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Oct 31 2012

The Fallacy of Generalization from Fictional Evidence. (a.k.a. Harrison Bergeron)

A few days back, I cheerfully pointed out via a comment that when you say things like this:

I handle controversy really well; I do not break down in tears, jump to unreasonable conclusions about my safety, or have mental breakdowns.

…in the greater context of an article about how, in essence, those who can’t handle the heat should get out of the kitchen, (an idea which Stephanie excellently skewers here), that is ableism. Have breakdowns? Oh, it’s because you couldn’t handle controversy. You know, I’m just going to tell you (as someone who is neither your therapist or friend) that if you have mental health problems, you should just stay out of debate. Even if, y’know, it is about issues that involve you. Let us neurotypical people handle it.

I’m not going to tackle the resulting comments and blog post from the OP, because honestly, I’ve no interest.

What was interesting was the commenter who left one of those brief rhetorical comments (as you do):

Have you read Harrison Bergeron?

…with one of those faces of forced confusion and shock, O.o, the sort that always fail to convey their intended meaning by reminding me of these marsupials.

In brief, “Harrison Bergeron” is a dystopian short story by Vonnegut,  where ‘equality’ has become so inverted that those with talent are hamstrung and given handicaps to prevent them from expressing any ability better than anyone else. Those of intelligence wear earpieces that blast noise at intervals, the beautiful must wear masks, etc. In other words, the ‘equality laws’ have trampled the people. Harrison throws off the confinements, stands up against a world that wants him to conform to a normative idea of ability, and for a few brief moments, lives unconfined by society.

Now, to the actual question of my education: I have read it. In fact, due to a public school system that didn’t communicate required reading from grade to grade, it was part of my studies no less than three times.

Did I think the state of my high school literary education was actually the point of inquiry? No.

But, the “What about Harrison Bergeron?!11?!!” response is one I get often, and it’s still exams week(s) and I’m fed up.

You’re committing a logical fallacy. And it’s not even one of the fun ones. But, lest I fall into the trap of the Fallacy Fallacy, let me point out why, besides the obvious “this is a fictional short story”, “Harrison Bergeron” is not the appropriate response to actions to remove ableism.

Where exactly do you want me to draw the line? Do you think it’s utterly wrong to be saying sexist/homophobic/racist things, but when it’s fine to dismiss people on the basis of their mental health? Skin and gender and orientation aren’t up for mockery, but, hey, we gotta draw the line at being nice somewhere!

Then there’s this sticky situation:

Point 1: Ableism is treating a group of one type of able-ness as though everyone else should cope in their world, whether or not it serves them well.

Point 2: In ‘Harrison Bergeron’, less-preferred kinds of ability is forced to conform to the world, by use of handicaps, whether or not it serves them well, and leads to a heartbreaking climax…and THAT PROVES THAT DISCUSSING ABLEISM IS SILLY BECAUSE…..oh. errrr…….ooops?

If you’re upset with the way those we would call ‘normal’ are restrained to conform in Vonnegut’s tale, but not fussed by things like the Canadian government fighting to avoid updating their websites to work with screen readers for the visually impaired, you’re doing it wrong.

If you’re upset with the earpieces (which blare noise to disrupt intelligent thought) in the story, but think it’s fine to joke around about illnesses like OCD and schizophrenia, which often have invasive and uncontrollable thoughts that prevent concentration, you’re doing it wrong.

If you’re using “Harrison Bergeron” to tell me why I shouldn’t care about ableism and you don’t notice that it’s proving my point, you’re doing it wrong.

44 comments

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  1. 1
    smrnda

    I’ve usually liked Kurt Vonnegut, but I never really *got* the story since it always seemed like it could almost be twisted into something Ayn Rand would write, with the idea that say, progressive taxation, or regulations on how people run businesses is exactly the same as what’s going on in that story – the talented people are having their abilities hampered by some state so they aren’t better than the ‘inferior people.’

    As a person with several disabilities, I do pretty well but only because society has been (to some extent) forced to adapt to me. Some of my problems are psychiatric which makes notions of ‘accommodation’ tough to describe at times. “I prefer to avoid situations where I might have to deal with the possibility of deception” is a strange thing to put down, but I’ve written it.

  2. 2
    Miriam, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    I imagine you don’t participate in many psychological studies, then. :)

    Great post, Kate!

