Forget Restorative Justice

“True justice emerges through conversation” – Howard Zehr

“So, what are your thoughts on the killing of Osama Bin Laden?,” a woman inquires almost casually at a spring dinner party. Admittedly, the US military operation in Pakistan occupies the minds of many at this time – but surely this is not the usual pre-dinner small-talk. Realizing I’ve probably invited the challenge by my mention of my work in restorative justice, I engage with her in the hopes that we might unearth some of the topic’s complexity.

Quickly the more fundamental questions rise to the surface: How do we make sense of injustice? What is the true meaning of accountability? How do we attempt to restore order in the face of irreparable harm? Can people change? What does healing require? What are our own needs within all of this? Caught in this rich quagmire, and with no easy answers, we are the last to sit down to dinner.

Our work in restorative justice demands a skill that both transcends and includes direct engagement with participants. Beyond facilitating dialogue in the aftermath of harm, restorative justice practitioners have the implicit role of facilitating a gradual, collective re-visioning of justice in society. As we look up from our immediate work to the larger conversations that form our social and political environment, we observe that to practice restorative justice is to engage with the retributive and adversarial frames of justice that constitute the status quo.

Whether we wish it or not, our work brings us into dialogue with the people who by their views uphold an apparently different conception of justice. The stance we take in engaging with the deep-seated impulse towards punishment is of vital importance. It will be paramount to the success of our attempts at re-visioning justice in accordance with restorative values.

We as restorative justice advocates are often lured by our own passion into a kind of philosophical zealousness. It goes something like this: we know a way that is more holistic, effective and morally satisfying to deal with crime and its impacts; thus in order to achieve a more truly just world, we must educate and convert the public and decision-makers on the merit of this approach. Sound vaguely familiar?

There is a dissonance in the notion of restorative justice approaching its aims through adversarial means.  Restorative justice is not about denying or silencing the voices of anyone, including its opposition. Its spirit is just the opposite. When we’re most clear-headed, we understand that our prerogative is to listen to dissent as though our survival depends on it – which indeed, as a movement, it might. We cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the sentiments underlying the impulse to punish. There is too much richness there, too much of importance.

This very conversation is the realm in which we humans negotiate our feelings of hurt and fear and grief, our rage, our needs for safety and dignity and felt accountability. We will never succeed as a partner in that negotiation if we cling to our positions and blindly impose our preferred outcomes.

The search for justice should be an act of deepening, not hardening. Let’s be clear – engaging openly with the punitive impulse does not mean accepting the thirst for vengeance at face value, or standing by mutely while destructive emotions chart the course of action. A restorative mindset suggests a spirit of both curiosity and companionship – of working together to excavate ever deeper through the layers of constructed meaning about justice. It is about inquiring deeply into an individual’s perceptions of justice, and then when their apparent conclusion has been presented, asking “what for” once more.

Our work invites us to seek the bedrock of a person’s sense of justice, trusting that beneath the strata of fear and pain, there are some clear gems of truth. We cannot predict what we will find there. It may appear messy, falling nowhere within our own neat conceptions of “restorative.” But maybe this unknown and even feral quality is part of the inherent richness of our work.

Being a catalyst for exploratory justice conversations does not require that we adopt a facade of neutrality with regard to our own sense of justice. Such conversations rightly hold all of us in dialogue with our own most deeply held values. But if our concern is with meaningful justice, then our primary task is that of holding space for others as they navigate their way through emotional, substantive and spiritual questions.

Our commitment to justice is expressed as an invitation to dialogue. More than advocating for a certain type of justice, we are invited to stand for a certain type of conversation about justice.


About Aaron Lyons

Facilitator, trainer and mediator in restorative justice, peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
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2 Responses to Forget Restorative Justice

  1. Vickie Shoap says:

    Dear Aaron,
    Hello brother! Hope this message finds you well.
    I am in thought about the idea of justice conversations and ‘holding a space for others’ as they navigate their way through substantive questions of justice. Adopting a facade of neutrality for ourselves in such conversations is a comfortable position because it feels like it clears the space for non judgmental dialogue. The challenge for me is reflecting and articulating my own deeply held values in a way that doesn’t darken the path toward meaningful conversation. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. Aaron Lyons says:

    Dear Vickie,

    What a treat to see your name and read your eloquent response here. I am still getting the hang of nurturing a blog – my apologies for the (very) delayed response. You put it very well: the challenge is that of articulating our own deeply held values “in a way that doesn’t darken the path toward meaningful conversation.”

    I read an interesting quote by Desmond Tutu recently: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

    True. But on the other hand, what is the most effective way to convince the elephant to step off, and stay off, the mouse’s tail? Do we lecture the elephant? Do we shame him? Do we punish him in the hopes of deterring him and all other elephants from that kind of behaviour? I think we in restorative justice have in common a sense that the vehicle towards lasting change is understanding. I’ve heard Brene Brown, a researcher out of Houston, argue that empathy and shame are in fact at opposite ends of a spectrum of human connectedess. (Check her out here Empathy requires a move towards vulnerability, and shame is a state of fear-based invulnerability (the fear of disconnection). The question becomes: how do we work with situations of injustice in a way that maximizes empathy rather than shame?

    And as you suggest, that way forward seems to be about meaningful dialogue, not lecturing or judgment. But here’s the difficulty as I see it. It’s one thing to agree, as I think those in RJ can, that judging a person’s character (shaming them) is counterproductive in terms of fostering their empathy for another. Yet ‘justice,’ I think, requires the forming of judgments about a person’s actions. And if we are to make judgments about a person’s actions, then under what circumstances do we as RJ practitioners articulate those judgments, and to whom? Or is it sufficient that the criminal justice system has usually already created a ‘judgment’ about a behaviour, thus establishing a moral frame for our work and letting us off the hook with regard to any moral or ‘justice’ assertions of our own?

    Drop me a line and let me know where you’re at these days Vickie! aharon (dot) lyons (at) gmail (dot) com.

    many blessings,

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