By Maddie Samuell
Author of “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times” Eyal Press spoke at Union on Wednesday, Jan. 14, as part of the Ethics Across the Curriculum program.
Press was born in Jerusalem, but was raised in Buffalo, N.Y. He attended Brown University and is currently a journalist. His work has appeared in various news outlets, including The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and The Nation. He is also the author of “Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America,” which was published in 2006.
“Beautiful Souls” is Press’s second novel. It follows the story of four people from vastly different time periods and countries. They each face different dilemmas, but all of these people have one similarity: They defied the rules in order to follow their consciences.
Vice President of Academic Affairs Therese McCarty introduced Eyal Press. In her speech, she connected the idea of being the person to stand up for injustice to Union’s Bystander Intervention Program. She acknowledged that sometimes it is easier for individuals to be passive in watching an unjust action, but they need to be aware that these actions are wrong.
Press’s book explores the lives of the people who take action and the underlying motivations for their decisions.
Press also discussed Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” and explained the connection between Thoreau and the people in his book. Thoreau refused to pay a tax that would support the war being fought by the United States in Mexico, which he saw as unjust, and he went to jail for it. He later spoke publicly about his decision not to pay the tax and wrote his famous essay about it. Like the people in “Beautiful Souls,” Thoreau went against what was expected of him because he was listening to his own conscience.
The idea behind Press’s book can be found in thousands of other stories and cases in history.
Kim Bolduc ’17, who attended the talk on Wednesday, is fascinated by the idea that people can rise above the pressure of society to fight for their beliefs.
Unlike many of the students present, Bolduc was not there because of a class, but purely out of interest.
“Sometimes you see things that aren’t right, like sexual assault, or you see people you wish you could help more,” Bolduc said, in reference to how the topic of the book connected to our lives as students at Union. She also stated that she believed Press’s main message was to stand up for your own voice.
Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor John Spinelli was among the many faculty members present at the presentation. Though this topic falls far outside of his discipline, he still believed it was a very important message for people to hear.
“One is always confronted with ethical situations,” he said. “Sometimes they’re enormous, like the ones (Press) was talking about, and sometimes they’re little day-to-day things. And even though you may go through life never confronting the large-scale injustice that the people he talked about confronted, everybody confronts small-scale injustice. I think that the way you act toward small-scale injustice is hopefully indicative of the way you will act towards a large-scale injustice … we need to practice on the small things, so that we can get good at the big ones.”
Spinelli is a committee member on the Ethics Across Curriculum Board, which is a program that invites speakers to Union who can provide new perspective on ethical and moral issues as they relate to various disciplines. The program was introduced to Union in 2006, and though it has been around for almost 10 years now, it is still a relatively unknown program.
Bolduc commented that there is not a lot of attention given to these speakers coming to Union through the program. “I know about the Ethics Across Curriculum series and I am really interested in that, so I look for the posters.” She added that not many people know about the program and end up missing opportunities to attend presentations similar to this one.
Press ended his presentation by discussing the ways small acts can influence others to think about the importance of standing up for justice. “They have the potential to become contagious, and to have other people either be inspired by them, or just stop and have a conversation about them,” he said.
Press also encouraged people to not just think about how they would have acted if they had been in one of the situations he described, but also how they would react to others speaking out. Press explained that supporting a person who speaks out is just as important as being the one to speak out, which, he stated, is a lesson everyone should keep in mind.