The Still Small Voice
Eyal Press tries to explain just what makes people good—sometimes
The horrors of the twentieth century left artists and thinkers preoccupied with the problem of evil. How could Germans herd Jewish families into the gas chambers? How could Serbs turn on their Bosnian neighbors, or Hutus pick up machetes and carry out the bloody work of genocidaires?
In Beautiful Souls, Eyal Press takes on a different challenge, more suited to the twenty-first century: He suggests that the true mystery is not what impels ordinary people into the moral abyss, but rather how some people manage to avoid the abyss altogether, by refusing to participate in atrocities. For every horror, there are courageous, conscientious resisters: Germans who hid Jews, Hutus who saved Tutsis, Serbs who saved Muslims. Even the more quotidian forms of evil always generate some resistance: Consider the Enron scandal’s whistle-blowers.
But what enables some to resist while most go along? Beautiful Souls, Press writes, is about “nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky . . . when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.”
Press is right to view this as an abiding mystery. Today, thanks to decades of meticulous research by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists, our understanding of how ordinary people come to participate in—or turn a blind eye toward—atrocities and crimes has become fairly sophisticated. In contrast, our understanding of how and why some ordinary people turn into resisters remains mostly a matter of guesswork.
When it comes to participation in “evil,” we