of Aotearoa New Zealand
Prof Chris Marshall, the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington
I recently read an article in which the author tries to identify the traits of people he regarded as “moral heroes”, those who dedicate their lives to fighting for just causes. In reading his analysis, I couldn’t help but think of the people we all know and work with in the restorative justice movement.
Moral heroes, the author suggests, embark on a life of service because, at some point in their lives, somebody planted an ideal of what a good life looks like, often by setting a high personal example. Captured by this picture, the person’s own moral identity becomes fused with the moral ideal. They put this ideal into action in their daily lives, not for utilitarian reasons, but simply because “this is who I am, this is what I do”. Such people are also marked by a life-long commitment to learning, by a capacity to carry on in face of opposition, and by a strong network of support. But perhaps most relevant to our work as restorative justice practitioners is the trait of hope.
“People who lead these lives tend to possess an insane level of optimism, a certainty that history does change for the better and that achieving justice is only a matter of time. They remain undaunted even in the face of severe hardship and assume every wrong is temporary…Their efforts are generally built around healing some rupture in society, reconciling differences, bringing the unlike together, a move from fragmentation to wholeness. However contentious the world may look, they have a mind-set that at our deepest level we are all connected in a single fabric. Some of these moral heroes even seem to sense that no matter how diverse their fields of work are, they’re all somehow part of the same big struggle.”
That, to me, is the essence of what it means to embrace the restorative vision. What do you think?
Restorative Justice Facilitator
Shakespeare has a lot to answer for. When he wrote ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ he was unknowingly setting in place a particular view of the world which is now deeply almost immovably entrenched. It is the view that understands that there are ‘things in the world’, and that there are also ‘words for those things in the world.’
There are thus, two different entities: things, and words. The thing is the primary existence while the word for that thing is simply an accident of naming. The ‘rose’ could have been named anything, a ‘tissywhatsit’ for example, and it would still give off the same bouquet. Words are just the names of things, it is the ‘thing’ that has the primary importance.
If you are wondering where this is going, then here is the punchline: if the rose was named a tissywhatsit, it would not be a rose. It would be a tissywhatsit. ‘Roses’ would not exist, only tissywhatsits would exist. So ‘the word’ does not actually describe something, it actually brings it into existence. The thing is no thing, until it has a name.
In Restorative Justice cases brought before us from the criminal court, there are two main players, an ‘offender’ and a ‘victim.’ This is the language of the legal system and inescapably RJ facilitators are dragged into it. The first thing we get when any case begins, is a series of sheets of A4 paper labelled ‘Referral Information.’ There is a lot of information about ‘the offender’ and much less information about ‘the victim.’ (Just to confuse beginning players, the offender is also frequently referred to as ‘the defendant.’) These labels become the players. Any other names for these people ( Ross, Miriam, dad, aunt, grandparent, ollybubby boo) do not exist for the purposes of the court process. The person is either a victim or an offender.
In this way, the legal process establishes its own reality. All other forms of social reality are deemed invisible and irrelevant. People, with all their complexity and multiple social roles, are stripped of their previous identities, by being given new names. What is in a name then? Everything. A new identity. And with the use of ‘offender’, a pejorative identity. When the case involves Intimate Partner Violence (to use the official terminology), the term ‘offender’ has a heavily pejorative connotative identity.
This (I intend to argue) is a major problem for RJ facilitators. In a sense, it is a double problem because very few facilitators display any awareness that it is a problem. The words we use are critically important. If we uncritically accept the official terminology then we have been sucked into the legal vortex without knowing it, and our usefulness as facilitators has been seriously compromised. The only way to guard against this is to use our own words (following Zehr) – ‘harmer’ and ‘harmed.’ This changes everything. ‘Offending’ is established by showing that a law has been broken. ‘Harming’ and ‘harm’ concern themselves with something entirely different: the fact that two people (and most often far more than two people) have been brought into a relationship of harm. It is this relationship that must be addressed with a view to healing the relationship, rather than the standard judicial response of punishing the offender in some way.
I hope I have established that words are critically important in the practice of Restorative Justice Conferencing.
Margaret Thorsborne, is the Managing Director of Margaret Thorsborne & Associates & Thorsborne and Associates UK.
This blog is written in appreciation for and dedication to the vision and commitment of Theo Gavrielides and Vasso Artinopoulou, and their hardworking team at RJ4all (especially Iro and Alexandra) to make this event happen.
I'm still feeling enriched by my experience and attendance at this event in June. This blog will not be an in-depth analysis of each presentation of those who attended, but rather the narrative of my experience at it, and some conclusions about the process we shared and how it might contribute in some way to the development of robust dialogue around the work we do as advocates, practitioners, researchers and authors of restorative justice, in all its forms.
