3 unsung heroes who helped society overcome division
The true course of progress is not only charted by great men and women, but also by ordinary people having conversations.
- History's great men and women may enjoy name recognition, but everyday heroes can be anyone willing to talk.
- We profile three everyday heroes who helped society overcome adversity through civil discourse.
- Their stories validate John Stuart Mill's belief that good things happen when you converse with people with whom you disagree.
If your history class was like ours, it focused on the great-man view of history. We learned of generals who stormed the battlefield for a decisive victory. We memorized the speeches of powerful leaders preaching lofty ideals. And we remembered great inventors who updated our world to v2.0.
But the great man theory of history misses the point: History's course is charted by everyday people. A powerful leader may offer an era its rallying point, but true progress advances when ordinary people engage in civil discourse to change minds one person at a time.
Here are three people who helped others overcome entrenched, bigoted divisions. They didn't win a war or make a speech before an audience of millions. They engaged in conversations that helped remind others of our common humanity.
Gordon Hirabayashi (left), Minoru Yasui (center), and Fred Korematsu (right). These three civil rights activists took their arguments against the internment of Japanese-Americans to the Supreme Court.
A lawyer from Oregon, Minoru Yasui was an integral figure in the fight against the United States' internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yasui attempted to join the army but was rejected because of his race — despite having obtained the rank of second lieutenant through a Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to set curfews, designate exclusion zones, and intern American citizens based on ancestry. The order focused mainly on Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, but German and Italian Americans also faced these discriminating policies.
Yasui immediately hatched a plan to test the order's legality in the courts: He deliberately stayed out after curfew to be arrested. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In Yasui vs. United States, the justices determined the curfew and executive order were valid. Yasui was released from prison in 1943 with time already served and ushered to a Japanese internment camp, where he was held until 1944.
With his court case lost, you would think Yasui would have been defeated, but he wasn't close to being finished. As he once said, "If we believe in America, if we believe in equality and democracy, if we believe in law and justice, then each of us, when we see or believe errors are being made, has an obligation to make every effort to correct them."
After being released from the camp, he worked diligently for the remainder of his life toward redress of the inhumane treatment of Japanese Americans. As a senior leader of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), he called for reparations and a legislative guarantee that the constitutional violations put upon Japanese Americans during WWII would never happen again, to any American. His and others' convictions were eventually overturned in the lower courts in 1986, the year of Yasui's death, and the JACL's redress campaign culminated in Congress passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which called for reparations and an official apology from the president.
President Obama posthumously presented Yasui with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Daryl Davis shows a robe given to him by a Klansman who left the KKK. Davis keeps this and other robes he's been given to remind himself that conversation can reduce hate in the world.
Daryl Davis is an R&B and blues musician. Nothing brings people together like great music, so Davis could have made this list on his virtuosity alone. But we've added him for another reason. As a black man, he made it his mission to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Davis met his first Klansman while playing piano at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland, more than three decades ago. The two struck up a conversation. The Klansman was surprised that a black man played in the same style as Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis informed him that Lewis's musical idols were black musicians, a surprising revelation for the Klansman.
"The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted," Davis told NPR. "So, what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it. That was the impetus for me to write a book. I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan leaders and Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"
Over 30 years of conversations, Davis has convinced about 200 people to quit the Klan. When they leave, they give him their robes, which he keeps as a reminder that his efforts have measurably lessened racism in the world.
"Establish a dialogue," Davis told the Daily Mail. "It's when the talking stops that the ground becomes fertile for fighting. When two enemies are talking, they're not fighting."
How one black man convinced 200 KKK members to quit the Klan
Former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper has left the church and now advocates for the power of conversation.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. At the age of five, she began to picket with her family, hoisting up signs that read "God hates fags," "Jews stole our land," or "God sent the IEDs." Later, she became the voice for the hate-filled organization on social media.
For most people this would be a nonstarter for any conversation, and for many, it was. Twitter responses directed at Phelps-Roper were typically filled with scorn and loathing. But through the noise, some conversations took shape. Phelps-Roper and a few of her detractors began to have open, civil conversations about their opposing beliefs.
"There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred," she said during her TED talk. "We'd started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another."
Thanks to her conversations with her cultural "enemies," she left Westboro in 2012. Today, she speaks publicly on the power of conversations to overcome divisions.
"My friends on Twitter didn't abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn," Phelps-Roper said. "They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain, and violence."
The power of conversations
Of course, there are many unsung heroes whose quiet efforts have made this world a better, less divisive place, and we should celebrate them where we find them. As Sarah Ruger, Director of Free Speech Initiatives at the Charles Koch Institute, argues:
"How can we promote a culture of openness in society that makes us, as individuals, receptive to engaging with even the most deplorable views with the goal of changing them? At the end of the day I'm a John Stuart Mill nerd; I think nothing but good things happen when you engage with ideas with which you disagree. You either learn how to better defend your position, maybe you move closer to truth, maybe you persuade the other of a given view, but either way you've all learned something and been made better by that encounter."
These three people show us the truth of John Stuart Mill's belief. Engaging and debating with ideas we find wrongheaded or deplorable can not only help our society overcome division, but make us a stronger, more cohesive whole.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
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