  3. 3
    wfenza

    Harrison Bergeron is actually an adaptation from Vonnegut’s second novel, The Sirens of Titan (one of my favorites).

    The idea has nothing at all to do with ableism. It stands for the proposition that achieving equality through forcing everyone down to the level of the lowest common denominator is ridiculous. Taken one step further, it suggest that equality is not an end in itself. That if the struggle for equality is not a means to improve people’s lives, it ceases to have value. Seems like a good thing to remember.

  4. 4
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    I never got that story when I read it in school.

    It didn’t help that my teacher didn’t get it either, so couldn’t explain it.

    Now I get it. Thanks.

  5. 5
    Butch Pansy

    Thank you; that’s how I read it, as well. My sophomore English teacher was excellent.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    I think you’ve failed to understand Kate’s point, rather than Kate failing to understand the story.

    The world we live in doesn’t just exist the way it does because there’s no other way for it to exist. It is made to accommodate us in our strengths and weaknesses, or at least some of them.

    It’s the difference between clothing and fur. We have a world in which we have created clothing. Acting as though our clothing were fur is silly, but that’s what we frequently do when we’re talking about working to accommodate varying levels of ability. We act as though we can’t change the world we built without turning the natural order on its head.

    This story tells us that it’s stupid to run a world in such a way that it inhibits people’s full potentials. Kate’s point is taht this is every bit as true–that it’s every bit as stupid–to do this for people who are less than perfectly adapted for our current artificial environment. That’s where the irony of someone using this story to argue against an awareness of ablism comes from.

    Or to put it more simply, I’ll just post the comment I refrained from posting yesterday because I felt it was beating a dead horse: But Kate, all those people deserve to have a world made for them because they’re beautiful and perfect. The rest of us don’t because…oh, I see.

  7. 7
    DJMankiwictz

    In as honest a self assessment as I can muster, I’ve come to this conclusion. “Ableism” is my biggest bit of bigotry to work through. I certainly don’t begrudge the physically handicapped one bit, and believe making the world a little easier for the blind, the paralyzed, the deaf and so on is simply an obvious kindness. It’s the mental handicaps that get me, the ones where I fail to live up to my own standards. My whole life I’ve valued my brain over everything else. I’d rather my body atrophy than to ever have a crippling aneurism. Picturing myself as barely able to understand the world around me and unable to pursue intellectual things like my interest in computers is a nightmare to me, and as a result I would rather commit suicide than go on living in such a state, whereas I could picture myself going on if I were physically reduced to communicating through eye movement. I think it’s this “nightmare” of mine I’m projecting onto other mentally disabled people (huh, odd I used other, well I’m no genius, I recognize my own limitations). In my nobler moments, I can realize that yes, they are people too, often having only that window of awareness their entire lives. They aren’t “missing” anything, that’s who most of them have always been, and if they are happy, who am I to say their lives are empty and pointless (I don’t tend to actually think this directly, this is just the logical extension of my own fear.) The result is that I don’t engage the mentally handicapped the way I engage the mentally “normal”. I am dismissive, sometimes standoffish.

    This extends to a gamut of mental disorders, not just ones related to learning and understanding. I’ve been in the house of someone with a pipolar disorder in the past to help them with a computer issue. When it came to my attention this person had occasional suicidal thoughts, my thoughts weren’t of sympathy but of fear for my own well-being. I had no direct reason to think THIS individual was going to be violent, he’d done nothing to indicate he had been violent to others in the past, but when someone in confidence reveals something of that severity to me, my first worry is always “how predictable is this person?”. I’m really not sure how to handle this one…

    Feel free to chastise me. I recognize my failings, but I would also like advice on how to grow past this.

  8. 8
    doubtthat

    Everyone’s experience is different, but I spent a lot of time twiddling my thumbs while basic concepts were explained to stupid people. I’m glad that those stupid people received that explanation, but I sincerely wish I had those endless hours back, and that my time had been spent with classmates and instructors willing and able to engage on a higher level.

    Harrison Burgeron was written for people who understand what it’s like to be constantly told, “No, no, you’re getting ahead. Does everyone understand _______ so far?” It’s written for people who have been smarter than everyone of their teachers since fifth grade.

