Schwartz: The power — and danger — of a personal story

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

I first came across PragerU last year. I was on YouTube about to skip through an ad, but something made me pause. A black woman faced the camera: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a scholar at Harvard University. The video’s title was “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”

Ali described her experience with Islam: she’d been educated at Islamic schools, lived in Mecca and sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, I thought, she knew what she was talking about, which is why I was surprised to see the video take a disturbing turn. She called for a complete reform of Islam, warning that terror attacks and violence would overtake the world otherwise. She said Islam was an inherently violent religion, antithetical to Western culture and people.

I was confused — how could someone who had such an intimate experience with this religion take such a blatantly simplistic and reductive stance on it? Yet, I still watched the entire video; the woman speaking made me curious. In a strange way, I trusted her.

Soon, PragerU videos began appearing in droves on both my YouTube and Facebook feeds. Though Ali’s video left a bad taste in my mouth, I still watched the first few that came after it — titles asking seemingly innocent questions like “Do 97% of Climate Scientists Really Agree?” and “Gender Identity: Why All The Confusion?” — not because they were changing my mind but because I was so taken with how, maybe 4 or 5 years ago, they very well could have. My vague disgust soon turned to incredulous alarm: Who was behind this?

PragerU is a venture of Dennis Prager, a famous right-wing thinker, writer and champion of Judeo-Christian values. Not surprising, but I doubt the average person who comes across one of his videos would glean that: They’re short and easy to follow, with a non-partisan orange-and-blue color scheme and arguments made by fresh, impassioned individuals (some of them are conservative icons like Ben Shapiro but others hold marginalized identities). You watch one and you feel like you’ve been exposed to a valuable, well-argued point of view, despite all the facts it ignored.

In 2016, these videos were viewed over 225 million times — 60 percent of those viewers were under 34 years old. Clearly, they’re working. And after editing the opinion section for two quarters, I think I understand why.

While learning about the world in an academic setting is important, the human brain craves a good story — especially one that validates the tiny part of our minds that still questions whether all the facts and statistics we’ve been presented with are really true. Someone like me — white, middle-class, educated, cisgender — may jump at the opportunity to poke holes in a narrative that tells them they are privileged, opting instead for the one person who makes an argument that confirms their own bias. It is imperative that we resist this urge and instead do the work of educating ourselves — not only by using valid, factual sources, but by exposing ourselves to as many individual, human perspectives as possible.

This quarter, Marissa and I have tried to facilitate that by making the opinion page a mosaic of experiences. We wanted people to tell their own stories and bring a human side to abstract societal issues. It’s not so much as an achievable goal as it is a theme for this section, and we hope to improve on it next quarter by bringing in even more perspectives. I’ve realized that PragerU is so effective — granted, for it’s targeted audience of privileged identities — because it essentially does what we’re trying to do. It gets you to examine your own views by being exposed to a new perspective: one that is authoritative, energetic and welcoming.

While I’m concerned with PragerU’s popularity and ideology, I recognize the power they’ve tapped into: the power of the human story. We should be wary of that power when it’s used to trick us or close us off, like in these seemingly innocuous videos.

But we should also acknowledge that a good story can change things for the better when it opens our minds and leads us down a path toward further learning and understanding. That, to me, is the point of what we do as opinion journalists. The intent of a column is not to open your mind at the lede and close it at the kicker — it’s to ignite a spark that keeps you curious and makes you reexamine your own beliefs. Just be mindful of who’s trying to start that fire, and what they’re trying to burn.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.