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This is Your Brain on Critical Consciousness: Countering Drug War Propaganda

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the first in a three-part series on “Teaching the Drug War” that will run throughout this month and into January 2021. It comes from Sarah Baranauskas, who works at the University of Colorado Boulder and lives in Lyons, Colorado. You can follow her on Twitter @sandequation or check out the podcast she co-hosts What the Folk Pod.

There’s a famous quote from former Nixon administration advisor John Erhlichman that serves as a stark illustration of how a major aspect of the U.S. “war on drugs” has been a war on information. As he was quoted in Dan Baum’s 2016 piece in Harper’s:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” [emphasis added]

As misinformation (and outright propaganda) have been features of the drug war from day one, as well as the suppression of research resulting from prohibition, I see clear intersections between my work as an academic librarian and as an advocate for drug policy reform. For starters, two of the major ethical foundations of my profession are intellectual freedom and access to information. These ethics inform all aspects of librarianship, from front-line circulation services to collection development. In my role providing undergraduate information literacy instruction, which includes supporting classes that study drug policy and the therapeutic or medicinal applications of psychoactive substances, I see opportunities not only to uphold these professional ethics, but also to provide pedagogical resistance to the (mis)information tactics of the drug war.

There is an approach to information literacy instruction which sees “info lit” as a checklist of masterable skills that will meet a student’s information goals, such as retrieving peer-reviewed journal articles for a course assignment. Especially when you’re given a single 50-minute session to teach a class of 20 undergraduates how to navigate a complex university library website, it’s easy to fall back on this approach. But, especially with the adoption of the ACRL Frameworks for Information Literacy in 2016, this box-checking method has given way to a strategy based on the foundational concepts (really, mindsets) of information literacy. Critical information literacy expands further upon this perspective, examining how issues of power intersect with accessing, interacting with and thinking about information. This is where I place myself pedagogically, and what I would like to explore here in relation to the history of the drug war in the United States.

As Eamon Tewell explains, “Critical information literacy is an attempt to render visible the complex workings of information so that we may identify and act upon the power structures that shape our lives.” What this can mean practically is examining how information production and dissemination is politicized, whether in the algorithmic profit motives of big tech companies or in the privileging of certain voices in the academic research process (or the political process). Besides offering students opportunities to recognize and, ideally, intervene in these invisible structures, critical information literacy (crit lit) also involves a mandate of self-examination. Despite our professional ethics, libraries and librarians have long served to uphold existing power structures. This has often occurred under the guise of “neutrality,” but can also be seen in the ceding of our profession to neoliberal ideological values based on metrics and markets. Whether on a personal level of praxis or in our role as educational co-creators alongside our students, critical librarians are obligated to pull back the layers of this gnarly machine called “information” and not only examine the gears turning underneath, but also ask questions about who is benefiting from the placement of these gears — and who isn’t.

As its name would suggest, critical information literacy is strongly influenced by critical pedagogy, such as the work of Brazillian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire. Freire’s seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), challenged the colonialist power dynamics, and perceived neutrality, of education. Instead of treating students as passive recipients of knowledge via an authoritative teacher, Freire positioned students as activist participants in their own education along the path toward the liberation of the oppressed as well as the oppressors. The aim of education should thus be the development of what Freire called “critical consciousness,” which is not only the understanding of how political and social systems are woven throughout our daily reality, but also an awareness of an individual’s conscious participation, and ability to change, these systems. Instead of being a process that simply deposits information into learners’ brains–what Freire called the “banking model” of instruction–pedagogy can have transformative, even liberatory, aims. As Freire said, education can ideally be “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Especially when supporting classes that teach on issues regarding drugs, drug policy, and criminal justice — classes that, on principle, are interventions in the status quo narrative of the drug war — this development of critical consciousness is key. In my role as a librarian, this is also an opportunity to put critical information literacy into practice.

One of my simplest exercises establishes the importance of a curious mindset in regards to information from the get-go. Before even demonstrating how to search for sources, I will pose these critical questions to the students, emphasizing that these questions apply to any information source, from an Instagram post to a peer-reviewed journal article:

  1. How is this information produced? Who creates it? Why did they create it?

  2. What is the context of this information? In other words, what type of publication is it in and what possible bias or perspective does that publication have?

  3. Who is funding the information source? Is it from the government or an NGO? Or the private sector? How could this influence the content?

  4. Whose voice is being represented? Whose isn’t? Why might that be? Why does this matter?

These questions directly relate to one of the ACRL Frames, Authority is Constructed and Contextual. Besides calling into awareness who is considered authoritative in certain contexts, and the myriad reasons why that might be, this frame provides a tool to critique the ideological project represented by that Ehrlichman quote. The drug war is an illustrative example of how political power can be wielded, not only to construct an issue, but also to place itself as the authority on that issue, therefore defining the terms of the conversation.

This also relates to another ACRL Frame, Research as Inquiry, which can be presented to students as the idea of research being a conversation. We often emphasize the end product of research, but it’s crucial to impart to students that research is a process of making meaning, not simply the creation of a static artifact. Furthermore, this idea of a conversation establishes students as active participants, and contributors, to the ongoing dialogue. To help illustrate this point, I often begin classes with a free-writing exercise. I will give students time to journal on the following questions:

  1. WHY is your topic important for you to explore? WHY do you think it matters?

  2. WHAT are some questions you want to answer about your topic?

  3. WHO might you ask for answers?

  4. WHERE might you go to talk to them OR to hear/see/read their voices represented in the conversation around your topic?

  5. WHOSE voice is not being heard in this conversation?

  6. WHAT words, phrases and ideas might help you find sources with their voices?

This exercise, besides giving students a jumpstart in developing search keywords, should help them see their topic and, more importantly, their curiosity about their topic, as part of an ongoing conversation.

As anyone studying drugs and drug policy knows, between outright propaganda and historical research suppression, some of the most “trusted” sources of information on this subject can be very fraught. Critical information literacy instruction, in this context, can also be a way to directly engage with conversations around power and perceived authority. One way of doing this is by emphasizing sources outside the traditional spectrum of academic research. This LibGuide I made for a freshman undergraduate course incorporates source types from civil societies, as well as sites such as Erowid which privilege a variety of voices (sidenote: early 2000s undergrad me would be intrigued to learn that one day I would be teaching with the Erowid experiences vault). This guide is still very much a work in progress but it provides an opportunity to map out the complexity of this subject and reiterate the critical questions students should be asking themselves whenever they encounter an information source.

Of course, broader information access and awareness of injustice is not, in and of itself, a liberatory practice, or even a fundamentally just act. But, by providing these frameworks and exercises, I can hopefully encourage the activation of students’ critical consciousness. Even as the conversation around the drug war has evolved rapidly in the last few years, from psychedelic therapy to marijuana legalization, from recently passed decriminalization initiatives to defund the police, this is still a key mindset needed to meet the drug war head-on and provide responses based in science, compassion and, most importantly, justice to the communities most harmed by its purposefully deceitful legacy.

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