    And as you’re reading this, you’re probably having the very reaction that generates this problem in the first place: “Oh, he thinks he’s smarter than everyone? What an ass.” Unless you’re lucky and either found yourself in an excellent school district or your parents had the means to provide some alternative, it is much, much, much easier to approach school officials and develop an educational plan because your kid is falling behind vs. trying to find some way of providing a program for someone being held back.

    Oddly, athletics was the only field where no one was upset with me for being good and demanding that others get their shit together.

    And, by the way, these very stupid people were almost unanimously Evangelical Christians. My intellectual growth was severely stunted from having to sit through ten classes a year where there was a collective meltdown over evolution.

    The bottom line is that in a country with basically endless resources, there’s no excuse to leave anyone behind, whether failing to accommodate special needs or stunting growth because it’s cheaper to make every kid read the same book, even if one of them read it five years earlier.

  9. 9
    doubtthat

    I should just point out that I was defending Harrison Bergeron, not arguing against the main point of the post. Its use as described was incoherent.

    Harrison Bergeron is written by someone who understands what it’s like to be resented for being good at something.

  10. 10
    Kalliope

    For some reason the phrase, “A wise man can learn more from a fool than a fool can from a wise man” keeps swirling around my head after reading your post.

    Out of curiosity, how old are you and what have you done academically since leaving school?

    In any case, I think you just made Kate’s point for her. You described, as did Vonnegut, what it’s like to be above the mean. You didn’t like it. You were taller than everyone else so you could reach apples higher in the trees than your classmates. But you saw some apples even higher and you couldn’t reach them because your teachers were too busy giving the short kids a boost so they could have any apples at all.

    Vonnegut extended your experience to one where people above the mean don’t just get not-enough, they are actively deprived of being able to function at their base level. In his world, not only wouldn’t you be able to reach the apples above your head, but your knees would be cut off so you couldn’t reach the one your natural height would allow you too.

    But there were other people in your school. The ones who because of various disabilities (physical, emotional, intellectual) existed below the mean. It sucked for them, too. They couldn’t reach as high as the average kids and they didn’t get boosts, either. They went without altogether.

    The problem with the world focused around the mean is that both those above and those below can’t reach their full potential. THAT was the point Kate was making. The disabled are already cut off at the knee.

    I was a gifted child, too. I was in gifted classes in an elite part of the country filled with highly educated parents and I was still bored out of my mind because I was among the most gifted of the most gifted. Yeah, it would have been nice to have the opportunity to fully realize my potential. The same is true of hundreds of millions around the world, bright people who work in factories, if they work at all.

    Here’s the thing: It’s a million times easier being an unactualized genius that it is being an unactualized person with disabilities. And it sure as hell doesn’t diminish my abilities if someone below the mean gets the resources he or she needs to reach those lower branches.

  11. 11
    doubtthat

    First, nothing your wrote actual contradicts anything that I wrote; second, at no point did I make a comparison between my situation and the situation of people with special needs. The “which is worse” was completely imposed by you.

    As for what I did academically: I attended a Big12 school on a full-ride baseball scholarship. I gave back the scholarship money offered by the music department because I didn’t need it. I graduated with honors and was accepted to a top 5 law school, and now I’m an attorney. Our firm is appointed by the state to serve as counsel for troubled families and those with extraordinary needs, so I have some familiarity with trying to obtain necessary services for the folks you seem to think I dismissed. I’m doing just fine, thank you, but I appreciate the attempt at condescension. Should I just mail you my resume? How many references do you need?

    I think it is absolutely deadly for society to develop a hatred and jealously for excellence. Our perverse society has decided that the only forms of achievement worth celebrating are athletic and financial. The GOP onslaught against science and reason is the exact shit that I grew up with. Their ideas are threatened by smart people, so they attack smart people: scientists are in a conspiracy against us; Paul Krugman is a pointy-headed liar; the polls are skewed, Nate Silver is making everything up…and on and on. Yet somehow we need to be wary of the emotions of the children of the wealthy lest they have a tantrum and stop fabricating employment for the rest of us.

    This is, in part, what Harrison Bergeron is about. Obviously those with struggles need to be cared for, and obviously deploying Harrison Bergeron to make some inscrutable argument against a wide range of social services is ridiculous, but I would argue against the notion that Vonnegut was dealing with pure fantasy. The resentment of excellence in a wide range of fields is already a reality (and has been from time immemorial), and pretty close to half the country is ready to start hand-cuffing people right now.

