of Aotearoa New Zealand
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.