Muppet Theory

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I just heard Dahlia Lithwick over the weekend on NPR describing her new theory of the world — Muppet Theory — and I am convinced that this could usefully explain much of the legal system as well.  Lithwick, a writer for Slate Magazine and Newsweek, has divided the world into Berts and Ernies.  As she outlines in her article on Slate,

Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.  Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.  Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that theykeep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other. (Order Muppets do seem to attract the ladies, but then Chaos Muppets collect the chicken harems.) It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system. That, and always letting the Chaos Muppets do the driving.

So, how could we apply Muppet Theory to dispute resolution? 

What if we viewed the development of ADR as the Chaos Muppets trying to balance out the Order Muppets in the judicial system?  And the perceived takeover of court-connected ADR by lawyers are the Order Muppets trying to regain their foothold?  We could, instead of talking about negotiation styles, sort our students by whether they are Chaos Muppets or Order Muppets and then discuss what happens when each type of Muppet interacts with the other.  When conducting mediation trainings, we could discuss the balance between Order and Chaos that each mediator must bring to the table (the Muppet Mediator, if you will).  The possibilities are endless.  I am already thinking about how to teach this . . . .

I highly recommend reading the full article and then listening to Lithwick on NPR (if only for the theme music “Mahna Mahna, beep, beep be de bop, at the end).  And, as Lithwick herself signed off, this post is brought to you by the letter M and the number 2.

Cross posted at Indisputably.
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4 Responses to “Muppet Theory”

  1. Melissa Greipp Says:

    I think this analogy to the Muppets is fascinating–thanks for sharing!

    The distinction between the Chaos Muppets and the Order Muppets could also apply to differences in cognition between the creative “ideas people” and the people who implement those ideas. Most people have to sometimes come up with ideas and at other times implement them, so it’s good to know whether you are more of an ideas person or an implementer. It’s also helpful to think through how anyone working in your group thinks or operates. Knowing where your comfort zone (and stengths) lie can help you to capitalize on those strengths in the courtroom, in ADR, in the boardroom, or any other environment.

  2. Jennifer Jackson Says:

    Fantastic! I am already appreciating the new perspective this theory has given me. Life will certainly be much more enjoyable during frustrating moments with coworkers when I can simply picture them as one muppet or another; certainly it will assist me in understanding how someone’s mind works. If only Professor Schneider had this information at her disposal when I was in her ADR class–I’m sure she will make good use of it!

  3. I could see how characterizing people in a general stereotype would help a mediator to organize the parties in his/her own mind. People do this snap judgment all the time to help them make choices when they do not have all the information. However, trying to fit people into one group or another is always tricky, no matter how vague the group description is. Almost everyone, myself included, are “Bert” about some areas of their life and “Ernie” about other areas. Relying on those stereotypes too much may actually confuse the mediator when the party does not act according to the role in which the mediator has cognitively placed him/her. So, in conclusion, this is a cute way to think of things, but I don’t know that it should be relied on too heavily by mediators (or anyone else).

  4. Brad Bechard Says:

    I think it is only human to think in general stereotypes at first, and this may help a mediator get an idea of a party’s personality. I think it is also an important point that the mediator must then know how to balance certain personality traits in order to help the mediation process. Fitting people into one group or another can be dangerous, and it is important not to jump to certain conclusions. I am sure everyone has both “Bert” and “Ernie” sides to them, the important part is to recognize when a certain trait is being expressed. I think it would be impossible to say that a mediator will not draw any conclusions about personality types, but I think it is also important to be able to shift and respond to any changes during the mediation and not solely rely on initial judgments of personality.

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