Dominic Barter on Restorative Justice

I headed to RIT this evening and attempted to find Golisano Hall. I went to Carlson by mistake (and partly out of habit as that's one of the locations of the Caroline Werner Gannett Project lectures). I tried to get on the open WiFi to find a map, but the WiFi wasn't actually accessible — a metaphor for RIT's anti-community, pro-police-state, lets-all-live-in-a-bunker philosophy. I finally found a map and (as I suspected looking at the building behind it) I was standing in front of Golisano Hall: "you are here" on so many levels.

I was there to see Dominic Barter will present a lecture titled Toward Conflict: A Conversation about Restorative Justice. He began by talking about how there are no outsiders in a community. Often we think of conflict as being between two parties, but there is always that group affected by the conflict, and (by nature of being part of the community) complicit in it.

But "conflict", "community", and even "group" are pretty potent words that need some refining to understand what's meant.

Conflict is at its core, a disconnection of communication. The presumption is that all people think they are doing good with their actions, so everyone behaves in a way that is somehow beneficial. But an action does not benefit everyone. The conversation can stop there with each party assuming the other is mistaken, confused, stupid, evil, etc. Or one party can state its objectives, and the other (while hearing the words) may not be able to empathize with that position and be unable to understand.

Conflict remains as long as that disconnection of communication remains. And it demands to be addressed; it demands to be dispelled by reconnecting communication — all because the self of each person longs to be recognized, understood, and respected. This desire for communication is so strong that, if left unresolved, leads to animosity and eventually violence.

On community, let me back up for a minute. I'm often bothered by the word "is". It has this nebulous double-meaning as a way to describe a measurement ("the sky is blue"), and as a way to define an equivalence ("one plus one is two"). So I get flustered by "you are part of the community" because "community" can simply be a measurement of place, but it can also be a definition of behavior.

So rather than define community as a set of behaviors, Barter (if I remember correctly) sees it as the people and shared places — you, everyone you speak with, everyone you interact with, everyone you see.

He also doesn't like referring to "groups" involved with a conflict — as if there are literally two teams, each with common ideas that disagree with the other. Rather, it is simply individuals, each one with jeir own ideas, some of which are shared with others. Conflict resolution, then, involves every individual in the community — everyone who interacts with those "central" to a conflict are effected and necessarily involved.

Another way to look at conflict is an imbalance of power. So Barter's process — called Restorative Circles — is literally a circle of people which, by its nature, equalizes power. He tries to work from a perspective of being part of the community rather than as an outsider, and in that manner attempts to keep himself from being part of a power imbalance.

He says it always happens in three phases.

First, people reacquaint themselves with how to communicate. He has observed people not talking to the target of their statement — as in looking away, or at jeir own supporters. And people are inarticulate and flail about with words. He reminds himself to be confident in the ability of people to communicate, so he tries not to interfere, but when someone cannot fathom another's rationale, he asks jem if jee can explain a "good reason" for the misunderstood behavior, knowing that people think they act benevolently.

This phase always takes longer than he thinks it should and he starts to panic. But it inevitably does, and eventually people start communicating with one another.

Next, everyone starts to identify humanity in others. Each realize that everyone is human like jem — that there is benevolence behind everyone's actions. And they empathize with one another, and begin to see the source of the conflict.

Finally, they start creating possible actions. Barter says he's amazed to see the creativity of solutions that arise. And because the whole community is involved, the likelihood of those possible actions being implemented is dramatically improved.

I had to ask about anxiety and control. I like to be in control, and I at least feel most comfortable when the logical part of my mind can offer possible likely outcomes. But when it breaks down and is unable to formulate any likely outcomes, I feel anxious — that old "fexcitement" reaction that's the physiological fear/excitement response. And that's unpleasant and I try to avoid it. So to enter a situation like this — where I have no idea what solutions exist, what the conflict is, and even if it will work — is extremely difficult.

Barter said he experiences that as well and has learned to rely on a support network (either other people being present or readily available by phone). For him, support takes the form of people reminding him who he is. I presume he means to regain focus on his goals and methodology.

I thought it perhaps most fascinating that he described himself as an extremely impatient man. He knows how ineffective it is to rush the process, so to ensure it is successful and robust, he is willing to invest a lot of energy in making sure it is done right.

These Restorative Circles happen start small with just a few people each, then grow, and eventually can include as many as several hundred people at once. In all, it's an amazing process that we need to reacquaint ourselves with.

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