by Roger Resler
The recurring maxim expressed by “Horton” the elephant in Dr. Seuss’s classic story Horton Hears a Who, goes like this: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” So certain is this truth to Horton, that he takes it as being self-evident. His actions throughout the story are admirably consistent with this assertion and the moral implications that accompany it.
While enjoying a bath in a river, Horton’s large ears pick up on a tiny voice emanating from a speck of dust as it flutters by. While Horton never sees the person producing the voice –since that person is too tiny to be seen by an elephant – he, nevertheless, realizes that there must be a person there since he can clearly hear the voice coming from the speck of dust. In fact, there is apparently an entire city – if not a planet – consisting of many “Who’s” living on that speck of dust.
Trouble enters the story when Horton’s animal friends reject the foolish notion that there could be any kind of life, much less a person, living on a speck of dust. They accordingly ridicule Horton for believing in such nonsense. Eventually, in an effort to relieve Horton of his delusions, it is decided that the dust speck should be boiled in oil. Knowing that this would mean a sudden and violent destruction of Who civilization (resisting the desire for a Roger Daltrey joke here), Horton does everything in his power to save the dust speck from such a terrible fate; because, “after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
In the end, the Who’s concerted effort at noise-making generates enough decibels to register in the ears of Horton’s skeptical friends. Once they realize they had been wrong in their criticism, their mood changes dramatically and, once again, in accordance with the truth that “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” they cease their attempt to destroy the dust speck (which they now realize would be immoral) and everyone lives happily ever after – that is until pro-life advocates wanted to express the same truth to a skeptical world.
The irony is that the creator of Horton, the Who’s and Whoville itself, the late Theodore Geisel, apparently preferred to identify with the skeptics rather than those advancing the same truthhis hero expresses when it comes to the controversy surrounding the morality of abortion. My introduction to this bizarre turn of events came a few days ago from someone who commented on the trailer for my book Compelling Interest. In both the book and the trailer, we quote this phrase of Dr. Seuss (or more precisely Horton) becausewe agree with it.
While commenting on the trailer, smitelystacey, asks if we are aware that Dr. Seuss, “never intended his quote to be used in this manner” and that, “he threatened to sue an anti-abortion group for using his quote [on their letterhead] before he died, and his widow has also spoken out against people hijacking his work to support their own agendas.”
I’m sorry but this is one of those things that just takes the cake. No, in fact, I was not aware of Dr. Seuss’s antipathy toward the pro-life agenda, nor would I ever have imagined such a thing. Admittedly, I’ve seen some strange things in my near half-century on this earth, but the irony of Dr. Seuss threatening to sue a pro-life group for using the phrase “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” when they agree with the premise, is certainly unexpected. Upon further investigation I learned that Dr. Seuss was apparently quite liberal and – it would appear – was either pro-choice on abortion or at least opposed to the pro-life agenda.
Of course threatening to sue and actually being able to sue are two different things. I’m reasonably confident that Dr. Seuss had no exclusive copyright on the phrase “A person’s a person, no matter how small” nor – more importantly – on the moral truth behind the phrase. Even if that had been the case, it’s still quite legal for anyone to quote the phrase provided they properly attribute it to Dr. Seuss. Even skeptics who don’t believe that “a person’s a person no matter how small” are free to quote the phrase. But the idea that Geisel would threaten to sue a pro-life group for using the phrase, and that his widow has “spoken out against people hijacking his work to support their own agendas” is jaw dropping in light of the moral implications behind Horton’s sudden awareness of the existence of microscopic human life.
If pro-life people wanted to misuse the quote or twist it to mean something different from the truth expressed by Horton, I could understand the Geisel’s righteous indignation. As it is, pro-lifers use the quote precisely because they agree with it! It would be like the police department threatening to sue security guards for suggesting their job also exists “To protect and to serve.”
There is abundantly more objective evidence supporting the fact that human life exists long before it can be registered by adult sensory perception than there is for the existence of barely audible Who’s living on a speck of dust. If the Geisel’s don’t/didn’t believe that human fetuses or embryos are persons, they are free to disbelieve, but such skepticism is perfectly analogous to the villains in the Horton story who also don’t believe human life could exist at a microscopic level. The truth expressed in the phrase: “A person’s a person no matter how small” remains valid in both cases. The irony is beyond palpable.
smitelystacey closes her remarks (I’m assuming a female gender here, my apologies if I’m mistaken) by suggesting that we should: “Keep your personal opinions away from women’s bodies, and don’t steal a dead man’s work in order to gain support for your erroneous life views,” – as though the assertion that: “A person’s a person, no matter how small” only represents my (erroneous!) “personal opinion” and only infringes on “women’s bodies” when it’s expressed by me and other pro-life proponents rather than by Horton the elephant in a children’s book. Apparently Horton knew how to use the phrase in a non-erroneous manner.
After the dust settles (pun intended, feel free to roll eyes) pro-lifers, like Horton, will continue to operate under the self-evident truth that a person’s a person, no matter how small and will consistently recognize the moral implications of that truth to human life at any stage of development regardless of Theodore Geisel’s political views or pre-mortem threats of imminent lawsuits.
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Horton is just your average run-of-the-mill elephant when, one day, he finds a flower with a whole bunch of teeny-tiny-itty-bitty people living on it. Of course, only Horton can hear them (helps to have big, elephant ears), so everyone else thinks he's a little bit nutty and that he should just toss that flower aside and stop worrying his pretty, little trunk off.
But Horton refuses to give up on the little people living on the speck. He knows they're there and they're people, darnit! They're entitled to live their lives too, right? Just because they're small doesn't mean someone can just toss them in the garbage. So goes his constant refrain throughout the story—it doesn't matter how small these little people are, they're still people and he's gonna be there for them.
This elephant's all right.
Where you've heard it
This is one of the most quotable lines in Dr. Seuss literature, probably because it makes little kids—who are rather small—feel pretty darn important.
Additional Notable References:
If you were to drop this quote at a dinner party, would you get an in-unison "awww" or would everyone roll their eyes and never invite you back? Here it is, on a scale of 1-10.
Okay, Horton got a little preachy here, but no one will mind too much if you say this while sticking up for the little guys out there.
See All Quotes
Should I put this speck down?
Horton thought with alarm.
If I do, these small persons
may come to great harm.
I can't put it down.
And I won't! After all
a person's a person.
No matter how small.