Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times
A Conversation with the author, Eyal Press
September 27th, 11:30-1:00, William James Hall 105
On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel’s most elite military unit informs his commander he doesn’t want to serve in the occupied territories.
Fifty years after Hannah Arendt examined the dynamics of conformity in her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Beautiful Souls explores the flipside of the banality of evil, mapping out what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention. Through the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who feel the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations, Eyal Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Beautiful Souls culminates with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. At a time of economic calamity and political unrest, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.
About the Author
Eyal Press is the author of Beautiful Souls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), an exploration of what animates individual acts of courage and conscience in dangerous circumstances. Framed around the stories of four people who defy the sway of authority and convention when thrust into morally compromising situations, the book has received critical acclaim in publications including The New York Times and The Economist. A former recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice journalism, Press’ work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Atlantic, The Raritan Review and numerous other publications. He is also the author of Absolute Convictions (Henry Holt, 2006), a narrative account of the abortion wars that racked the city of Buffalo, NY.
Too often we think of courage only as something required to charge into gunfire or scale an icy peak. Eyal Press looks at courage of a different and far more important kind. His examples spread across decades and continents, and he is wise enough to know that it can take as much bravery to defy an unethical corporation as it does to resist a totalitarian regime. This is an important and inspiring book.”
–Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars and King Leopold’s Ghost
“Beautiful Souls helps us understand why a minority stands on principle when a majority fails. It’s an important book for our time, about conscience, group pressures, ethics, and psyches, and a beautifully crafted one that never falls prey to simple answers about matters of conscience.”
–Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell