Just Say No to Critical Thinking

        On September 14th, 1986 Nancy and Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to the American public in an effort to curb an increase in illegal drug use; specifically the use of crack-cocaine, as it was becoming a widespread epidemic.
     Warning us of just how menacing drugs are to our society, Ronald tells us that drugs are "threatening our values," "undercutting our institutions," and "killing our children" (Reagan 1). Here Ronald has managed to cleverly combine two fallacies within one statement, an appeal to fear and a glittering generality. An appeal to fear is a statement that "attempts to convince by implicitly threatening the audience. Its efforts to persuade are based on emotion rather than reason" (Cooper, Patton 143). And
"glittering generalities are words with good connotations -- 'virtue words,'... We believe in, fight for, live by 'virtue words' which we feel deeply about" (Cross 124,125).
        When Ronald uses the words "threatening" and "killing", we automatically feel threatened. Furthermore, he associates these scary and threatening words with our "values", a virtue word. We all feel strongly about our values. But what exactly are our
values and are they really being threatened?  Reagan says that "One in twelve persons smokes marijuana regularly" (Reagan 1). With this in mind can we honestly say that drugs are threatening our values?
        Ronald goes on to cite examples of what his administration and numerous federal agencies have done in an attempt to diminish this "horror" of illegal drug use: "Thirty-seven Federal agencies are working together in a vigorous national effort... Last year alone over 10,000 drug criminals were convicted and nearly $250 million of their assets were seized by the DEA" (Reagan 1).  But, he says, "Despite our best
efforts, illegal cocaine is coming into our country at alarming levels and 4 to 5 million people regularly use it" (Reagan 1). By itself this statement does not appear to be a fallacy, but significant information has been left out here. This type of fallacy is called
card stacking, "Card stacking is a device of propaganda which selects only the facts that support the propagandist's point of view, and ignores all others" (Cross 131). Card stacking is probably one of the most effective propaganda devices used in political speeches; because unless one is already informed of all the facts, one does not know exactly what information is being left out, one does not know what questions to ask and is therefore unable to formulate an opinion based on facts.
        While Reagan may have contributed to drug enforcement on some level, it is difficult to believe that cocaine was coming into America "despite our best efforts" when "In 1986... the U.S. State Department paid four contractors--all known drug traffickers--$806,401.20 to supply 'humanitarian aid' to the Contra forces in Central America" (McCoy 491). It is also difficult to believe that one of Ronald's goals was "... to expand international cooperation while treating drug trafficking as a threat to our national security" (Reagan 1) when "... the CIA worked with Hyde [a known drug trafficker who was smuggling cocaine into the United States] to supply its Contra allies from 1987 to 1989, a period when his reputation for drug dealing was already well established" (McCoy 497).
        Ronald then introduces Nancy to discuss her "dramatic insights" about drug abuse. Nancy, like her husband, also likes to appeal to our fears and use glittering
generalities: "Drugs steal away so much. They take and take, until finally every time a drug goes into a child, something else is forced out - like love and hope and trust and confidence. Drugs take away the dream from every child's heart and replace it with a
nightmare" (Reagan 2). Here Nancy is trying to frighten us into believing that drugs are going to steal from our children and replace their dreams with nightmares. But to think critically, we must ask what exactly it is that drugs are stealing. Nancy accuses drugs of stealing love, hope, trust, and confidence away from our children, here she is relying heavily upon the use of virtue words. While the words love, hope, trust, and confidence are all very pretty words that evoke strong emotional responses in us, they are also very vague words that mean very different things to different people and are open to a myriad of possible interpretations.
    Now let's move on to Nancy's favorite propaganda device, that of the false dilemma. A false dilemma "Presents two and only two alternatives for consideration when other possibilities exist" (Cooper, Patton 169). Nancy is persuading us to believe that
there are only two options available when it comes to the issue of drugs; either we are all for drug use or we are completely against it. "There's no moral middle ground. Indifference is not an option.... I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs" (Reagan 2). Being unyielding and inflexible in regards to anything doesn't seem like such a healthy attitude. Should we not keep at least a
partially open mind when we are discussing important issues?
        There are obviously more than two sides to this issue. If we are to be completely intolerant of drugs we must be intolerant of many other substances as well--caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, aspirin. I'm sure Nancy herself is not completely intolerant of such
chemicals, therefore there is a moral middle ground. Furthermore it would be very ethnocentric of us if we were to follow Nancy's advice "not to tolerate drugs by anyone, anytime, anyplace" (Reagan 5). Should we go on a global crusade telling indigenous peoples and their shamans everywhere that we do not approve of
their centuries old, religious use of drugs and that we are not going to tolerate it?Should we tell them to "just say no"?
       And what about legal drugs? We are made further aware of the use of card stacking when one notices that the mention of legal drugs is nowhere to be seen. Not once are we warned about the dangers of prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, or the many legal and lethal plants that many people use to get high. Nor are we informed about the religious and sacred use of drugs among various cultures throughout the world. Perhaps the issues of legal drugs and the use of drugs among
different cultures are not brought up because if they were we may begin to question why certain drugs are legal and why others are not, and the lines between food, drugs, and medicine may start to become quite blurry.
        The efficacy of this speech is largely dependent upon how informed the audience is. Because this speech relies so heavily on card stacking, it has the potential to be very deceptive and misleading. But if one has knowledge of what fallacious arguments look like and how to spot them, and if one is aware of exactly what information is being omitted, then this speech is obviously not very effective and will ultimately "[breed] suspicion, cynicism, distrust, and ultimately hostility" in its audience.  Analyzing this
speech, it becomes clear that the Reagans are not merely urging us to "just say no to drugs" but to just say no to flexible and critical thinking as well.

Works Cited

Cooper, Sheila & Rosemary Patton. Writing Logically, Thinking Critically. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.

Cross, Donna Woolfolk. "Propaganda: How Not to Be Bamboozled." Language Awareness: Readings for College
        Writers. Eds. Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.

Lutz, William. "The World of Doublespeak." Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Eds. Paul Eschholz,                 Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.

McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Reagan, Ronald & Nancy Reagan. "'Just Say No' Address 1986." Medal of Freedom. 13 Apr. 2005

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