    From a society-wide perspective there is great harm in limiting the ability of the talented to excel, and because school budgets are strained throughout the country, it really is often the case that to accommodate the masses, both ends of the extremes are sacrificed. I’m not sure why you think writing about how that dynamic impacts gifted students is an implicit argument that folks on the other end have it easy. This is the Dawkins “dear Muslima” point: others have it worse, therefore your point is invalid.

  12. 12
    Stephanie Zvan

    I’m not sure why you think writing about how that dynamic impacts gifted students is an implicit argument that folks on the other end have it easy.

    Oh, I dunno. Might just have something to do with the contents of the thread you decided to appropriate for your impassioned defense of a short story by a dead author.

  13. 13
    doubtthat

    We’re restricted to discussion of living authors?

    The thread was about a dumb argument using that short story. I agreed with the discussion concerning the dumb argument, and then offered a defense of the story. This is out of line?

  14. 14
    wfenza

    This disagreement seems kind of silly, since I agree with the point you’re making. I just don’t think Harrison Bergeron lends support to it. The story doesn’t tell us that it’s stupid to run the world in a way that inhibits people’s full potentials, full stop. The message of the story is only that it’s stupid to specifically set out to inhibit people for the sake of equality. It doesn’t deal at all with the question of whether all members of society should share a small sacrifice to accommodate less able members. The story is a warning against promoting equality to the detriment of diversity.

  15. 15
    Stephanie Zvan

    You asked why you came across a particular way. I answered you. You’ve now shifted to “Are we not allowed…?” You have a choice here. Don’t be an ass about this.

  16. 16
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yes, it does seem silly. That’s because you want argue about an authorial intent that you have next to no access to in the context of a post about ableism. It feels silly because the place for that kind of argumen is an English class or debate club, where it doesn’t matter.

  17. 17
    Noadi

    Exposure is the key. I was in gifted programs when I was in school, took AP classes, etc. and now as an adult I still value learning new things every day. At the same time my mom is a special education teacher and three of her foster siblings have developmental disabilities (two were born with FAS, the other has Down Syndrome). I was exposed from a very early age to people who couldn’t function the way I could, when I was 7 it was hard to understand why I could read better than my grown up uncles or why my aunt couldn’t speak (she’s still non-verbal but she’s made good progress with signing). I found myself feeling outside my peers sometimes when I was in school because I didn’t look down on those who weren’t as smart.

    This is why I won’t jump on the bandwagon on insulting the intelligence of religious people or Republicans. Ignorance is not the same as lack of intelligence. Case in point: my uncle may have trouble retaining information but he wants to learn and tries very hard. When the state of Maine was trying to cut benefits for

  18. 18
    doubtthat

    Here’s the story, it’s not even really a short story:

    http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html

    That’s fine. I like the story. I’ll grant that my reading of it is more expansive, and sure, it’s not essential to any relevant discussion on the broader topics.

  19. 19
    Noadi

    Ooops got cut off by my touchy track pad registering my palm touching it.

    When the state of Maine was trying to cut benefits for social services for the disabled my uncle volunteered to go protest at the state house in opposition. He also supports marriage equality because it’s the fair thing to do even though he thinks anyone of any orientation even kissing is icky. He is not ignorant despite his disability because he wants to learn and to empathize with others.

  20. 20
    doubtthat

    As long as people agree that I at no point made anything resembling an argument minimizing the experience of people with special needs, I’m fine leaving it where it stands. There was miscommunication, if that’s resolved, there’s nothing else that needs to be said.

  21. 21
    Hellboy

    I thought “Harrison Bergeron” was Kurt Vonnegut’s parody of the Huxely’s “Brave New World” and Rand’s “Anthem”; that Vonnegut was poking fun at the more ridiculous premises that occasionally appear in dystopian fiction.

  22. 22
    wfenza

    @Stephanie – it’s impolite to discuss literary interpretation in the comments of a post discussing the OP’s interpretation of a piece of literature? I disagree, and I do not recognize your authority to dictate what is and is not the proper subject of conversation on blogs that don’t belong to you.

    Also, I’m not talking about authorial intent. I’m saying that there’s no reasonable way to interpret Harrison Bergeron as an argument in favor of accomodating those with disabilities OR as an argument against doing so. If you disagree, make an argument. If you don’t care, then feel free to exit the conversation.