My first response when an email invitation arrived from Theo Gavrielides and Vasso Artinopoulou (Directors and co-founders of RJ4all) was to check my diary to see whether or not it was a possibility. I had known of these previous symposia held every two years, having been a member of RJ4all for some time. It looked interesting, and people I knew from various parts of the world had attended previous symposia. My diary said “no way” so I went to bed that evening feeling a bit sad, and woke thinking that I really wanted to go. A few emails later having shifted some training dates in NZ around, I said yes. Good decision.
In watching the list of delegates grow over the next few months, I had (as usual) a small crisis of confidence…….wow, look at the folk who will be there. Look at their titles, experience, qualifications etc – what about what I’m proposing to talk about (restorative leadership) – will it cut the mustard? Thankfully, my session was programmed for the first day, so I could relax into everyone else’s. In any event, it seemed to go down well.
The press release about the symposium can be found here and the list of delegates can be found here, along with their abstracts.
The symposium week (June17 – 24):
The delegates and other guests (including our own families) attended the opening, fittingly in the ground of Plato’s Academy in Athens. I was never more aware of my own lack of education around ancient history in general, and the Greek philosophers in particular (especially Plato, Socrates and Aristotle) and their gifts to our knowledge and thinking about democracy so many centuries later. Dinner that evening was atop a restaurant overlooking the Acropolis. I also became more aware as the days wore on, just how many words in English are derived from the Greek language.
This image of Plato (on the left) and Aristotle (on the right) is from the famous painting The School of Athens by Raphael currently housed in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican……. I also found, when I went looking, this article about Socrates and his view of wrongdoing.
We all met the next day to travel by bus and ferry to the island of Skopelos, north east from Athens and part of the Sporades group of islands. This is not the usual destination of international tourists and as it was the week before the summer break for Greek schools, we weren’t overwhelmed by huge crowds. The sight that greeted us was beautiful when we arrived that evening. It boded well!
Sunday found us on a bus together doing the Mama Mia tour around the island. A day of sort-of rest before we began in earnest – and it helped us get our bearings in a geographical sense.
We had made sure we watched the Meryl Streep-Pierce Brosnan movie the weekend before we left :) , and were delighted to visit various locations where scenes from the movie were filmed (although the 220 steps up to the chapel here nearly did me in!). While we suffered a bit in the searing heat, it became clear that we were in for a visual treat over the next week, as Skopelos was breathtakingly beautiful. Skopelos is Greece’s greenest island, covered in conifers and olive trees with enchanting bays and little ports where ferries and private yachts pull in and moor.
We (the 18 of us from 8 countries – what a perfect size group) met each day in a different location around the island (monasteries, cafes, hotels, beaches, private gardens in homes of locals known to Vasso and Theo (thanks for that incredible generosity). We sat in circle and listened to/participated in each presentation (2-3 per morning) and this was followed up by debate and dialogue. A different process for most of us used to presenting in workshops and at conferences – no powerpoints or whiteboards!!
Theo had hoped for “fire” in our debates – we finally got some towards the end of our week, as the “storming” in group development kicked in. What was noticeable for those of us who facilitate in the restorative space was just how much we take for granted the skills around respectful democratic dialogue, taking turns, sharing the airspace, being mindful of our own behaviours and the impact of those on others in our group. We met again late afternoon each day to process the presentations and further our discussions.
One thing I really appreciated was the contribution of delegates who work in very different fields and cultures from mine, and in particular those who were not even aware of how their work was actually deeply restorative. You only need to read their abstracts to know what I mean. And because I speak only an Aussie form of English, I was in awe of those who could deliver (and write about) their session in English when it was not their first language.
It was not all work and no play, thankfully. Dining out was terrific (Greek food in Greece is pretty more-ish); swimming almost daily between sessions in the cold clear waters of the Aegean Sea was sheer heaven in the heat of summer, and the scenery was to die for. Just hanging out with new mates was a treat. I also discovered the Greek version of the frappé to keep me going mid morning.
In summing up the experience:
For future delegates:
Restorative Justice Facilitator
“I just want answers.”
This is what a young woman told me at a recent preconference. We were sitting around her kitchen table and she was telling us about the man that had smashed her car window while she was stopped at a red light late one Friday night. It had all happened in a flash and although she heard the sound of glass shattering, she didn’t realise it was her car until the lights had changed and she was on the other side of the intersection.
She wanted to meet the guy who did it. She wanted to ask him for the money to cover the repairs, but more than that, she wanted to understand why he had done it. She wasn’t scared and she wasn’t really angry anymore, but she couldn’t let it go because she had no idea why it had happened. There are many reasons that victims want to meet the person that has harmed them in some way, but this desire to understand the ‘why’ is nearly always present.
