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beautiful souls

In the prologue to Beautiful Souls (2012), journalist and author, Eyal Press, asks why some people — faced with a law, a culture, a group of people, a boss, or other significant pressure to do something they believe is wrong — say no. He writes, “It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations, but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why women and men sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.” This led me to think that Press would answer this question; and to some extent he does, but I found the answer unsatisfying.

In thoroughly-researched and compellingly-told stories Press describes people who risked their lives and livelihoods for something in which they believe. One is a Swiss policeman breaking the law by allowing Jewish refugees into his country in 1938. Another, a Serb in 1991 identifying Croats as Serbs to save their lives. There’s a member of the Israeli special forces publicly refusing to serve in the occupied West Bank and a securities trader blowing the whistle on her company’s Ponzi scheme. And many more.

All of these can be seen as heroes, but part of Press’s point is that they don’t see themselves as heroes; instead, they are people who did what they thought was right at the time. Most agonized about it for days, weeks, or months. All of them paid steep prices for their acts. They were fired from their jobs, branded traitors, and lost friends. For some in their societies, the retaliation is revenge. But even people who think they did the right thing by refusing or whistleblowing feel uncomfortable around them because they show everyone else to be moral cowards. They are pariahs.

Trying to find a common cause for their courage is difficult, but they do share a seemingly naïve belief in the myths their society tells about itself. They have bitten off the stories of the moral structure of their society so thoroughly that they can’t believe they’re not true. And when they are first presented with evidence that the fantasy taught by their grade schools and governments and corporations is false, they ignore it and act as though the evidence is a strange exception rather than the rule that more cynical parties claim. They believe in and care about their societies so much that they are willing to risk everything to protect them. As Press points out, conformists (despite being framed as caring more about their group than themselves) usually benefit individually by not sticking out. Nonconformists (individualists, the story often goes, who don’t care as much about the group) are the ones who actually give greater benefit to their society as a whole by pointing out problems and ways to fix them. And they pay for it.

Nevertheless, to a person, even though they now have what I would call more realistic pictures of their societies, they say they would do it again. Press’s ultimate answer for why is a relatively old saw: they wanted to look themselves in the mirror every morning without shame. For me, looking for something more powerful in a world that I often find dishearteningly unethical and amoral, that wasn’t enough. I was hoping for something that, as a mentor of young people, I could teach and that would make a difference. I suppose my own naiveté shows in that hope.

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