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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Last week I published a blog post titled “My Ongoing Attempts to Reason with the Generals Redoubt.” In retrospect, I should have called it “My Ongoing Attempts to Reason with Neely Young” because Neely Young was the only person from the alumni group that I interacted with. He is, however, one of its three founding members and leaders. He told me that he writes all of the essays distributed to their email list and posted on their website. He called himself their “idea man.” So while my impressions of Neely are specific to Neely, they apply to the Generals Redoubt to the degree that he shapes the organization. He said running it is like his full-time job. I believe no other member is fractionally as involved.

My impressions of Neely are based on his essays (starting with the one denigrating two of my courses), a lengthy email exchange (included almost verbatim in my post last week), and two separate in-person meetings totaling more than two hours (and four coffees). I think this is a fairly solid basis for drawing impressions about someone, though I don’t want to overgeneralize since I’m sure there are many positive aspects of his character that I haven’t had the chance to observe.

But in short, I will no longer be attempting to reason with Neely. I will try to explain why, but if you are not inclined to trust my assessment, I urge you instead to read the email exchange I posted last week and draw your own conclusions. The post includes no commentary from me about Neely, and roughly half of it is Neely’s own words. He paints his own portrait.

I offer my assessment of Neely here in order to support the following recommendation: if you are a member of the W&L community, whether faculty, student, administrator, or alumni, you should not expect to engage with Neely in meaningful conversation. I have repeatedly tried and failed.

This is disappointing to me because I especially value conversation between people from opposing perspectives. I co-founded the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society in order to bring conservatives and liberals together in open-minded, stereotype-challenging dialogue where both sides learn and, ideally, find and expand common ground. I believe that compromise is not a necessary evil but a profound good that should be embraced by all members of a community like W&L’s. Neely does not agree.

Though Neely uses the words “conversation” and “communication” and “discussion,” he does not mean the same things by them as I do. He wishes to have his opinions stated to as large of an audience as possible, whether online or in the debates he’s trying to organize on campus. A debate is the opposite of a conversation. A debate is a polite fistfight. Each side listens to their opponents only to detect and exploit weaknesses while never exploring let alone acknowledging weaknesses of their own viewpoints. A debate reinforces divisions and undermines any hope for forging common ground.

Neely and I also appear to be using different definitions of the word “opinion.” When I say opinion, I mean an informed opinion as opposed to a gut reaction. We all have gut reactions. They are necessary and inevitable. But after experiencing gut reactions to something, I consider it our job to educate ourselves about the topic by gathering verifiable facts and using them to evaluate our initial response and develop an informed opinion. Sometimes my informed opinions match my gut reactions; sometimes they don’t. Regardless, a gut reaction is only a starting point, never an end point.

Neely seems to have experienced a gut reaction to the words “superheroes” and “comics” in my course titles. Based on that reaction, he called my courses inane, frivolous, trivial, dubious, and of questionable value. But to be able to state such opinions meaningfully, Neely would have to know at least a little about graphic narratives, the analysis of pop cultural icons, contemporary literature, studio arts, and writing pedagogy. I tried to help him develop an informed opinion by sending him two of my scholarly essays, which he said were “excellent,” though I have yet to see any evidence that he read either of them. Prior to our second coffee, I selected five graphic novels that I thought would expand his knowledge about comics, but he refused to hear a word on the topic. I was also going to give him examples of graphic narratives that won or were nominated for the most prestigious literary awards in the English language (Pulitzer, National Book, Booker, MacArthur), but he cut me off.

As I said repeatedly to Neely, comics are irrelevant to the larger issues facing W&L. I attempted to engage with him about comics so that he could demonstrate his ability to engage meaningfully on a topic of some kind, with comics providing an easy, low-stakes building block toward more difficult issues. He would not engage. He would not acknowledge that his opinion was uninformed, that he had made no attempt to learn anything about my courses before disseminating his opinion about them to 8,000 alums, and that he ignored my attempts to provide information afterwards. When I asked him to explain why he held his opinion, he refused. He would only repeat his claim, as though the fact of his stating it was evidence of its truth.

What if instead of comics we had tried to have a meaningful conversation about the legacy of Robert E. Lee at W&L or the continuing importance of the honor code? How do you talk to someone who forms strongly negative opinions based on gut reactions, does not educate himself about the topic, refuses others’ attempts to provide information, does not offer evidence for his opinions, and refers to those opinions as “the truth”?

I don’t care that Neely thinks comics are stupid. I do care that Neely has convinced a group of well-intentioned alums that his opinions about the state of W&L are accurate and that its traditions are under attack by liberal professors out to destroy their alma matter. If any reader thinks W&L is facing such an “existential threat” (Neely’s phrase), it will take more than a blog post to build trust between us. It will take a lot of conversation.

Neely did offer me a quid pro quo: if I would agree to help him organize public debates on campus, he would not post his “Dumbing Down the Curriculum at W&L” essay at his website. I declined.

Though Neely and I agreed to shake hands and amicably part ways, I remain open to the remaining 7,999 members of the Generals Redoubt’s email list. I believe in the importance and sincerity of your concerns, and I believe your commitment to W&L is one of the many many things that make our school so excellent. I also suspect you have some inaccurate impressions about the current faculty, the student body, and the direction the school is headed.

And I’m happy to talk about that.

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