Perception is a wonderful thing! If necessity is the mother of invention, perception is the mother of imagination. 

And out of the mouths of babes come some wonderous insights into how we perceive the world.

For instance, my six-year-old niece, who is learning about religion and basic arithmetic, was recently asked what she knew about Jesus, to which she replied: “yes, I know about him, he’s the guy who carried the big plus sign through Jerusalem”.

Things got a little discombobulated somewhere along that pathway between the incorporeality of religion and the corporality of mathematics. The fascination, of course, is how we might perceive something as either-or or a combination of both.

To clarify our understanding of “perception”, scholar Ann Cooper Albright explained it this way:

“Perception is the place where vision and sensation merge to produce embodied meaning … the crossroads where individuals meet or miss one another—either connecting in good faith with a shared experience, or stumbling through missteps that can result in a defensive posture or a sense of distrust”.

It is through this “dynamic system of interaction” that “perception meets up with politics”. 

A budget for all seasons except climate change

The federal budget is where the Australian people, as a whole, meet up with the politics of perception. 

This year’s federal budget was one of those “either-or” types. Irrespective of any Pentecostal persuasions, it was either chock full of kindness or fastidiously fabricated to win the next federal election.

I mean, was there an inkling of “kindness” amidst the cold reality of the economics? You know, kindness for each other and kindness for our planet! 

Kindness for our planet, well, climate change economic analyst Nicki Hutley gave the budget an “F” for its inane effort to address climate change. That’s a capital “F” for fail! 

The recent push for a $600 million public-funded gas-fired power station at Kurri Kurri in NSW confirms the government’s duplicity around climate change. And the fact that it would only operate for two per cent of the year is a gross misuse of taxpayer funds. It’s like building a church for one Sunday in the year. 

Overall, the general consensus among sceptics like myself and the paparazzi of political analysts and commentators was that the budget was simply a means to an end—to win the next federal election.

All that said, the funds allocated to the “care economy”—aged care, early childcare education, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and women’s health and safety—were more than welcome. 

Labour might have even felt a little jealous of the Coalition’s generosity in areas they usually own.

The budgetary boffins were on the money

But call it a COVID budget or economic recovery budget, or a revelation for a Coalition government; this budget was motivated by the growing social awareness prompted by the pandemic.

The federal government’s budgetary boffins naturally detected this sentiment when allocating funds. 

From this perspective, although it might appear a little devious and anti-ideological, it is also an exercise in majoritarianism—the will of the majority—the “general will” (volonté générale) as the Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it.

And we cannot underestimate the saviour that was Jobkeeper. Even if it did surreptitiously shift a large wad of funds from the public purse to the profits of the private sector, as did the quantitative easing (QE) that followed (and continued to follow) the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-08. 

That old inequality gap is expanding exponentially!

Either way, despite being justified by the COVID crisis, many would view the 2021 Federal Budget as a contradiction for a Coalition government—a carefully orchestrated “politrick” designed to distract and delude. 

Mindful that a post-election budget, should the Coalition win the next federal election, is usually aimed at clawing back the funds promised in the pre-election budget.

You couldn’t call it a “kindness” budget, could you?

Let’s face it, any devout neoliberalist worth his or her salt would view this budget a sacrilege. And to perceive it as a seminal shift to a “kindness budget” is probably delusional. 

From this perspective, you might think of the budget this way: heavily primed to create the mass delusion that the Coalition genuinely cares about aged care, childcare, gender equality, and women’s safety. 

Which they may well do, but in a very political sort of way.

As the American philosopher Paul Weiss pointed out: “To reach a state of complete confidence one need do little more than protect a belief from the threat of criticism by eliciting the support of tradition or of gross observation”. And politics, like religion, is certainly a benefactor of gross observation.

Thus, a proposition is true because the majority, or a large number of people, perceive it to be true. And we assume that constitutes the foundation of a democracy, as long, of course, the majority isn’t delusional.

