Monday, April 11, 2011

Dr. Seuss and Social Justice: Horton as Witness to Social Suffering

My 6 year old new reader daughter LOVES Dr. Seuss.

And so do I - in fact, he was the source of inspiration for documenting my journey as a kids doctor into the world of kids writing, and I've mentioned on this blog before how many of my ideas about justice and human rights came from reading Dr. Seuss as a child. 

As someone whose 'day job' is thinking, teaching and writing around issues of narrative, health, and social justice, however, I'm always shocked at how well kidlit texts explain complex issues including witnessing, narrative ethics, and activism in the face of social injustice.

Today, I spent the morning teaching a text by physician-activist-anthropologist Paul Farmer called Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor. My graduate seminar students and I also discussed the life of South African AIDS activist and educator Thembi Ngubane. Our discussion, as always, circulated around questions such as: Who speaks for whom? What does it mean to bear witness to others' suffering? What authority does suffering have if there is no one to witness it? Can a more powerful outsider enact ethical witnessing for another's story without coopting it, taking it over, or otherwise hijaking the sufferer's agency?

Then I came home, and was put in the position of student, as I learned about all these issues much more clearly, and directly, and succinctly from my daughter as she read me Horton Hears a Who!

Now, this isn't the problematic, Holly-wood-i-fied movie I'm talking about. We're talking original TEXT, people. 

In the story, Horton stands witness to a life on a speck of dust that he cannot even see but only hears. Clearly, our auditorially gifted protagonist is a pachydermal philosopher familiar with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who suggested that the primordial ethical act for any human (or, er, elephant) is to hear the call of the suffering Other. It is in this first intersubjective relationship with the Other that we discover the particularity of the "I."

And similarly, Horton's very Horton-ness is discovered and defined by how he responds to this literal call, a call that in fact has no scope for what Levinas would call the face-to-face encounter between the Self and the Other (the aptly named Who's who populate the speck of dust are microscopic, after all). But no mater, Horton responds heroically to this, if invisible, ethical call - he recognizes the humanity of the Other. He deposits the aforementioned verdent dust speck upon a soft clover and dedicates himself to protecting it because: "A person's a person no matter how small."

There are serious social challenges to Horton's ethical quest. The other animals in the Jungle of Nool not only deny the very existence - the potential humanity - of the Who's of Who-ville (and almost boil the Who's clover in Bezzle-Nut oil), but they marginalize Horton for his pro-dust-life stand. Chased by a band of nepotistic terrorist monkeys (monkey's uncles and cousins and aunts all goose-stepping to the orders of a narrow-minded Kangaroo), Horton does not back down. It's kind of scary, really. The rope and cage weilding monkeys, the blood-lust crazed Kangaroo and her pocketed mini-me.

Any analogy can be made. Horton is the German villager hiding Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, he is the reporter running the story about the outnumbered, anti-governmental rebels, he is the lone peace keeper before a sea of genocidal machetes. He risks his social standing, his freedom, and his very life for a community of people utterly unlike him.

In the end, Horton actually does not save the day. Rather, he urges action and activism on the part of the Who's - who must fight - every man, woman, and child - for themselves. Horton enables a Who-centered revolution - a struggle whose script is the simple declaration of any marginalized peoples: "We are Here! We count! We Are!"

Brazilian educator and thinker Paolo Freire said,

“those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.  This conversion is so radical as not to allow for ambivalent behaviour…  Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth.  Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were.”

Dr. Seuss, Horton, Farmer, Thembe, my children - all of them reminded me today of the commitment and passion that is social justice.

Who speaks? Who listens? Who fights? Who remembers?

I still ask these difficult questions in my work. But luckily, I can also draw from the words of Dr. Seuss, who teaches us that "Sometimes the questions are complicated, and the answers simple."



  1. Wow! I've been meditating (in my journal) on story telling and the power of words to heal. I've especially been thinking about how telling stories and being heard are essentially related to one another, two sides of the same coin. I hadn't pondered Horton Hears a Who in relationship to this but now I have even more to digest. Thank you.

  2. So glad to be of assistance Satia - storytelling and health is essentially the work I do in my "day job" - check out or

  3. Yes. I know. That's how I found your blog and your book Stories of Illness and Healing which I'm hoping to feature in an upcoming newsletter. I'm discussing a possible essay or interview with Janice Erlbaum which I think will dovetail nicely with your book. So I'm all over the place with you lately. Sorry if I seem like a stalker. Just an enthusiastic follower at this point.

  4. I've always loved Dr Seuss... My kid's sunday school taught The Lorax a few years back as a way to get the kids talking about environmental issues and our responsibility to the planet. What would be do without the good doctor?

  5. @Kari - love the Lorax. But my favorite anti-discrimination text is the Sneetches ("hah you snootie old smarties, now we can come to your frankfurter parties!")
    @Satia - there's a podcast of an interview/talk I did from "Stories" recently for AMSA (the american medical student association) somewhere online. perhaps would be of interest...

  6. See? Now I am going to look like a stalker. Picture me, googling something or other and I find your video. I think "Oooh . . . this is great!"

    I talk to everyone about your video as I wait for your book to arrive. Now others are saying "Ooooooh" along with me. In the meantime, I'm reading your blog because I love young adult literature and issues of race, etc. I am always interested in what you say, whether I agree or not (and you already know I don't always agree), because it is provocative.

    Then I get your book and I know, after only a few pages that I have to write about it. So I plop a highly subjective and personal review in my blog just to get the "I love this book" enthusiasm out of my system. And even as I type this, the book is on my desk, waiting for my more academic and dispassionate discussion of the text.

    In the meantime, I've added your other books to my "neverending to be read" book wishlist on amazon and I've put your book in my "mother" pile to be shared with her.

    I said in my subjective review that your book is a must read for anyone who knows and/or loves women because the stories cover such a spectrum of experiences. The details differ significantly but I can't imagine a woman reading this book and not recognizing herself somewhere on the page. Remarkable.

  7. Great post and I agree with how succinctly kidlit can make issues. I loved the ending as well. What was the Dr. Seuss book with the folks with and without stars, and those 'without' get them painted on and those with had them removed so they could still be different/better? So many of his books dealt with social/ethical issues.

    Again, great post with a lot to think about. Thanks.


  8. Dr. Seuss was much deeper than the common reader gives him credit for. My salesman husband always says that the best book he's ever read for sales is Green Eggs and Ham!

  9. @Meryl @"Journey" many thanks! I love the idea that Green Eggs and Ham could be a text for salesmen! hah! :)

  10. Great things to think about Sayantani. I haven't read Horton in quite awhile -- seems like it's time to give it another look.


  11. thanks for the visit Amanda - yes I've been really moved by both this and Horton hatches the egg lately - hard not to let your home life inform your work life and vice versa! :)