In “Harrison Bergeron,” the totalitarian state regulates the minds and bodies of its citizens to ensure statewide equality. In addition to distributing handicap devices to lower the physical and/or mental strength of above-average citizens, the government maintains equality among citizens through ideologically-charged media that encourages citizens to consent to the invasive practices of the US Handicapper General. By showing propaganda as an equally powerful and invasive force as grotesque physical devices, Vonnegut suggests that propaganda is violent and all-consuming, even if its effects aren’t physical or even outwardly sinister.
George and Hazel’s relationship to television is probably representative of the media consumption of most citizens in this dystopian future: they passively consume government media constantly, absorbing ideological messages that encourage them to accept their difficult lives. The extent of their indoctrination is clear when George and Hazel watch a televised performance by a troupe of mediocre ballerinas, and George thinks that all of them are handicapped so that nobody watching at home would be made to “feel like something the cat drug in.” Despite his vague inkling that ballerinas shouldn’t be handicapped and his knowledge that he’s not witnessing good dancing, George sees the handicaps as the government protecting his well-being rather than consolidating power through not allowing citizens to imagine other possibilities for their lives.
Furthermore, after George and Hazel see their son murdered by the government on national television, the combination of their indoctrination and their physical handicaps prevents them from processing what would normally be one of the most traumatic events of a person’s life. After seeing Harrison die, Hazel retains only a limited memory of what happened, noting that she saw “something real sad on television,” and George responds that she should “forget sad things.” That not even their son’s execution galvanizes George and Hazel to question—let alone fight back against—the government shows the profound success of their indoctrination by the media.
The media coverage of Harrison’s escape from jail and his subsequent death at the hands of the state presents a concrete example of how propagandistic media creates passive, unquestioning citizens. When the ballerina delivers the news bulletin about Harrison’s escape, her audience learns that Harrison is “under-handicapped” and “extremely dangerous;” the conflation of these characteristics teaches the TV audience that Harrison’s dissent from the law is a threat to society as a whole. Subsequently, the graphic coverage of Harrison’s assassination on television teaches viewers that dissent is punishable by death. Given the tendency for normal citizens to passively consume national media, it is probable that the coverage of Harrison’s death would impel citizens to continue following the law for fear of punishment.
While the handicapping devices and the media are, in some ways, two separate prongs of totalitarian power, Vonnegut subtly blurs the line between physical devices and media propaganda. Citizens with above-average intelligence receive “ear radios” that blast them with distracting noises every few seconds so that they cannot focus, thereby rendering their intellect useless. These radio blasts are synchronized, as is apparent when several ballerinas on TV and George at home simultaneously react to the noise. Therefore, the mental handicap is a sinister form of syndicated media, like a radio station but with the explicit purpose of inhibiting critical thought.
The fact that the handicapping devices resemble media operations shows that media is the central form of manipulation and control in this dystopian future, and it’s clearly an effective one. George, an intelligent man with inklings that all is not well in his society, has been so thoroughly indoctrinated that he even refuses to break the law innocently. When Hazel suggests that he rest on the couch to relieve the burdens of his physical handicaps, he responds in the best way the government could hope, saying, “The minute people start cheating on laws… [society would] fall apart.”
Media and Ideology ThemeTracker
Media and Ideology Quotes in Harrison Bergeron
George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped. But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
“The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?” If Hazel hadn't been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn't have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head. “Reckon it'd fall all apart,” said Hazel.
The music began again and was much improved. Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it. They shifted their weights to their toes. Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang! Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.