. When Harrison’s mother told his father to lighten his own handicaps, he declined, saying "If I tried to get away with it,…then other people'd get away with it-and pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn't like that, would you?"

America, and Americans, thrive off competition. The drive to succeed propels us to great heights. Will we, as a society, stumble and lurch down the equity path, abandoning our virtues and talents chasing the bland promises of academic navel-gazers, or will we choose to respect our differences and embrace merit and effort and success and failure equally? We each have our own journey to make, and Vonnegut ably warns us of the consequences of letting someone else direct our path -30-

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