The most dangerous thing I ever read in middle school was Harrison Bergeron.
For anyone that hasn’t read the story and doesn’t have time for a short story that you can google in six seconds and would probably be a better use of your time than this essay, Harrison Bergeron is a 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut. It tells the story of a dystopian future where every American has been “averaged”. If someone is beautiful, they are forced to wear an ugly mask. If someone is athletic, they are tied to heavy weights. And if someone is smart, they are equipped with a helmet that randomly dispenses blaring, concentration-destroying sounds. This “averagefication” of America is legally mandated, and this short story tells the tale of one intelligent, athletic Harrison Bergeron, and his short, easily stymied revolution to bring extraordinary back to America. Spoilers, Harrison is shot and killed almost instantly, and his parents, an idiot mother and an intelligent father forced into a thought disruptor, barely register the tragedy thanks to their handicaps. Looks like the Bergeroniverse is going to stick to its “average” existence.
And that scared the hell out of me.
Identity is always important. I’m not certain at what age such thinking starts, but I know nine-year-olds and fifty somethings that both seem to be in the same boat: they want to know who they are. But it seems like the nine-year-olds have an easier time of it, as they more readily accept the descriptors assigned by their peers and/or adults. Tell me, were you ever described as the fast kid? The fat kid? The smelly kid? The cute kid? The kid that can eat eleven tacos in one sitting? The sports kid? The smart kid? Who assigned you that moniker? Was it a parent? Grandparent? Teacher? Sibling? Friend? Bully? And, regardless of source, when did you start to internalize that description of yourself? You are the fat kid, and no matter how much weight you lose, you still see that pudgy face in the mirror. You are the fast kid, even though you haven’t run more than three feet in the last decade. Maybe you’re still convinced you have a skin condition you got over in college, or maybe you’ve been happily married for ten years, but still think no one on Earth would ever date you. These descriptions we internalize, they can last whole lifetimes, and sometimes they just originate with a random, careless comment that was forgotten by the commenter as quickly as it was said.
Me? I was the smart kid, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. I don’t have any siblings, and I was raised by a very attentive pair of parents, and 3 out of 4 grandparents (my paternal grandfather died the year before I was born). And everyone in my family, one way or another, was very educated. Since I didn’t have much of a peer group 90% of my time (no siblings or cousins around to play Ninja Turtles with), I mostly conversed with my parents. I want to say they dumbed down the conversation a bit for my young ears, but they never lowered their vocabularies or talked down to me (my father actually has a distinct loathing for “baby talk”, which likely explains why he couldn’t stand it when I flipped on Rugrats). This is why, when I was a wee lad of about eleven years old, my friend’s mother asked me, “Why do you talk like a forty year old?” I took it as a compliment. Regardless, whether or not I have ever been smart, I have always sounded smart, and so I happily adopted the “smart kid” identity. I liked school! I did my homework! I could always spout “fun facts” and lecture my friends on the application of metaphors! I used phrases like “the application of metaphors”! And, looking back, I have no idea if it was because I enjoyed doing such a thing, or if the act of committing to the “smart kid” persona just properly tickled the pleasure centers of my brain. See! I’m the smart kid! And I’m doing smart stuff! Me so smart!
So I wound up in the Gifted & Talented Program, and, one day in sixth grade (or thereabouts), we read Harrison Bergeron. And I liked the story, naturally, because it was funny, quick, and absurd. If that wasn’t already the entire base of what I look for in entertainment, it would become such in the coming years. And we discussed the story in class (Gifted & Talented was a forty minute “elective” class containing like ten students. While we were discussing Vonnegut, the kids in “normal” class were, I don’t know, learning how to entice termites onto sticks or something). I seem to recall the girls found the story sad, while the boys were busy chuckling about some dumbass getting his brains blown out. We talked about the ludicrousness of an entirely “averaged” society, and then we moved on to the next topic at hand (which if memory serves, was Flatland, for some reason). In a way, that should have been it. I can’t distinctly recall the thoughts “around” most anything else we read in Gifted and Talented, and Harrison Bergeron should have been no different.
But some time not much later, a thought started to creep into my head, and I’d argue that it never left. That thought was rather simple, and it irrevocably changed my life:
They want to make you stupid. They want to make you stupid, just like them.
Before we go any further: I want to plainly state that, as an adult, I see Harrison Bergeron as nothing more than some light satire about what would eventually be identified as “politically correct” culture. It’s a silly story that is meant to highlight the ridiculous potential endpoint of homogenizing the human race. It’s not a manifesto, it’s a farce. As an adult, I understand that.
But as a kid? At the age of twelve? I want to say it was the hormones. I want to say that, at that age, with my kind of mentality, practically anything could have set me off. It’s like having your sexual awakening while watching Rescue Rangers, right? You were going to be get turned on by something, it could have been MTV’s The Grind, or it could have been Gadget Hackwrench. Best not to think too hard about such a thing. But, source or no, somehow Harrison Bergeron radicalized my own thinking. It was no longer enough to be “the smart kid”, now I had to defend that position, and keep my precious brain safe from all those that would attempt to bring me down to their level. I’m the smart kid, dammit, and you damn normies aren’t going to catch me unaware! Going to a hockey game this Wednesday? Ha! That’s clearly a trick! I’m going to stay home, and read books! That’ll show ya! My galactic brain will stomp out your brain, which is clearly as dull and lifeless as your hair. Ain’t nothing gonna bring me down!
And I thank God every day that I had great friends, activities, and teachers during that time, because if I didn’t? I’m pretty sure I would have been a danger to the world.
