Are You Professor X or Are You Magneto?


This is an amended version of a speech I gave at Santa Cruz Quaker Meeting House in June.

Everyone in this room has a superpower.

I don’t mean you can bend metal with your mind, like Magneto or read people’s thoughts like Professor X. I mean you have some skill that is native to you. It is something that you do better than most other people.

Perhaps you have the power of personal charm. Maybe you can fix things. Or you know how to make folks laugh.

It’s something you probably understood you could do when you were young. You developed your power and used it in your career or in your personal relationships. It defines who you are and helps you make your way in the world.

Magneto and Professor X are the leaders of the two superhero factions in the X-Men. Magneto generally uses his power for evil, defeating humans who are hostile to his kind; mutants with special powers. While Professor X, also a mutant, seeks to do good in the world, to bridge the gap between mutants and humans.

Which one are you? Do you use your power to do good, or do harm?

My power, such as it is, involves writing. Pumping out words is pretty much the only thing I do with any (externally acknowledged) skill.

I can string words together to make sentences that other people (occasionally) enjoy. When I do well, people continue reading my words. I get paid. Also, at some point I have implanted a piece of information in their brain that was not previously there. Or I have bent their opinion, very slightly, towards my own, a bit like Magneto bending a girder.

It is my mutation.

Here’s the problem. I have very often used my power just like Magneto. When people have crossed me or hurt me, I have used words to try to hurt them back. It is not like I have enough power to silence them forever, thank God, but I have the power to at least transfer my hurt and my anger to them, to make them lay awake at night, in the rage that was once mine.

More than once, I have responded to a personal attack with a vitriolic editorial, in a vain attempt to lay waste to the egos of my enemies. I turn my words into fists. I do not claim any great measure of success, but fists are rarely welcomed, particularly when they are forcefully aimed.

It is, of course, self destructive and self defeating. It is a kind of evil.

All superheroes have a fatal weakness. The saintly Professor X suffers from melancholy. He is stuck in a wheelchair and his efforts to make the world a better place often go unrewarded.

Magneto suffers from a terrible anger. When he gets mad, bad thing happen. He can lift an entire building out of the ground with the flick of his wrist, and bring it crashing down on his enemies.

But always, his way fails to get the results he wants.

On the other side, Professor X finds a way, through encouragement of his wards at his School for Gifted Youngsters and his patience and gift for empathy.

Like Magneto, my weakness is also anger. It has never gotten me a thing worth having. It is useless and egotistical.

I decided a while ago to stop being Magneto and to start being Professor X. I wanted to dispense with anger and embrace something else.

As with all good intentions, I was soon tested.

A few times in the last couple of years, I have encountered nasty online slights against me, from people I do not know very well. The details are unimportant. On each occasion, I was enraged by what I saw (and still see) as grotesque manipulations, self-serving misrepresentations and outright lies. I wanted to hurt these people. Very, very badly.

On each occasion, I went into Magneto mode. I wrote editorials savaging what I saw as their hypocrisy, their bullying, their stupidity.

I knew that publication of these screeds would not end my humiliation. They would likely set off yet more bonfires in social media’s ever-bubbling hellscape, further feeding my anger. But they would hurt and enrage my targets. As jagged sentences, they had the power to cut.

I was not afraid or concerned with consequences. I wanted my critics, no matter how powerful or popular, to be hurt. Anger does not know fear. This is why we embrace it, when we think we need to be fearless.

Each time (sometimes via the advice of good friends), I was reminded of my pledge. I do not want to be a mini-Magneto, going through the world, converting my rage into destruction, enabling yet more hatred and wrath. I wish to be more like Professor X, soaking up hostility, waiting for a way to create something positive, even if that way is unclear.

I deleted the carefully crafted editorials and tipped all their vicious little words into the waste basket. I sucked up the criticisms. I tried to write about something else, something joyful. And for the first time, I felt, in a very small sense, like a hero.

I know that my power has its limits. I write about video games for a moderately successful outlet. But I also know that I can exercise an effect. The words I string together have consequences for me and for others.

I have learned that all powers must be pointed in a certain direction, that we all have a choice to use our skills to make war on our foes or to try to make something of value in the world. I choose the way of Professor X.