Communication, negotiation and the friendship of Charles and Erik

Can anything be more important than learning how to deal with yourself, and with other people? What a ceaseless struggle! Managing intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, directing and empowering oneself and others. It’s simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to do. We are inextricably bound to ourselves, and to each other.

I caught X-Men: First Class with a few friends and thoroughly enjoyed it, with all the wonderful philosophical dilemmas it raised. Most enjoyable of all was the portrayal of the magnificent relationship between Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto).

What a beautiful and tragic relationship, one between equals, peers, contemporaries. I often find myself yearning to be a part of such a powerful relationship- to have a peer who I may thoroughly appreciate, understand and relate to. Both men highly skilled, capable, intellectual, profoundly emotional and intensely admirable. If they had nothing else, they had each other- and yet they ultimately were driven apart by their differences. The most painful exchange to watch, for me, was when Erik said, “We want the same thing!”, and Charles responded, “No, we don’t.”

Don’t we all ultimately want the same thing? Do we not have more in common than we have differences? Were the views of Charles and Erik truly incompatible, was their union destined to be fleeting? I find it difficult to accept. What was it that stopped them from negotiating a compromise? Together, they had a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic that would have made them a political heavyweight- I’m inclined to believe that the reason neither of their approaches towards humanity succeeds is because each approach is incomplete without the other- it’s kind of like how good parenting is supposed to be- it can’t just be all about rewards, or all about punishments. There has to be compromise, balance.

Avianca Flight 52 crashed into a village on 25 January 1990, killing 8 out of 9 crew members and 65 out of 149 passengers. The plane had been running out of fuel. The first officer was reportedly intimidated by the gruff air traffic controller, and did not effectively communicate the fuel emergency. Lives were lost. The story breaks my heart, because those people did not have to die- if Klotz had only managed to communicate wit the air traffic control more effectively, the disaster could have been averted.

Are communication breakdowns inevitable? Is it really so difficult to find common ground, to find mutually beneficial outcomes, that even our most inspiring men and women struggle to do it? Was it really necessary for Charles and Erik to part ways? Axelrod’s Evolution of Co-operation suggests otherwise-

“We were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did—and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbor and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see one another again,—perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us! That we have to become estranged is the law above us: by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other! And thus the memory of our former friendship should become more sacred! There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path,—let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.— Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellen), a.k.a. Magneto, in 20th Century Fox's X-Men - 2000

It’s a beautiful idea, star friendship. But I think we can have more than that, I’m inclined to believe that we don’t have to grow distant from our friends. I don’t think I’m being radically idealistic- the emergence of co-operation, after all, can be seen as a consequence of agents pursuing their own interests.

We  just need to get better at communicating and negotiating– first with ourselves, to transcend arrogance and hubris, and then with one another, to find mutually beneficial outcomes. Everything else is commentary.