This is where storytelling becomes integral to the restorative justice process. There really is no ‘why’ question that can be answered without first addressing the ‘what’ questions. Giving someone the chance to tell their version of what happened- in the days, weeks and even years leading up to the incident in question – is powerful. It’s empowering for offenders to tell their own story in their own way, and be seen as a person beyond this one event that has defined them to the victim. And it can be so healing for victims to hear that story. Importantly, it often answers those ‘why’ questions that victims have, without them even being asked.
Similarly, it’s difficult for offenders to really engage with the impact that their actions had without hearing the story of the victim. Hearing the minute details of what it was actually like to go through that allows the offender to mentally and emotionally put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Without that time spent on storytelling, talking about impacts can fall flat.
In this particular case, the young woman had told us that she wanted to know why this guy had smashed her window. She had already acknowledged that there was probably no reason he could give her that would satisfy her, but she wanted to ask him anyway. But when we got into the RJ conference and I listened to them talk to each other, I realised that it wasn’t really the ‘why’ that she was after. It was the ‘what’. The whole thing had happened so fast that she didn’t have a good mental picture of it. She had been replaying it over and over in her head since the night that it happened, but there were so many gaps in the story that she couldn’t move on.
So in the conference, we spent the bulk of our time on storytelling. We returned again and again to the story of that night until her understanding of what had happened was complete. She had been left with questions that only he could answer, so piecing together their memories of the night was crucial to helping her move forward. She wanted to know what he had used to smash the window, what colour his shirt had been, who had been driving the car, which way he drove off, why an armrest was left lying on the road afterwards. They were seemingly innocuous details, but with each answer I watched her relax a little more. By the end they were laughing together.
This is something I have grown to appreciate in my work as a facilitator: the power of storytelling as a collaboration. I’ve watched it help both the victim and the offender piece together a fuller story than they could ever have had on their own. And I’ve watched these small details build mutual empathy and bring great healing.
Restorative Justice Facilitator
RJ in New Zealand is firmly sited or positioned within the wider Criminal Justice System. Although the metaphor is not perfect, it could be argued that RJ is the modern day (biblical) Jonah, firmly ensconced in the belly of the whale. From that position, there seem to be three possibilities: the whale can vomit us back up, absorb and then excrete us, or in some magical as yet undetermined way we might have such an effect on the beast that it swims in a different direction.
The whale is much bigger than us, that is, much bigger than the RJ movement. Extending the metaphor it would seem almost inevitable that one of the three options is the most likely – being absorbed and then excreted without trace. What follows is an attempt to draw out this extended metaphor.
When a facilitator is given a new case, the file contains a police ‘summary of facts.’ It all looks very imposing, incontrovertible. Yet it will have been written by a policeperson under some stress, trying to make sense of several conflicting accounts that they have been given. It is best viewed then as a narrative construction by a third party; an attempt to summarise accurately a number of different stories, each story told by someone who has a vested interest in the outcome and who may be tired, confused, drugged, traumatized, just plain angry or frightened. The summary of facts is an attempt to impose order on a chaotic event, and a number of chaotic stories that have flowed from that event. In effect, it is just another story.
Some facilitators place great weight on the summary, and those in training are taught to read it out to the various parties as pretty much the first thing they do. Some facilitators will already be annoyed even severely dismayed by the way I have described the official summary so far, because I have cast considerable doubt on its usefulness and its accuracy.
The way the facilitator responds to this summary is a critical measure of our independence from the criminal justice system. Those facilitators who accept the summary at face value are unwittingly buying right into the wider system, accepting their role as state servants carrying out their allotted task. To return to the metaphor of the whale, this is the first stage of our transformation into whale food, and then excretion without trace.
The summary of facts describes what happens between ‘offender’ and ‘victim.’ The first thing any facilitator with an open mind learns is that these terms are arbitrary: sometimes it depends which person gets to phone the police first, and often the ‘offender’ is as much a victim as the ‘victim.’ Occasionally (in terms of natural justice), the designated labels are completely wrong with the ‘victim’ playing the system with a convincing story that the police buy into. (I have dealt with two sons charged with assaulting their fathers, when it was clearly the other way around, for instance.)
In our conferences, we deal with people to whom bad things have happened, people who have been hurt and harmed. And we deal with other people who have done the hurting and harming. It is the resolution of this hurt and harm that is our objective rather than buying into the completely arbitrary official lexicon of victim and offender. We need to give the whale indigestion. The criminal justice system is about punishment and retribution, we are about healing the harm. The problem is that because of where we are positioned (in the belly of the whale), we have to use the official terms. Can we survive this subtle pressure to conform and in conforming, to disappear?