Oops! My Paradigm Shifted
By Beverly Title, Ph.D
Probably like most of us in this society, I grew up believing that ‘Reward and Punishment’ was the social imperative. As a child, I accepted that my parents still loved me when they used the dreaded peach tree switch, and their punishments, which I gave them ample opportunity to perform, did, in fact, hurt them, too — though I recognized the irony that I would be “switched” for hitting my little sister.
As a young teacher and parent, I felt it was my responsibility to reward good behavior and punish the bad. Though I hated the latter, I was sure I was ultimately accountable to mete out this justice. After all, it was my job! Who would dare shirk such responsibility at the risk of being a bad teacher or even worse, a bad parent? That would be tantamount to failing the prime directive — to raise your children well.
Restorative justice is hard for some to embrace because it challenges the primacy of this old school paradigm. It asks us to set aside our belief in ‘Reward and Punishment’ and replace it with the concept of ‘Harm and Repair.’
Under the restorative construct, the people most directly involved in and affected by the incident along with their support persons share their stories of harm that was done and offer ideas for actions to repair that harm to the greatest extent possible. Community members are included in the process and, among other things, can serve the role of a bringing a more neutral perspective, offering opinions about issues of fairness and appropriateness of repair ideas, answering questions about how much is enough and what is too much. They help to maintain the restorative, as opposed to punitive, spirit of the process.
With this shift, I no longer have to play the role of judge and jury. It is not up to me to determine what behavior is to be rewarded and what is to be punished and what would serve to accomplish either of those. My ethics are not the measure of what is right and wrong. Even more importantly, it is not about what is right and wrong; it is only about how people and relationships have been harmed and what will set things right. It is not about being a good or bad person; it allows for harm, even inadvertent harm, to be made right so that relationships can be made whole.
Intrinsic to the ‘Reward and Punishment’ paradigm are two elements that are each problematic. By rewarding one person’s behavior we create the circumstances for a sense of superiority; by punishing another we may unwittingly plow fertile ground for shame. Criminal justice research points to a correlation between shame and criminality. Internalized shame can lead to further alienation and a reduced sense of self worth, thereby reducing the likelihood that reintegration to the community will occur.
By eliminating the threat of punishment, the Harm and Repair paradigm creates a safety that allows a person who has done harm to accept responsibility and engage in a search for appropriate repair. It is safe because things are not being done to the person who caused harm; rather the person is asked to engage in a mutual search for solutions. Under the old paradigm, those in authority are charged with the responsibility of holding wrongdoers accountable, and our criminal justice system is predicated on the right of the accused to declare innocence regardless of whether or not they committed the crime. The restorative paradigm actually rewards personal responsibility-taking with the opportunity to set things right. What message do we really want to send? Duck out of what you did for fear of punishment, or accept accountability and take direct action to make things right?
When we live in a time of rapid change, rules and standards shift swiftly. Who of my generation could have predicted the ability to post things worldwide on the Internet that can diminish a person’s self esteem to the point he commits suicide? In such times, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how to best respond.
Fortunately, the restorative paradigm resists the impulse to reward and punish and instead looks directly to the persons in the mire to determine the best path out of it. They do that while being surrounded by those who care about them, and, ideally, a well-trained facilitation team to guide the way and keep the process safe and productive. What a blessed difference that is! I’m so grateful that my paradigm shifted and left me with a better guidance system!