The Lord works in mysterious ways

Likewise, the weather has always changed … this summer is “more or less” the same as last summer and the summer before that. Proving that perception is far from an exact science. We know that things are unequivocally warming up.

Similarly, if climate change is perceived as reality and perhaps an end to life as we know it, is it possible to perceive God as the imperfect creator?

The Morrison government might not accept this but at the same time appreciate the political rhetoric in the sophist tradition.

Then again, a politico-religious response might read something like this: if climate change is a divine intervention brought about to curb overpopulation that threatens human existence, then God is our saviour. 

Proving that the Lord works in mysterious ways. 

Survival of the friendliest

Recent theories have pointed to humankind’s affable nature as the source of its success.

Authors of the 2020 book Survival of the Friendliest, Brian Hare, a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, and Vanessa Woods, a research assistant and award-winning journalist, argue that it was humankind’s unique ability to coordinate and communicate with others that brought about the cultural and technical marvels that now define modern society. 

In short: our capacity for kindness (or friendliness).

Without question, humans are exceptional co-operators and collaborators. Ready and willing to lend a helping hand when others are in need. Instinctively, we unite in times of adversity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown this to be true. Indeed, our love for frontline workers—from healthcare to the gig economy—has grown immensely through COVID. 

Today, you might even view these low-paid and oft-neglected members of society as “the key contributors” to the welfare and resilience of our economy, especially in times of immense stress. 

Yet their “true” value is yet to be recognised in that “dynamic system of interaction” where perception meets up with politics, as Albright put it. 

Hey, if all paid and unpaid work was fairly compensated the care economy would likely collapse. Paradoxically, it’s also likely to collapse if it’s not compensated fairly. 

Is kindness contagious?

Hugh Mackay thinks so. In his latest and timely book, The Kindness Revolution (2021), he calls for a ground-up transformation from a compulsive consumerist society to a kind and compassionate one.

Mackay is a social psychologist, writer and researcher, but most of all, an optimist. Reflecting on the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, he writes: 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we demonstrated that we can be kind and compassionate on a large scale. Is it too much to hope that the lessons learned under the pressure of restrictions imposed on us might be applied more generally? Could we become renowned as a loving country, rather than simply a ‘lucky’ one?'”

Mackay goes on to rally for a much-needed revolution:

“Might a kindness revolution lead, for example, to a more humane response to people who come here legitimately seeking asylum, or a more determined effort to eradicate poverty and homelessness—to say nothing of more urgent action in the face of the looming effects of climate change. Might we finally stamp out racism, sexism, ageism?”

Mackay also resurrects some forgotten values: “waste not, want not” (as my mother repeatedly drilled into me) and the “strong sense of neighbourliness” that was once the glue that held communities together.

In essence, the COVID-19 lockdown was time we needed to take stock of our lives and reflect on the fragility of our economy and the altruistic nature of the people that collectively hold it together.

There was a call to arms, not for conflict but for kindness and compassion. And the people responded overwhelmingly. But most importantly, and the moral of the story, it shouldn’t take a crisis to bring out the best in people!

That big plus sign just turned positively negative

My six-year-old niece certainly has a novel perspective of the cross Jesus carried along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. Mindful that a cross is a plus sign by virtue of its shape, and vice versa.

But whether it is perceived as a plus sign or a cross, perhaps symbolising the weight of a capitalist regime and the “more, more, more mentality” that rests heavily on society’s shoulders, or a symbol of compassion and a sign that the kindness revolution is upon us, is, of course, subject to one’s perception.

However, what is clear from the perspective of debt and deficit is that the big plus sign has turned “positively negative”—which in this particular instance, is the ultimate oxymoron. 

And while we’re on the subject, how good is the plus sign? Governments can use a simple symbol to add a bunch of indiscriminate taxes together and make them into something significantly more substantial, recycle it, and sell it as a tax cut.

Perception is a wonderful thing!

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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