of Aotearoa New Zealand
All that I can hope to
make you understand
is only events: not
what has happened.
‘And people to whom
has ever happened
Cannot understand the
unimportance of events.’
TS Eliot The Family Reunion
This quotation is taken from one of TS Eliot’s plays where a family group gets together to try and sort out their past difficulties. One of the characters is so frustrated by the way the conversations proceed, that he blurts out the above lines. I understand this to mean the difference between what is on the surface and obvious, as against the less obvious things that take place in any interaction between people: the emotional fall-out, the vast gulfs in perception, the challenge of remembering things differently, the challenge to find the words to express what has so far been inexpressible. According to Wikipedia, the play charts the journey of the main character ‘from guilt to redemption’ even if there is some debate about how well the play achieves this.
So, what has this quotation from a play now 100 years old, got to do with Restorative Justice conferences? Believe it or not, there are some similarities: each genre has a script, even if the RJ one is not written down. The characters in each genre are all brought together through relationship – one of kinship, and (in the particular incident I wish to describe) one of accident. In each case the relationship is problematic, and has to be sorted out. Although the processes for ‘sorting things out’ vary quite a lot in a play from an RJ conference they do both have a ‘process.’ One utilizes exits and entrances, speech and action, and the actors deliver lines that are carefully crafted by the playwright. In the other, the lines are ad libbed and are shaped by the ongoing dialectical nature of the encounter, each speech shaping its reply. Both genres however may set up dramatic tension, even if one is by design, and the other by the interplay of unrehearsed utterances. Where that ‘dramatic tension’ is mutually resolved one has a satisfactory play and a satisfactory RJ conference. By happy coincidence Eliot’s play and my conference arrive at similar redemptive endings even if their paths to that point are divergent.
The significance however of this comparison between a 100 year old play and a very recent twenty first century RJ conference is that the question tormenting the play’s main character (‘But how can I explain’?) is exactly the same question we need to ask about the process of any RJ conference – what is it that is going on in this conference that creates a redemptive ending?
The motivation for this essay was facilitating a conference where the parties had been involved in a road accident. I shall describe the conference as ‘an event’, that is, something that did happen (people meeting and talking together for a brief period of time) something with a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet the conference was more than just the words spoken; ‘something happened’ that was more than just the words spoken. What was that ‘something’ that ‘happened?’ One answer might be that ‘a resolution’ was what happened. It seems however, that every answer merely implies another question: ‘How did the meeting arrive at that resolution (and not some other one)?’ What follows is an attempt to answer that question, firstly by detailing ‘the events’, and then by running our ‘night- vision binoculars’ over the script so that we might begin to see those things which were not immediately visible, the ‘things that happened’, in Eliot’s cryptic phrase. I shall subject the conference to some degree of verbal analysis in an attempt to explain what is distinctive about the RJ process – how does it actually ‘work?’ I do so in the earnest hope that my readers are luckier than Eliot’s protagonist who felt that his hearers would ‘understand less after [he] had explained it.’
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