February 28, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Vonnegut and Wokeness

Today, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” in my ENGL 1102 class. It strikes me this time through as a science-fiction allegory where some humans have evolved and perhaps mutated into superior beings, but the current US government passes constitutional amendments to ensure equality. Three amendments codify the ideological aspiration of the Declaration of Independence that reads “all men are created equal”—and if they’re not, they are forced to be through sanctioned handicaps. In essence, then, law maintains a society built around the lowest common denominator so as to not make anyone better (or worse) than anyone else.

Yes, I can see this is as the dystopian hellscape that conservatives see in liberal “wokeness.”[1] Vonnegut’s satire makes this notion of a forced equality absurd and potentially morally dubious. In this system people are punished for being better, forced to live at the level of those least capable: perhaps the logical outcome of a society that gives everyone a trophy for participation, making competition antithetical to social harmony. George Bergeron even associates competition with the “dark ages,” or being unenlightened.[2] The logic, then, is that forced equality eliminates an integral aspect of individuality and the natural competitiveness that excelling at something leads to. I guess I can see that wokeness regarded in such a way could be nightmarish.

At the other extreme, all of this handicapping seems to have the opposite effect on many members of society, Harrison being the primary example. Indeed, he’s like superman forced to wear kryptonite. And this analogy seems very apt, as if the handicaps have accelerated evolution to ironically increase the natural abilities and attributes of many citizens. Harrison has been arrested for an unknown reason, though the text makes it clear that the powers-that-be were threatened by Harrison’s intelligence, strength, and good looks.

. . .


  1. I know this is a republican scare word, and I hate to give it any credence by using it here, especially when most who do are not using it in a good-faith way. I have always thought that being awake was a good thing; however, it seems that those who aim this word like a gun, are those interested in maintaining a patriarchal status quo at best and perpetuating a christo-fascist white supremacy at worst. Perhaps the two are the same in this country? These inequitable and abusive systems that “woke” seems to challenge, are dependent on people being asleep, or unconcerned with or seek to strengthen traditional social disparities or class, race, and sex.
         This is so blatantly obvious to folks who are paying attention that ot seems to take a willingness or even insistence on being deceived. If my assessment is correct, then education is about waking people up. I can see where this would be antithetical to the goals of religion, white supremacy, and classism. If we were all woke then those things would not be so prevalent. Additionally, woke is just part of a right-wing culture war to distract us from those stealing our rights and money. If you’re unwoke (asleep, somnambulant?), then you’re complacent or just plain ignorant or think you deserve more for some reason. White skin? A penis? A holy fool? Seems about right.
  2. Vonnegut, Kurt (January 1, 1994) [1961]. "Harrison Bergeron". Reading and Writing About Literature. By Sipiora, Phillip. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 136.