Have we been brainwashed? Consider the following example. You can climb Mount Lassen in what is one of California's lesser known National Parks. Many visitors have gone up to enjoy the wonderful hike and the stunning views. Yet on the way up we can read about the scar that disgraces the slope of Mount Lassen. While there is a perfectly fine trail that has been created by the Park Service, there exists a scar, a path that was created by some of the visitors — irresponsible people who felt the need to blaze their own trail.

Reading this short introduction, did you recognize that some of the words were not neutral words, but had a certain power to them? According to the dictionary, a trail is a path or track across a wild or region, and the trail in the picture looks pretty much like most of the trails found in this gorgeous national park. So what is the catch? The Park Service only wants people to use the one trail it created for visitors and not the trail some people created themselves. A choice was therefore made to present the undesired trail as a scar. By using the word scar a very strong imprint is created in the visitors' minds; helping them think twice before they veer off the 'beaten' path.

By using certain words people are more easily directed into a certain kind of behavior. If the Park Service had chosen for 'Keep off this Trail' instead of 'Healing Scar,' and had not given much more information, some of the visitors might have thought less of the direction they were gently being pushed in, and still go up and down that trail.

Is this a case of brainwashing? We all know that some words are more neutral than others, and that it is difficult to always be aware of the manipulation through something as simple as words; we may rather accept the obvious manipulation without much objection because we know it is only done for good reasons. Yet it is a subtle form of manipulation, and brainwashing is almost exclusively done in very subtle ways. Come to think of it, even a word like 'brainwashing' is not a very neutral word. Its connotation implies something negative; but it caught your curiosity, didn't it? Had the link said 'Poverty underreported' you may not have felt enticed to click the link.

Consider the widespread idea that the United States has a very individualistic nature. Compared to other nations, we rely more on ourselves than on the network of family and friends more common outside the United States. So when mentioning that the United States is a very collective society, you may assume this is a false statement. Unfortunately, when viewing the political results, our society is a collective society. Where proportionally elected officials in other nations are chosen by the individual tally of votes, our representatives are chosen by the collective tally of votes. In other nations, they cut up the pie according to the total outcome of individual votes, we collectively give a single seat to the winner in a district. It is a brainwash that we are a nation of individuals. And nobody ever told you otherwise.

Do you think there is a lot more poverty in the United States than in other rich nations in the world? Have you been brainwashed to think that there may be only slightly more people living in poverty in the United States, but not a whole lot more than in other rich nations? You may have read about how in numbers poverty in the United States is somewhere between 11% and 18%, and you may have also read that poverty in other rich nations is somewhere between 8% and 12%. These are slightly different but comparable figures, wouldn't you say? The United States, however, uses a standard for poverty that is not in use in other nations. Where the international standard for poverty is 50% of the median income (which is half the amount of what the person exactly in the middle earns), the United States instead has its own measure for poverty. That standard was created in the 1960's, and is based on a multiplication of the food needs. A lot has changed since then, for instance, the share that people pay for food out of their earnings has decreased over time. In the 60's people paid about a third of their earnings for food, while in the new millennium food is about a fifth of their earnings — rent has taken up a bigger space, while food has started to take up less. The United States' poverty standard is still based, however, on the same multiplication of food, not on rent or mortgage. Over the years our definition of poverty has been deflated; fewer people are being counted as living in poverty now than in 1960.

In real figures, comparing poverty in our nation to the international standard, the American threshold for poverty would not be 50% of the median income but only 39% of the median income, which means that a lot more people would be counted as living in poverty if the United States would follow the international standard for poverty — because you would already be counted when your income is slightly less than 50% of the median income. It is harder to be counted as living in poverty in the United States than elsewhere.

