Justice is Meaning

Justice is contextual – it consists of the meaning that the people involved give to it. Justice is useful only insofar as it is meaningful to those involved. When it ceases to be meaningful it ceases to be useful. People will have differing perspectives on what is meaningful. When justice takes the form of, or encompasses conversation, it is more likely to be meaningful to more people.

But justice is not about accepting at face value the stated impulses of its participants. It is not about satisfying a victim’s unexamined hunger for vengeance anymore than it is about accepting an offender’s justifications, entitlement and minimizations of a his actions. Rather, justice is a process of working with each party to deepen their sense of what is meaningful in the situation.

This process of working together to explore and deepen the sense of the meaningful should have a name. Perhaps “excavation.” Removing the layers to find bedrock. Qualities like true accountability or repentance or forgiveness may be manifestations of the bedrock. But remember that justice is a process, not just an outcome. Justice is the journey toward, not necessarily the arrival to, bedrock.

There is certainly a material element to justice. But the notion that penalty can be meted out according to a spreadsheet seems to falsely rigidify that which is innately fluid.


About Aaron Lyons

Facilitator, trainer and mediator in restorative justice, peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
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1 Response to Justice is Meaning

  1. Nicole says:

    This is a great insight. As Nils Christie says, conflict is not property. Conflict should belong to and be solved by the stakeholders whom it involves. Restorative justice allows everyone affected by an offense to participate, giving meaning to justice. By engaging the community in the restorative justice process, they will have more of an investment in the results. With the criminal justice system, victims (let alone others affected by a crime) have little impact on the outcome and thus, the outcome is meaningless and useless. However, through engagement, people have the opportunity to make decisions that affect them personally.

    Excavation is an excellent way to describe the process of working together. I would like to propose the metaphor of an onion. I have heard two people who have engaged in prison rehabilitation programs refer to these life changing moments as peeling back the layers of the onion. Peeling back each layer reveals more information about someone: their experience, their beliefs and their values. This may describe the process of justice, rather than just the final destination.

    Justice and the outcomes of a process like restorative justice definitely need to be fluid. Everyone has a different background and brings a new story to the circle that has not been heard before. Therefore, a “one size fits all” method of justice (or punishment) is not going to work. What is “justice” will depend on the circumstances of the event and the beliefs and values that the stakeholders have.

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