  23. 23
    Stephanie Zvan

    Once again, I answer an argument about impressions and get a “Are you saying we can’t…?” response. Only this time it’s combined with a “You can’t tell me what to do here/If you don’t like it, leave” pairing. You should, perhaps, pay attention to what you type, Wes.

    No, this isn’t a post about Kate’s interpretation of the story. It is a post in which Kate points out that if you’re in favor of perfect people being allowed to achieve their potential (because, as the story points out, it’s ridiculous to put artificial barriers in their way), but you’re not in favor of non-perfect people being allowed to achieve their potential (because of artificial barriers you don’t care to recognize), you’re behaving in an ableist manner because that’s the only difference between the two groups.

    This really isn’t a difficult concept.

  24. 24
    doubtthat

    “This really isn’t a difficult concept.”

    Which is why there isn’t much to do except agree, causing the conversation move elsewhere.

    Hopefully someone who thinks that the Harrison Bergeron argument is cogent will show up, say something stupid, then we can argue with them. Otherwise there will be broad agreement.

  25. 25
    wfenza

    Your comment that the place for such discussion is an English classroom carries the implication that the place for such discussion is NOT here, where we are having the discussion. In other words, you’re telling me to shut up without challenging any of my substantive points. Seeing as this is not your blog, “you can’t tell me what to do here” seems like a reasonable response.

    Kate included, as part of her post, her own interpretation of Harrison Bergeron. I disagree with her (and your, apparently) interpretation, and because I love Vonnegut and enjoy talking about the underlying philosophies of his stories, I said so. Of course it wasn’t the main thrust of Kate’s post, which was that using Harrison Bergeron to argue that “ableism is great!” completely misses the point. I think everyone so far has agreed with that point. But I took this as an opportunity to discuss whether the story can be read to actually support the rights of the disabled (which Kate asserted in the OP). You responded by basically telling me to keep my opinions to myself.

    I didn’t say “if you don’t like it, leave.” I said “if you don’t like it, tell me why” and “if you don’t care, leave.” Those are not the same thing. Equating them is a dishonest way to make a point and sound superior.

  26. 26
    Stephanie Zvan

    You’re so right, Wes. It was completely and utterly, horribly and terribly dishonest of me. Let me rephrase and take all the meaning out of it:

    Only this time it’s combined with a “You can’t tell me what to do here/If you don’t want to behave the way I tell you to, leave” pairing.

    Yeah, that totally makes it say something completely different.

  27. 27
    wfenza

    There’s no need to rephrase. It was already phrased for you, twice:

    If you disagree, make an argument. If you don’t care, then feel free to exit the conversation.

    “if you don’t like it, tell me why” and “if you don’t care, leave.”

    And twice you’ve felt the need to straw man it to more neatly fit your argument. Apparently “you want argue about an authorial intent [mine] that you have next to no access to” instead of admitting that you misinterpreted and (FSM forbid) apologizing.

  28. 28
    Stephanie Zvan

    No, Wes. It was Vonnegut’s authorial intent you wanted to argue about. You know–what the story really means.

  29. 29
    wfenza

    Authorial intent is different from literary interpretation. “What was the author’s intent?” has a right or wrong answer. It’s a question about the state of mind of the person writing. That’s not what I’m talking about. Stories, like all pieces of art, have a range of interpretations.

    My argument about Harrison Bergeron is that there is no way to reasonable interpret it as a lesson either favoring or disfavoring accommodating those with disabilities, the author’s intent notwithstanding. It would be like saying “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” shows that racism is wrong.

    You’re the only one here trying to claim that you know what someone really meant when he wrote something.

  30. 30
    Stephanie Zvan

    Wes, are you seriously telling me that all your whining and dodging about the implications of how you said I should behave have come about because you somehow missed the point of me talking for two paragraphs about the artificiality of the world we create for ourselves (see: fur vs. clothing) and have gotten hyper-focused on taking the next paragraph entirely out of context? You think I just wrote those two paragraphs for fun and that they’re not absolutely required to make sense of my statement about what the story tells us?

    I apologize. I was giving you too much credit. Yes, the story only talks about artifically making things worse for high-achieving people in an attempt to achieve equality. You are absolutely, 100% right about that. Those are the only words in the pure and untainted story itself. Your report card will reflect your basic comprehension.