If you were to read the newspapers only it would be difficult to get a good picture about poverty in the United States or how it is more severe when compared to other rich nations. Still that is not all the bad news. The nations of the European Union have also created their own standard for poverty — but then in the other direction. Poverty is set at a higher — 60% — of the median income in these European countries, so it is far easier to be counted as living in poverty in those nations. That means that the 10% of people living in poverty in Belgium or Germany are differently categorized people than the 15% of people living in poverty in the United States. Most newspapers will compare these apples and oranges without informing you about the different kinds of fruit. If these European nations were to use the American standard for poverty there would not be any significant poverty at all in their nations. If the United States were to use the European standard for poverty it would move the number of people living in poverty up to the incredible level of around 35%.

Now, is there some brainwashing in these words as well? Yes, there is, because these figures do also not tell the whole story. Depending on the spread of wealth in a nation the threshold will change. The top incomes in the United States are much further removed from the bottom than the top incomes in the nations of the European Union. So the standard of poverty is not just the whole story, income distribution is part of it as well. Yet the question still needs to be posed if the person in the exact middle in society (used as the national standard with 50% of the people earning more, and 50% of the people earning less than this person) is pushed up or down in real dollars and cents by a layer of truly very rich people compared to a society where there are many rich people but no ultra-rich people?

The word 'poverty' may be a word that does not affect you, since it is only a specific group of people that falls within the category. What about the word freedom? Are we the land of the free, or what? Americans can be and do whatever they want, right? No other nation gives so much for freedom. Or have we been brainwashed?

We have all learned that the United States is the land of the free. We are always fighting the good wars, and we give back the liberated lands to the indigenous people in a way that they can then have more freedom too. Well, you can look that up; it turns out to not be a brainwash, it is true. Except for the less clear cut examples of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, the United States has clearly given back all the lands it previously occupied or liberated. Yet what does come across as a brainwash is that our own freedoms are not being discussed in detail. Democracy is supposed to be based on representation. If we can go to the voting booth, but have only one winner coming out to represent us all then that is not a lot of political freedom. Many of us have voted their entire lives and never gotten the representative they voted for — ever. Unfortunately this is not a brainwash, it is the truth. Electing a winner means that losers are accepted as well. While at least half of the people are ensured a representative, the other part — which may be a small group or a large group close to half of the voters — did not receive a representative. How is that for political freedom? As soon as the race is done the people who voted for the losers do not have a representative that represents their needs. Democratic freedom is limited in the United States. But we never read about that in the newspaper.

Who is in charge of the words? For Mount Lassen National Park the answer is simple: it is the Park Service who made the decision to dissuade people to use the steep trail by using the word 'scar' and thus influencing them into using the trail the Park Service created. Poverty is a word often used without it really being explained what poverty really is. We can wonder out loud why no good information is given to the public in general about the standards that are hidden behind the word poverty. Without that information we are manipulated to think it is what it is — and therefore comparable to the poverty level of other nations. If you were to read in the newspaper — year in, year out — that the level of poverty in the United States hovered around 35%, you would be influenced to think differently about this nation. Although the 35% of that definition may only be a different way of presenting the exact same situation in which we say that poverty is 15%, a lot more unrest would exist when knowing poverty is 35%. Also, more emphasis would be placed on creating better policies to combat poverty, which of course would siphon money away from other goals. Our response changes with the used words or the specific knowledge words seem to indicate. 'Do not take freedom into your own hands and use only the trail the Park Service provided' may entice visitors to respond with a quick 'Mind your own business,' while we may start to think of the United States as an unfair nation if we use the international standard for poverty. We may agree that some push and shove here and there is good, but when it affects our own freedom, should we just sit back and let that happen? Because... Do you have enough political freedom so you can be proud to be an American?

Political freedom is not discussed in the newspapers or television stations because it is seemingly not in anybody's interest. Is it fine the way it is, and do you feel represented? And when things are not fine, are there sufficient ways to express ourselves? If you voted ten times and never got your pick, do you consider that democratic, and would you really go to the voting booth again? Compared to other democracies, the district system does not give us much choice! The dictionary describes the word democracy as a government in which supreme power is vested in the people, and exercised by them or their elected representatives. It also mentions that democracy means political or social equality. Is that still true in the United States?




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Mean, Median, and Average