This was also posted over at Cubik's Rube.


I just watched the film Horton Hears A Who!. It was very philosophically troubling.

No, really.

I never read the book, so this rant will apply to the movie version only. And I'm sure this is one of those times where Your Mileage My Vary, as to how much I should be reading into all this or whether any of it matters. But I'll summarise the outline of the story in a way that highlights what bugged me about it. This isn't a review of the film, which I mostly found sweet and adorable and entertaining, but just a discussion of this one point.

(Spoilers abound, obviously, though given that it's a family-friendly animated film based on a Dr Seuss book there really aren't many ground-breaking surprises for me to undermine.)

Horton's an elephant. He becomes aware of an invisible world that nobody else can see, full of hundreds of tiny little people, on a miniscule speck of dust on a small clover flower. He gets chatting to one of these little guys - the Mayor of Who-ville - and realises that he is responsible for their fate. He determines to find somewhere safe and stable to place the speck, so that the inhabitants of Who-ville can live safely.

However, a mean old kangaroo hears about Horton's fanciful notion of a community of strange little people living on a speck, and is having none of it. She demands that he stop putting such ludicrous notions into the heads of the jungle's children, and tries to steal and destroy the speck in her efforts to cease this nonsense. She repeats her mantra that "If you can't see it, or hear it, or feel it, it doesn't exist".

As Horton continues on his quest, the kangaroo becomes increasingly furious at his behaviour, and turns the whole rest of the jungle against him, insisting that he must be stopped. They surround and capture him, taking the clover and the speck to be destroyed. They almost succeed, but at the last moment the Whos of Who-ville manage to make enough noise that they can be heard by the rest of the animals (whose ears aren't as large and sensitive as Horton's). The speck is saved, and the animals realise that Horton was right all along. Even the kangaroo eventually comes around.

A similar process pans out in Who-ville itself. The mayor tries to convince everyone of the danger their world is in, of which Horton has warned them, but is voted down by the council. Eventually they all hear Horton's voice, and realise that they should follow the mayor's advice.

Let's paraphrase all that in more loaded terminology:

Some guy makes a pretty unlikely claim about something which seems impossible. He can't offer any proof, but it's very important to him. He heroically stands up for what he believes (which of course turns out to be entirely correct). He has to fight against others who don't believe him, and who insist that nothing can exist beyond the directly experienced world. These non-believers seek to oppress him and brutally condemn him for his belief, and blot out the source of any such dissent from accepted materialism. They use fiery rhetoric to incite anger, and refuse to listen to his pleas to be given a chance and his protestations of sanity. But slowly the masses are swayed, and come to realise that his imaginary friend is really real after all.

So, can anyone guess the parallel I'm drawing here?

I know my interests and priorities differ from your average movie-goer, so maybe to most people it wouldn't seem too heavy-handed, but I'm not the first person to have noticed this. It feels like a parable about those horrid, angry atheists trying to stomp on people's faith and get rid of God, take the Christ out of Christmas, and so forth. And it grates because it's such a contrived, unnecessary caricature.

Look, Horton and the mayor are both making some pretty far-out claims. The ridiculous-sounding nature of what they're saying - about a town on a speck, or an invisible elephant in the sky - is played for laughs more than once, as people chuckle at the lunacy of it all. And frankly, they're right to. The people refusing to take these outlandish claims absolutely and immediately at face value could be behaving entirely correctly. But no, they all - or at least, the ringleaders - are shown as spiteful, venomous, mocking, and completely intolerant of any ideas that differ from their own.

It's played as a battle between belief and skepticism, but in a way everyone's using the same principles of empiricism as each other. Horton knows there's a town on the speck, because he's spoken to the mayor who's told him all about it. None of the others have experienced any of this, and what convinces them of it at the end is not some blind leap of faith, but evidence, in the form of the sound of the Whos finally raising their voices high enough to be heard. So when there was no evidence beyond the testimony of one lone elephant, they had doubts, but once new data arrived, they swung around and amended their preconceptions. So, why do they have to be cast as the baddies for just not being as gullible as would have suited the protagonist?

The kangaroo is a pretty obnoxious example of a straw man. Generally speaking, people who dare to publicly doubt things, and don't accept the truth of every idea maintained by every individual to whom it personally matters, aren't out to destroy anybody's liberties, or to castigate and imprison them for what they think. I know they want to play up the dastardly villainousness of the dastardly villain for dramatic reasons, but it makes the skeptic/believer dichotomy seem incredibly and unfairly one-sided.

So, because I've taken such offense to this film, I shall of course be campaigning for its prohibition and destruction, and the prosecution of all those involved in its creation. Because that's what we atheists are like when someone tries to express ideas that don't mesh with our own.

(I know the title's weird, but my pun muscles aren't feeling well today. They're both gods, I think, and I'm sorta talking about religion... so... yeah.)

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Tags: a, belief, dr, evidence, faith, god, hears, horton, religion, seuss, More…skepticism, who

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