    Anything else the story “tells us” depends on having an “us” that is capable of some tiny bit of extrapolation and reasoning. Next time I try to discuss any such thing, I will start off by…I don’t actually know what the fuck I’ll do, because anything I can think of relies on assuming someone will read and incorporate my entire argument.

  31. 31
    Stephanie Zvan

    All right, Wes. Let’s get back to the basics. You say:

    It stands for the proposition that achieving equality through forcing everyone down to the level of the lowest common denominator is ridiculous.

    So, doing this is ridiculous. What makes it ridiculous? Is it because:

    1. It’s achieving equality/creaing a common denominator?
    2. It’s forcing people down artificially/using a lower standard?

  32. 32
    wfenza

    I didn’t miss your point, Stephanie. I believe I told you that I agree with your point, but I only feel that HB should not be used to make that point. I feel that your extrapolation from one point to the next is unreasonable, which I will address in response to your other comment.

  33. 33
    wfenza

    It’s ridiculous because it forces people down for the express purpose of making them equal. Not all policies that artificially force people down are ridiculous. Sometimes, tradeoffs need to be made, and one person or group needs to take up a burden to lighten the load on another person or group (i.e. progressive taxation to fund public services for the less affluent). The situation in HB is ridiculous because it is forcing people down with no appreciable payoff. Simply acheiving “equality” is not actually satisfying to anyone (except for possibly the handicapper).

    I don’t feel this point is applicable to the struggles of those with disabilities (in most cases) because policies which create artificial barriers to people with disabilities are almost never done for that purpose. For example, we have stairs instead of ramps because the majority prefers stairs, and creating both takes extra resources, not because (as in HB) we feel that people in wheelchairs shouldn’t be able to get in. Any argument in favor of creating accommodations for people with disabilities that ignores the fact that there are legitimate (although often insignificant in scale) reasons to oppose such accommodations seems like it’s not recognizing the real issue, and just demonizing the other side. It changes “the opposition is wrong” into “the opposition is evil.” Granted, no analogy is perfect, but I think analogizing HB to ableism is particularly improper for those reasons.

    I’d also add that I don’t think this is important, at all. Like I said before, I just like talking about Vonnegut, and particularly the moral/ethical implications of his stories, and I’m sorry if it sounded as though I was equating the importance of this question (what is a reasonable interpretation of HB?) with the importance of the larger point that Kate made (disabled people’s challenges are often artificially created by society).

  34. 34
    Stephanie Zvan

    Contrast:

    It’s ridiculous because it forces people down for the express purpose of making them equal.

    With:

    Not all policies that artificially force people down are ridiculous. Sometimes, tradeoffs need to be made, and one person or group needs to take up a burden to lighten the load on another person or group (i.e. progressive taxation to fund public services for the less affluent).

    You’re contradicting yourself. This:

    The situation in HB is ridiculous because it is forcing people down with no appreciable payoff. Simply acheiving “equality” is not actually satisfying to anyone (except for possibly the handicapper).

    Is not only better, but also answers my question. The problem is not with equality. The problem is with the singular direction of the adjustments. Your statement also exposes the flaws in this:

    For example, we have stairs instead of ramps because the majority prefers stairs, and creating both takes extra resources, not because (as in HB) we feel that people in wheelchairs shouldn’t be able to get in. Any argument in favor of creating accommodations for people with disabilities that ignores the fact that there are legitimate (although often insignificant in scale) reasons to oppose such accommodations seems like it’s not recognizing the real issue, and just demonizing the other side.

    We disable some people because it makes things more pleasant for other people. Making it an argument about resources doesn’t change that. This:

    It changes “the opposition is wrong” into “the opposition is evil.”

    Is both silly and all too common a roadblock thrown up to change.

  35. 35
    wfenza

    I agree with most of what you said (though I don’t really see the contradiction in my two statements – taken together, they were meant to suggest that the ridiculousness in HB is the intent of the handicapping policy, not the fact that it forces some people down). The reason I don’t think HB is a good comparison to ableism is that

    We disable some people because it makes things more pleasant for other people.

    is not what was going on in HB. That was presumably the intent of that society, and if that’s what happened, the story moral would have been much less clear. The situation in HB was clearly dystopian because they disabled some people, but it didn’t actually make things more pleasant for anyone.

