The Still Small Voice

Still from artist Artur Żmijewski’s documentary work Powtórzenie (Repetition), 2005, a reenactment of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment.

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 know that most people, most of the time, are easily swayed by obedience to authority and conformity to peer expectations. Stanley Milgram’s classic experiments remain a powerful exposition of the first tendency: Experimental subjects, told to administer painful electric shocks to “punish” students who gave “incorrect” answers, were all too willing to increase the electricity to near-lethal levels.

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch found that some people would literally deny the evidence of their own eyes when enough peers did so as well. A decade later, John Darley and Bibb Latané conducted a famous series of experiments on “the bystander effect,” finding that when surrounded by others who ignore even the most obvious threat or evidence of human suffering, most people will take no action themselves.

The litany of similar studies is long, and the conclusion, inevitably, is a gloomy one: “Character” is a remarkably poor predictor of human moral decision making. For most people, situation trumps disposition. As Philip Zimbardo (famous for his 1971 simulated prison experiment at Stanford) puts it, most “good men and women” can be induced, “with relative ease,” to behave “in evil ways by turning on or off one or another social situational variable.”

Zimbardo suggests that there’s almost a recipe for turning “normal” people into perpetrators. Start with a good cover story to explain the “need” for particular behaviors (ideology or nationalism work well); push people into well-understood “roles” (guard, soldier, etc.). Then, establish clear rules (shocks must be continued; Jews cannot own property) and alter the semantics to justify the desired behavior (rhetorically dehumanizing victims, for instance: Tutsis are “cockroaches”; Arabs “towel-heads”). As the process moves forward, enable diffusion of responsibility (so each individual can displace blame onto others), and promote gradual steps toward the ultimately desired behavior (mild shocks precede larger shocks; Jews are forced to wear yellow stars before their property is confiscated). Finally, to ensure high levels of mass compliance, impose high exit costs (those who protest or resist will be punished or ostracized).

But although Press admits that “no one familiar with recent history would deny that situational factors do matter,” he contends that “deciding whether to conform or resist is just that: a choice. . . . It is never easy to say no . . . but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why ordinary men and women sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.”

Press analyzes this process via a close examination of the stories of several resisters: a Swiss police official who, in 1938, deliberately circumvented Swiss law to save Jewish refugees; a Serb who lied about the ethnicity of Croatian acquaintances to get them out of a Serbian concentration camp; an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in the occupied territories; and a Texas broker who blew the whistle on fraudulent investment products.

Press builds out his analysis via thick description. His portraits are finely sketched, and enriched by old-fashioned journalistic effort, drawing heavily on interviews with his protagonists and their families, colleagues, and acquaintances. What emerges is a portrait not of superheroes but of ordinary men and women, often ambivalent about their own roles, who see their acts of courage and resistance simply as what they “had to do.” Indeed, Press notes bemusedly, “as counterintuitive as it may seem,” the stories of resisters have much in common, structurally, with the narratives of perpetrators: Both “good” and “evil” tend to be reached through a series of baby steps, and each move proceeds further along the spectrum in almost imperceptible fashion.

But the stories Press tells us remain somehow unsatisfying. Nothing is all that intriguing about his protagonists except their resounding ordinariness—and as a result, their meandering chronicles enlighten us little about the nature of resistance. Beautiful Souls peters out with the rather vague suggestion that we should ponder “what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name,” and the story of a military lawyer who refused to participate in the prosecution of Guantánamo detainees. As a conclusion, it’s not exactly a whimper, but it’s not much of a bang, either.

It’s unfair to fault Press entirely for his failure to provide us with a satisfying conclusion. After all, it’s hardly his job to solve, in a short journalistic book, the mystery of how and why some people resist the powerful situational pressures that cause others to participate in the unconscionable. It’s the nature of mysteries to resist easy resolution, and perhaps simply delineating this particular mystery is enough of a contribution.

Still, it’s hard not to wish for something more: a moral, or at least a “news you can use” component to all this fine-grained ordinariness. The title of Press’s book comes from yafeh nefesh, a Hebrew phrase that Press translates as “beautiful soul.” The phrase, he explains, hints at a slightly narcissistic purity: A yafeh nefesh is a refusenik, but not an activist; he’s too fastidious to get his own hands dirty, but he doesn’t channel that resistance into anything more constructive. Press’s Israeli protagonist wrestles with whether he is a yafeh nefesh, and Press himself sometimes seems similarly ambivalent about his own role as chronicler. At moments, he seems to want his subjects’ lives to provide lessons that might guide us. At other times, he seems to fall back, however uncomfortably, into the role of beautiful soul, reluctant to translate his intuitions and convictions into any sort of template for action.

His study certainly leaves him ample room to develop a less tentative line of argument. Press might have drawn the conclusion, for example, that since we know so little about the factors that lead to resistance—and so much about the situational conditions that lead to participation in, or acquiescence to, the unconscionable—we should put our energy into reform efforts that take that knowledge into account. In the Areopagitica, Milton famously wrote, “I cannot praise a fugitive or cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” But the lesson of the twentieth century may be that cloistered virtue is the best most of us can hope for—so rather than focusing on the rare few who “sall[y] out and see [the] adversary,” we’d do better to learn how to build stronger cloisters.

We know, for example, that diffusion of responsibility enables a great deal of immoral behavior, and that even a small number of vocal dissenters can powerfully dilute the corrosive impact of conformity and obedience. This has implications for the design of institutions from prisons to corporations: If you want to minimize the likelihood of abuse, it’s probably smart to hold individuals at every level directly and personally responsible for wrongdoing. It’s also smart to find ways to foster and protect dissent, whether through institutionalizing internal criticism, or through legal incentives and protections for whistle-blowers. But even as Press acknowledges that situational factors may play some role in encouraging resistance, he doesn’t try to tease out what those might be.

Press might also have profitably engaged the question of whether people can be “trained” to be resisters. Might understanding the situational factors that lead some toward the moral abyss help others avoid it? Should schoolchildren be taught about Milgram’s experiments, and read about Press’s ordinary heroes? Press doesn’t seem especially interested in such questions.

But perhaps this critique doesn’t do full justice to the underlying value of Beautiful Souls. True, Press offers few answers. But in an odd sort of way, the comparative flatness of his characters is inspiring. After all, if extraordinary resistance requires extraordinary individuals, most of us, demoralized, might simply despair of ever achieving heroism. But why let ourselves off the hook? If even the most prosaic of individuals can behave heroically—the tidy Swiss bureaucrat; the abrasive, beer-loving Serb—maybe the rest of us can be heroes, too.

Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.