I’m a white male living in The United States of America. Statistically, that means there is likely something wrong with me. According to all available data, there are good odds that, more than the women and “minorities” in my school, I could have been a danger to myself and others. This isn’t some self-depreciating statement, this is a simple fact proven over the last few decades since Columbine (which, incidentally, occurred while I was in high school). I am well aware of this fact, and, every time there’s a shooting (which is depressingly often), I think about how such a thing could happen, and if such a thing could have ever happened to me. And, no, I don’t think about if I could have been shot while in high school, I think about whether I could have been the shooter.
And, deep in my heart, I hope that I could never have been that person. I’m not violent by nature, and I think I’ve been in exactly two fights my entire life. I traditionally see violence as an absolute last resort, and it’s a rarity that I even consider hitting someone, left alone jumping down the long series of philosophical hoops that would lead to me wanting to see someone dead. I can barely bring myself to stomp out a spider! They serve a valuable purpose! But I also think about being a teenager, and how every little kiss and breakup and math quiz was the most important thing that had ever happened in the history of mankind. I think about how quickly those emotions could be amplified into something terrible. And I think about what I was thinking about at that time, and who I was.
And I was the smart kid.
When I was twelve, I determined that the world would try to drag me down to average. It never did. I kept my ears open, I kept my nose to the grindstone (book stone?), and I scoffed at obvious attempts to lower my IQ (a fear that alcohol is the “new” opiate of the masses may explain why I have a distaste for beer to this day. Ditto on drugs in general… which may literally be opiates…), and, thankfully, I made it out of my teenage years with my brain intact. My identity, who I considered myself as a person, was never truly threatened. The Harrison Bergeron World was not one that ever intersected with our dimension, and I was safe in my little smart kid bubble. I am the smart kid, and I would continue to be the smart kid.
But I feel that only proves that I’m lucky.
I never really chose to be the smart kid. At some point, I made it an integral part of my identity, but the things that made people identify me as such, the things that made me “the smart kid” were all just random bits of fate predominantly inspired by parents. I understand it’s like a kōan to ask something like “who would you be if you were born an entirely different person”, but the point is that the identity I clung to like a security blanket for so long was less my own doing, and more of an identity thrust upon me. I wasn’t “smart” because I was the most studious second grader in South Jersey, I was smart because I sounded smart next to my friends that were still aping Ren & Stimpy. Adults told me I was smart, I told myself I was smart, I studied to prove I was smart, and then I defended my smartness through smart activities. Would you like to see my high school yearbook again? I think that would prove my nerdity once and for all.
So, in a way, I can’t imagine being a different random white boy with a different defining personality trait. And, more importantly than that, I can’t imagine having a different “Harrison Bergeron”. It’s only through deep meditation and reflection (re: got bored while watching Jessica Jones) that I came to the realization that one simple story impacted my life in significant and subtle ways. So if I barely know myself, I can’t imagine we are even capable of discovering the “trigger” for the white boys that actually decide to kill others. And, in a way, that’s to be expected. We are, by nature, selfish creatures that look out for our own interests. We are capable of empathy, but considering we barely admit our own motives to ourselves, it really is nearly impossible to truly know and understand what someone else is thinking.
And why do I bring this up at all? Because it doesn’t matter.
I was never violent, but my own thinking was radicalized by a humorous short story. Similar things may have happened to other children. It may not have been Vonnegut, but it could certainly have been a television show, movie, or videogame. It could have been a random comment by a commentator on Westminster Dog Show. It could be anything. And that’s important, because we could outlaw all media except for Sesame Street, and someone could still get the idea for a murder spree by misunderstanding Grover. And that’s just addressing “media” as a radicalizing agent, let’s not even considering what kids say to each other. Kids are mean, and someone just trying to be funny could leave permanent scars on a psyche. And some scars never go away, and simply fester and ooze until they control a life, steering it directly into something that is going to require “thoughts and prayers”.
And how do you deal with that? You don’t.
I’m not saying that people cannot be healed. I’m certainly not saying that someone cannot be convinced to, ya know, not be a mass murdering terrorist. There are good, wonderful people out there that help people with these scars, and there are people that have been pulled back from the brink by even the tiniest glimmer of kindness. But can we rely on that happening? Can we say we can eliminate every radical stimulus, and thus live in a perfect, terrorism free world? Hell no. The idea that we could “nice” away violent behavior is absurd, and, frankly, right up there with “your spouse won’t hit you if you are just nicer” or “stop wearing that dress, you’re asking to be raped.” It doesn’t truly address the problem, and it hoists the blame onto the victim, not the perpetrator. The thought of being pleasant all the time is insane to begin with (you are allowed to be sad, irritated, or angry, boys and girls), but the idea that you must be a smiler, else it “set somebody off”, is downright dangerous. Someone hurting people is not your fault any more than it is Vonnegut’s fault that I was a dick to anyone I deemed unworthy of my intelligence.
So if someone tells you the solution so school shootings is to be nice to the goth kid, go ahead and tell ‘em they’re on the wrong track. White males are allowed to have their ridiculous identity issues, but, as long as we present the solution to those issues as violence, we’re going to keep seeing violence. “Proving yourself as a man” is horribly ingrained in our society, and how many deaths can we attribute to the boys that internalize that message? How many times are we going to see someone “solve a problem” with an assault rifle? How many people have to die before we change not how we interact with each other, but what we allow to define our society every minute of every day? “Being nice” was never going to be the answer, and we need to change so much more than our social circles to stop this problem once and for all.
Anyone can be radicalized by anything, but the overarching “morals” of our society too often present violence as the answer to solving problems. People are going to keep identifying themselves with simple characteristics, and when those assumptions are threatened, they will lash out. It’s up to us to limit the methods by which someone may lash out. It’s up to us to save lives.
Getting rid of guns would be a good start.
Hey, it would have saved Harrison Bergeron.