In Defence of Muppets

Although most of the feedback I’ve received about my work is positive, there seems to be something of a sticking point when it comes to “Muppets”. Several people have advised me to use a less insulting word. Apparently it comes across as judgmental and dismissive. By anyone’s standards, it’s not exactly sensitive, let alone “politically correct”.

I’ve considered scrapping the Muppet label and replacing it with something less contentious and provocative. But nothing else quite seems to fit the bill. So here I would like to briefly explain and defend my use of the M-word.

Firstly, it alliterates nicely with “Muggles”. Secondly, it is closely related to puppets. This is a key feature of what I am trying to express with the term, namely, the tendency to parrot the tenets of a collective ideology. The ideology itself is the “Titan” or “Giant” and the individuals are the “Fighting Spirits” of the Giant (see the Bhavachakra or Tibetan Wheel of Life for the origin of these terms). I think John Gray is getting at something similar in his book The Soul of the Marionette.

Thirdly, I like its humorous, deflationary feel. A defining characteristic of the Muppet stance is that it takes itself so seriously. The pricking of this po-faced self-righteousness is both salutary and funny. Fourthly, it winds people up, which is itself a good test of Muppetry. The more enraged someone is at the word, the more of a Muppet they will inevitably be. From the psychological point of view, this is useful information, both for me and (hopefully) for the person concerned.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, let’s see if I can explain what I mean by “Muppet” in a bit more detail. Muppets often think of themselves as intellectuals, by which they mean that they are cleverer than Muggles. In fact, much of their identity is predicated on their superiority to Muggles, who are considered gullible, ignorant, brainwashed, unenlightened and prey to “false consciousness”. Muppets, on the other hand, have inside information into the reality of things. They are, to coin another contentious term, “Woke”. This can take several different forms, of which I distinguish five (technically the “Woke” label only applies to Type 3 Muppets).

  1. Nerd Muppets. These are usually involved in either computing or science. They hold to one or other version of naive scientism, the belief that science can account for all of reality. Whether reductionists, emergentists or eliminativists, they all agree on the basic axiomatic premise that only matter exists and that everything else is an illusion. The brain is a computer and human beings (and other organisms) are soft machines. Muggles are regarded as too stupid and scientifically illiterate to appreciate the brute facts that consciousness is just an illusion and that there is no meaning to life or existence.

2. Hippy Muppets. These are usually involved in alternative therapies, alternative spiritualities and alternative philosophies, and often also mind-altering drugs. They have all sorts of bizarre beliefs, the more exotic the better. They look down on Muggles, who are too narrow-minded and superficial to understand the mysteries to which they are privy, and they have a hate-hate relationship with Nerd Muppets.

3. Woke Muppets. Even more touchy than the “New Age Stoner” type of Hippy Muppet are the more politicised “Progressive Liberationist” or “Critical Social Justice” Muppets (this is where I get into most trouble). I am not against progress or social justice per se, but there is a specific stream of Postmodern thought which has produced a veritable cottage industry of philosophical confusion and social distress. I could say more but I’ll leave it at that.

4. Radical Muppets. These are the old-school political revolutionaries and activists. Whether on the Far Left or the Far Right, they are political extremists, swinging between anarchy and totalitarianism. They are anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-conservative. They are starry-eyed Utopians who believe that only by overthrowing the current, irreparably corrupt socio-political system can we usher in the hoped for Utopia, overlooking the inconvenient fact that one person’s Utopia is another’s Dystopia. They have nothing but disdain for Muggles, those unwitting, witless slaves of the system, and nothing but pure hatred for Divas, those power-hungry oppressors.

5. Fundamentalist Muppets. These are religious fanatics, of whatever stripe or affiliation. They are implacably dogmatic and hold to an extremely narrow, literalist interpretation of their sacred scriptures. Their most extreme proponents take to violent acts of terrorism and martyrdom in the name of their divine calling to set the world right and glorify their god. They hate all Muggles and Divas, but most fervently hate all Muppets (apart from those in their sect, that is).

This is a very broad categorisation. I’ve tried to be as straightforwardly descriptive as possible and I don’t think I’m being unfair. To sum up, with this treatment of the derogatory term “Muppet”, I am being explicitly critical of 1. Naive Scientism 2. New Age Nonsense 3. Reified Postmodernism 4. Political Extremism 5. Religious Fanaticism. The details can be debated as to what and who actually belongs in each of these categories, but I make no apologies for the categories themselves.

I do have a word to say in defence of Muppets, however. They offer a powerful critique of the dozy complacency of ordinary Muggles, who are too wrapped up in the obvious, the superficial and the mundane. Muggles are too materialistic and unreflective, it’s true, which is why they miss out on so much of the magic of reality, and Muppets are right to shake them up now and then.

The Muppet attack on the Divas (the eternal war between the Asuras and the Devas in Buddhist mythology – see the Tibetan Wheel of Life) is also necessary in order to keep the powers that be in check and to keep those in authority on their toes. It is essential for any functioning, healthy society that people are able to “speak truth to power”. Does this mean that anyone critical of the status quo, the political elite, the ruling class or the government is therefore a Muppet? God forbid! But Muppets are particularly vocal in this capacity.

The underlying claim is that the rigid certainty and inflexible dogmatism of Muppetry is the result of excessive left brain hemisphere dominance. I won’t go into this now, merely point you in the direction of Iain McGilchrist. (One striking result of this left hemisphere dominance is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which explains the old adage that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”).

What I am not advocating for, of course, is the weaponising of the term “Muppet” as a term of abuse against those who hold different opinions to you. It should not be used as a moniker or casual insult against people you disagree with otherwise (as I hope is obvious) you will yourself be acting like a Muppet. The so-called Culture Wars are bad enough without them descending into Muppet Wars.

We are living through a time of great tension, polarisation, distrust, enmity and intolerance. People with differing views and opinions resort all too readily to censorship, ridicule or “hate speech”. Many people, myself included, worry that this dangerous breakdown in civil discourse and freedom of expression threatens the very foundations of Western democracy. We might all do well to rein in our inner Muppets right now.

However, a true Christian must avoid these five modern heresies like the plague. True religiosity and holiness is as much about what you don’t do as what you do, about what you don’t believe as what you do believe. Orthodoxy is, as G.K. Chesterton beautifully described it, a wild adventure:

“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”