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Saturday

Horton Hears a Flawed Parable of Faith Versus Skepticism

On a superficial level, it's easy to interpret Horton Hears a Who as a parable about courageous people of faith standing up for their beliefs, and the foolish, imperious skeptics getting their come-uppance. A viewer might come away with that position if they watch only the first half or two-thirds of the movie. But in the end, it's not a story about faith. It does a better job warning that we shouldn't be knee-jerk skeptics, that reason and new material evidence sometimes trump old traditions.

In case you haven't seen it, here's a synopsis of the 2008 film (I haven't read the book or seen the short film in decades, so this interpretation might not apply to them, sorry): Horton the elephant hears a sentient vocalization from a speck floating in the air. This extraordinary event is outside of normal elephantine experience, or at least the normal experiences of local jungle critters. (We might as well say "normal human experience," since all the jungle critters and fantasy beings are anthropomorphized anyway.) One skeptical kangaroo doubts that a person's voice could have come from the speck. She thinks it's more plausible that Horton is mistaken or psychotic, and she persuades most of the other jungle animals to follow her.

Hijinx and hilarity and persecution are sure to follow (supposed to follow), until Horton gets all the tiny sentient beings on the speck to sing and make noise, loud enough for other jungle critters to hear, and they begin to believe him. Cue the big production number as they all sing "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. (Seriously.) Tie up loose ends, zoom out, roll credits.

Way down deep in the speck, we follow another story that parallels Horton's persecution and his struggle to hold up the truth as he has experienced it. Ned, the mayor of tiny Whoville, is the only one in his community who can hear Horton speaking. (No explanation is given, but maybe Horton's voice is outside the Whos' range of hearing, only audible when it resonates through just the right length of rain gutters and downspouts, to broadcast right outside Ned's office.) He even has an imperious nemesis in the Chairman of the Whoville Council, whose behavior is similar to Horton's nemesis, Kangaroo. Ned's story is similar enough to Horton's that we could just talk about Horton and we'd cover the same territory.

Faith versus Skepticism
Neither of these stories validates faith. Horton and Ned both prove what they've experienced. In fact, it's not a matter of faith to them in the first place, because their belief in these extraordinary events comes from trusting their senses, not their faith or their feelings or their loyalty to an idea. The doubters around them are eventually convinced by evidence, not by faith.

If we're supposed to take it on faith that other people are telling us the truth about seeing or hearing Jesus, that's not an example we're following from any characters in the movie, or a lesson that we're taking away from the movie. Everyone in the movie who comes to believe this extraordinary event does so because they hear it directly, not just because they trust someone else's testimony. The only two people who seem to exercise that kind of faith temporarily are Horton's friend Morton the mouse and Ned's wife Sally.

Morton the mouse may or may not believe it's true in the beginning, but he advises Horton not to tell people about it because they'll think he's crazy. Morton's position seems practical, along the lines of some of the apostles advising Jesus to escape before he gets crucified. Just avoid persecution, even if the extraordinary claims are true. It's practical advice if you're more worried about survival and fitting in to a closed-minded society than in sharing the truth and standing up for what you know to be true. He might be giving this advice because he thinks Horton's crazy. He might have advised Horton differently if he actually had faith in his friend's claims.

The only person who seems to have clear faith in someone else's account before experiencing it personally is Ned's wife Sally. In the end, she admits to being relieved that her husband isn't crazy, so it's not like she had much faith in him.

Example of Unhealthy Skepticism
Should we interpret Kangaroo as a model for reasonable behavior or "healthy" skepticism? To me, the reasonable position is that we should not believe extraordinary claims outside of normal human experience until or unless they are proven. But we have to meet people half way and give them a chance to prove it. We can't just assume they can't prove it. Think of all the things we reasonably believe today that had to be proven at some point, overturning an earlier incorrect belief.

Kangaroo doesn't bother investigating Horton's claim. She asks, "Why don't I hear it now?", assuming the speck would broadcast the same sounds constantly, so if there's ever a moment she can't hear it, then it must never have happened. She doesn't lean in close to the speck or go near it to listen. If she's supposed to represent the "modernist worldview" as Christian blogger Jonathan Dodson claims ("Horton Helps Us Hear Jesus?"), she doesn't do a good job of it.

Mama Kangaroo stakes out her hardcore materialist position twice in the movie: "If you can't see, hear, or feel it, it does not exist." Surely some anti-materialists will want to shout "IN YOUR FACE!" when Horton wins in the end. But he doesn't win by proving materialism wrong. He just overrides her knee-jerk doubt by demonstrating the truth to other people, until she can't bully them into doubting anymore. The jungle critters hear something they've never heard before, so it's not an instance of something "known" to exist without physically sensing it, not the kind of knowledge that would prove Kangaroo wrong. (By Kangaroo's sensational standard, she would also deny the existence of things that we deduce without directly sensing them, like the existence of sub-atomic particles or unseen planets whose gravitational pulls can be seen in the movements or wobbles of visible stars.)

The tyrannical rule-maker Kangaroo seems to be skeptical when it's convenient, not because she feels it's the reasonable position. She holds power over the suggestible mob of jungle critters. Denying Horton's claim helps maintain her position of power. Religious leaders and political leaders have been known to deny new developments that don't jibe with their worldviews. If they're proven wrong in one instance, it leads people to question authority. After her son and others say they hear it, Kangaroo commands them to deny it and tries to destroy the evidence. That goes beyond skepticism into something else. She's not interested in finding or sharing the truth. She wants to mold what others see as truth because it makes them easier to manipulate.

Kangaroo uses the same technique O'Brien uses against Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984. She tells Horton near the end that he won't be caged or restrained or persecuted if he simply "admits" that there are no people on the speck. To put it another way, she'll order the persecution to stop if he lies about what he has directly experienced. Like getting Winston to say that 2+2=5. She is not a model of reasonable behavior or healthy skepticism, but of how to control people no matter what the truth is.

If anything, Horton Hears a Who works best as a parable about people like Kangaroo and the Chairman claiming to be reasonable, unfairly stigmatizing other people as crazy or unreasonable, and being proven wrong in the end. It's a triumph of reason, with little or nothing to say about faith.

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