Central to the American creed is the principle of equality, beginning with the notion that all human beings possess certain fundamental rights and equal standing before the law. Our concern for equality has expanded over the past half century to focus also on inequalities in opportunities, wealth, achievement, and social condition. What good is an equal right to pursue happiness if one lacks the native gifts or the social means to exercise it successfully? In this satirical story (1961), set in a future time in which “everybody was finally equal . . . every which way,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) challenges our devotion to equality and invites us to consider the costs of pursuing it too zealously. Although the story is not explicitly about racial, ethnic, or gender equality, the questions it provokes about the kind of equality we should want, and the costs of pursuing it, are relevant also to campaigns to eliminate inequalities among racial and ethnic groups or between the sexes.Does the society portrayed here represent a fulfillment of the ideal of equality in the Declaration of Independence, or rather a perversion of the principle? Does opposing invidious distinctions, envy, and feelings of inferiority require reducing all to the lowest common denominator, and is this the true path to “social justice”? Would homogeneity attained by artificially raising up the low, producing a nation of Harrisons rather than a nation of Hazels—a prospect offered by biotechnological “enhancement”—be any more attractive?
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.
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