Restoring Justice: A new way to problem solve

Think back to the last disagreement, argument, or fight you were involved in? Can you remember what you were arguing about—the stance your opposition took? Or what you said or did during the heated encounter? Most importantly, what was the outcome? Was it resolved?

Most people shy away from confrontation; it’s uncomfortable, awkward, and time-consuming. We engage in other coping mechanisms to handle strong emotion and discomfort, such as: punishing, rationalizing, repressing, turning a blind eye, or even gossiping until it feels better. I’d challenge that we’ve all engaged in one of these at some point in time. Sure it makes the anger and pain dissipate quick, yet the real problem, never goes away. Consequently, we live in a society that’s hurting; that struggles with health, fairness, inclusivity, honesty, and resolution making.

Truth is, we have all been harmed, and we have all done harm. We must all seek a better way to coexist. A better way to move forward from problems with clarity, understanding, and respect.

And so I wonder, what could a restorative justice approach do to repair our relationships, workplaces, schools, and communities?

Take my high school students for example. Teachers are constantly patrolling usage of phones and tablets during class. The intention is seemingly straightforward; to ensure students are actively paying attention to class and learning from the lessons without distraction. Yet, almost daily a student has their phone and tablet taken away by a teacher for surfing the web during class. The process transpires like clockwork; a teacher becomes aware of the distraction and takes away the devices, the student is angry and defensive temporarily, class resumes, devices are returned at the end of the day to the student, and detention is assigned. This routine happens daily—and not surprisingly cyclically, as repeat offenders continue to insult.

Gut Check Moment: What are we teaching our students in reinforcing this cycle of offending and punishing?

Restorative Justice stems from a belief that the path to justice lies in problem solving and reparation, rather than punishment and isolation. It requires two parties (victim-offender) to come together, face-to-face, with an opportunity to talk about the wrongdoing that occurred, express feelings and concerns, get answers to questions, and negotiate a resolution that’s agreed upon by both parties.

Extending the scenario above, the objective “black and white” way of punishing phone use would be transformed into a more subjective, restorative approach, focusing on the humanity of every party involved (i.e. student and teacher). The teacher and student would come together after class to talk about what happened, allowing each party to voice feelings and interpretations, answer questions and ambiguity, and arrive at a resolution to handling this sort of problem going forward. This creates a sense of teamwork; holding each other accountable in a supportive, relationship building, growth fostering way.

While seemingly simple, the question becomes, why not. Why don’t we handle arguments and harm this way? Is it resources, time, desire, ability? Or is it more gravely, societal values; an instinctual desire to punish, to display “power over.”

Upon personal reflection, I came to realize that I am too, at fault. I have allowed friendships to slip away after not properly restoring harm, hurt, or disagreement. My mind jumps to human ego as explanation. For instance, a teacher feels disrespected that a student is surfing the web, so taking away the devices exercises a power that alleviates that discomfort and restores ego. Or, more personally, feeling disrespected or misunderstood by a friend hurts my ego and sense of worth, and disconnecting or rationalizing that “we were never that compatible anyway” makes my ego feel better.

This is a very individualized, self-focused way of experiencing and handling conflict. One is attending solely to their own feelings, experiences, interpretations, and ignoring the subjectivity of conflict; everyone experiences it differently. A one-size -fits-all punishment does not account for the subtle nuances, the gray areas, the learning barriers— it causes us to lose sight of the human factor of conflict; we forget to respect the human behind the problem or harm. This leads to workplaces, schools, and communities that don’t actually solve problems, yet solely mask them- just to keep reappearing, harming, hurting.

So, its time we change approach. A change in mindset and practice is a way forward. First, it’s important to make resolutions active; involve all parties actively in addressing a wrongdoing, allowing time and space for each to speak , clarify questions, and work together toward solution. Accept ambiguity; usually conflict is the result of multiple actors, and taking time in private to accept as much responsibility as you can, helps expand perspective and clarity. Separate the deed from the doer; a person is not their actions, so don’t limit their ability to what they have done. Try to recognize the offenders’ worth and disapprove only of their wrongdoing. Use situations of conflict as a learning and teaching opportunities; turning negative incidents into constructive actions, that help to build empathy and community, reducing the likelihood of harm in the future.  

We have all been harmed, and we have all done harm. We must all seek a better way to coexist.

What’s your way?