What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?

horton-hears-a-who_1“A humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style, etc.,” is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “parody.” If you spend an afternoon reading a book like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, then set off to the theater with your family to see the new film Horton Hears a Who, you may be surprised to find yourself drawing parallels between the movie and the book.

Horton is the naïve, indiscriminate, credulous elephant. He gets it in his head that a speck that has come to rest on a clover is home to a civilization of “humans” who are invisible because they are too small to be seen. Kangaroo, on the other hand, is sensible and stern. She recognizes early on the danger posed to the community by Horton’s fantastic notions. She confronts Horton about his silliness and warns him to cease and desist. But Horton, being an elephant, is too “faithful” to abandon his convictions. And in due course, what began as a harmless idiosyncrasy evolves into a mission that imbues Horton’s life with fresh meaning and purpose.

Kangaroo is beside herself with concern, especially for the children, who—horrors—have begun to use their imaginations. Her motto is, “If you can’t see it, taste it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Horton’s claim—that “the speck” is inhabited by humans who call themselves “Whos”—fails this test.

Or should I say, it almost fails this test? Horton, after all, hears intelligent noises coming from the speck. Eventually he even engages in meaningful conversation with the diminutive mayor of Whoville. So Horton, at least, has empirical evidence for his belief. And that seems to be all that Kangaroo requires.

But that isn’t all that Kangaroo requires. She also stipulates that it’s impossible for there to be anything so small and human. So she is a radical empiricist with an a priori prejudice against the existence of things she can’t see. And her a priori commitment diminishes her ability to hear what Horton can hear. Of course, Horton is equipped with ears that are especially sensitive to very slight auditory data. Since he is unique in this respect, no one really believes him. This despite the fact that he has no special motive to mislead a community of individuals he obviously cares about.

Horton isn’t a complete doofus. He can’t get Kangaroo to listen for what she isn’t willing to hear. So he challenges her prejudice with a thought experiment. “What if our own world is just a speck from the point of view of some greater being?” he asks. Kangaroo is unable to entertain this possibility. She is as absurdly sure of herself as she believes Horton to be.

A major difference between Horton and Kangaroo is that Kangaroo is a demagogue, and most members of her community are lemmings. They may not follow her logic, but they do follow her lead. She adopts the posture of an infallible authority figure and whips up alarm among those who are no more able to think for themselves than Horton is supposed to be.

The mayor of Whoville suffers a similar fate. He’s called a “boob” by a leading member of the town council. This is a painful slap in the face. The mayor’s influence is fanciful. And his explanation for what is happening in Whoville is believed to be delusional. Like Horton, he risks ridicule for what he believes to be true. But that’s not all there is to it.

The mayor fears for his community, which does not recognize the danger that threatens Whoville. Initially, he does not seek to convince the citizens of Whoville. He knows they will not believe that an invisible elephant in the sky is their protector. Still, he takes responsible action on the basis of what he knows, even though he risks humiliation.

Horton Hears a Who is a smart and entertaining film. I doubt that it’s a deliberate parody of the emotionalism exhibited by the “new atheists.” But I can’t help thinking Richard Dawkins will not be happy with it. At least he can’t complain that he was tricked into doing the voice-over for Kangaroo.


About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?

  1. A.d.Rowe says:

    What I find interesting is how Kangaroo starts with treating Horton as a fool and ends up locking him in a cage. She fears his foolish ways and this leads to hate, then to Horton’s suffering. Yoda was right.
    Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of being open to the other is a great counter position to those who live in fear of the different and shut themselves off from the other. Dr. Seuss knew what he was doing when he wrote these rhymes. I wrote a little bit more about this at http://www.adrowe.com/stories/. Tell me what you think.


  2. douggeivett says:


    Thanks for the link to Amanda Smith’s interview with Philip Nel. I like the point they make about how democracy is depicted in Horton Hears a Who. There’s really a very serious question to sort out, and the story brings this out. Democracy is always at risk of sinking into populism. Acting collectively, the people of Whoville save their civilization. But they have to be persuaded to believe and act.

    Demagogues, through shrewd use of mass-communication techniques, will seek to persuade the masses without appeailing to reason or presenting good evidence. I think Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Geisel) recognized this and fretted that democracy could deteriorate to a point that could be exploited by fascists (as Hitler did in Germany).

    The unfortunate mayor of Whoville knew that he would have real trouble persuading the masses of what he knew to be true. Yet he felt a great responsibility. He hoped to save them from imminent disaster, even though they might never know the nature and extent of their peril. But in the end they needed to be persuaded. What do you do in a situation like that—where people don’t want to believe the message, think it’s utterly implausible anyway, and find the claims of demagogues to be more pleasant and soothing?


  3. Bob Covolo says:


    We took our four-year-old to see this last weekend and during the film I started mumbling to myself about how glad I was that the Kangaroo was still a radical empiricist in the film version. My wife just looked at me with a blank face. Thanks for speaking my language.

    I read a very interesting interview with a Seuss scholar who said Horton Hears a Who is the most political Seussian story ever produced because of the various ways of reading the book: pro-life, pro-democracy (not until every voice is heard is there justice), anti-empiricist: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/booktalk/stories/s1096785.htm


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