    Comparing ableism to HB suggests that ableists are just being malicious, and get no actual benefit from refusing to accommodate people with disabilities. Likewise, comparing anti-ableism (is that a term?) to HB suggests that accommodating people with disabilities would drag everyone down without actually helping anyone. I don’t think either point is sound (although I’m sure the former happens on occasion), which is why I don’t think HB has any applicability to a discussion of ableism.

  36. 36
    TM

    You know, I was occasionally “bored” in school as well. I found a way around it. When the teacher was explaining, again, something I already “got,” I just thought about something else. I’d count the number of adverbs s/he used, I drew in my notebook, wrote down something unrelated, etc. I found ways to keep my mind productively engaged, even when the people around me weren’t on the same page. That was my specific ability, and a skill that I’m sure is both a product of my privileges and a privilege within itself.

    It seems to me you are saying that you weren’t privileged in that exact same way. Perhaps you required more structure, more guidance to unleash your brain’s full potential. Judging by your affinity to sports, maybe you desired a more competitive environment in which your above-average talents would be officially recognized. Or maybe you required something else entirely. I don’t know, I’m not you.

    The point is, that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with needing more help, or a different type of help, to realize your full potential. In fact, the attitude that there IS something wrong with that – the idea that requiring a different structure makes one less-than – is at the very heart of ableism.

    So you must recognize that your issue falls squarely into the realm of ableism. Your teachers and administers irrationally privileged those specific abilities that you didn’t have, and as a result, they failed to provide optimal instruction. They assumed that you could be as happy as your classmates in the status quo, but you could not. They assumed that you could cope with a lack of challenge – that you would provide any extra needed challenge yourself, and that you would not feel short-changed due to the slow pace of the classroom.

    On second thought, perhaps this wasn’t a conscious assumption on their part, but rather a subconscious acceptance of cultural norms. Either way, you get what I’m talking about.

  37. 37
    The Mellow Monkey

    I was involved in online fanfic communities when I first read “Harrison Bergeron”, and so immediately recognized the title character as an absurd example of a Mary Sue (or Harry Stu, in this case).

    He is:

    1) Fourteen.
    2) Incredibly tall and muscular.
    3) Brilliant.
    4) Handsome.
    5) And the only thing holding him back is other people trying to drag him down.

    It’s like a parody of an angry young Objectivist’s self-image. “I am godlike in my brilliance and the only thing keeping me from conquering the world is all these parasites!” I couldn’t read it as anything other than a parody, showing the self-absorbed thought process of those who actually think they are so special and gifted that any move toward equality will hurt them instead of help others.

    It’s hard to see a man so deeply influenced by socialism and humanism as Vonnegut supporting the interpretation so many pull out of that story. But even if that were the case, I still can’t read it as anything other than a delightfully vicious parody.

    So if someone brings “Harrison Bergeron” up to defend their ableism, they’ve already illustrated their thought process for me.

  38. 38
    johnmarley

    That was my take on it, too.

  39. 39
    Kalliope

    The reason I asked you about your academic achievements since then is because it seems for an adult, with some accomplishments under his belt, to still be THAT angry about the lack of intellectual guidance you received as a child. It seems more typical of a college sophomore.

    In reading your reply, I’m also not sure what it was you’re supposed to have lost. The accolades of your peers? Why not just do what everyone else does and show off your successes at reunions and on FB?

    I will say this: I’m someone who considered going into education specifically to specialize in the underserved educations of those above the mean. (I have relatives who teach special ed, and interestingly, the general application to the school system would pretty much be the same.) Maybe you should consider that?

    BUT I’m a lot more concerned with the brilliant girls and boys who flame out by middle school because of living conditions, racism, poverty, lack of parental education/stability, underfunded schools, and untreated medical condition.

  40. 40
    im

    My take is that it’s a little of each: Poking fun at unrealistic dystopias AND at the way that some really hard-core equalist movements seem to want to deny people the right to be awesome.

    Of course, the Harrison Bergeron anti-ableists DO exist, but they are part of a tiny, useless community on Tumblr that I don’t think ANYbody cares about.

    Personally I am more concerned about Harrison Bergeron anti-capitalists.

  41. 41
    im

    One caveat is that (IIRC) he would have known about disasters from things like communism, such as Cambodia, the only time that nerds have ever been the target of genocide. So he might have been trying for a double parody.

  42. 42
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    Around FtB | Pharyngula

    [...] Kate Donovan revisits Harrison Bergeron and the ableist fallacy. [...]

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