Genuine Conversation within the Restorative Justice Conference
University of Colorado at Boulder
A general dissatisfaction with the western criminal justice system has contributed to a shift in our society. A shift that has begun to establish an alternative form of justice called Restorative Justice (RJ). Within its practice RJ aims to restore the "deliberative control of justice by citizens" (Braithwaite 1997, p. 57). In the form of a conference, RJ promotes deliberative participation, communication and dialogue between the parties (victims, offenders and communities) affected by a crime. Through this frame the RJ conference will be analyzed by applying Stanley Deetz’s theory of genuine conversation. A brief explanation of genuine conversation, its key concepts and main points will be followed by an application of the theory to the RJ conference. I will then critique the theory in light of trying to apply it.
In developing a New Ethic of communication, Deetz (1990) combines ideas from the following traditions: Cybernetic, Phenomenological, and Critical (Class notes 10/25/07). Within the Phenomenological tradition Deetz (1990) draws upon the work of Gadamer to establish genuine conversation as "a special interaction between two persons and the subject matter before them" (p. 231). By adapting and elaborating Gadamer’s (2004) principles of the genuine conversation, Deetz (1990) establishes the New Ethic of interpersonal communication. The New Ethic stands as an alternative to the current ethics of communication. Current ethics which are "based in western enlightenment tradition…assume a liner-transmission model of communication" and fail to consider how meaning is produced within interaction (Class notes 10/25/07). The New Ethic alternative implies a "productive rather than reproductive conception of communication [which] shows the fundamental process by which mutual understanding arises in regard to the subject matter" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). In other words, the focus should be upon the productivity of the interaction, "the conversation should be guided by the subject matter" (Class notes 10/25/07) and importantly, the conversation must be kept open (Class notes 10/25/07).
Deetz (1990) presents the following conversational blockages that work to stop genuine conversation. He then goes on to offer three ways to prevent these stoppages. "Freezing the Participants" is accomplished through the use of labels and stereotypes (Deetz, 1990, p. 234). In this case, Deetz advises the "recognition of ‘thouness’" as presented by Buber. "Thouness suggests that any possible label or conception of both self and other is capable of being questioned…exceeding every attempt at conceptualization as an object" (Deetz, 1990, p. 234). "Blocked Discourse" results in the maintenance of a "particular view or reality…at the expense of equally plausible ones, usually to someone’s advantage" (Deetz, 1990, p. 235). The following functions result in "Blocked Discourse"; Disqualification, Naturalization, Neutralization, Topical Avoidance, Subjectification of Experience, and Meaning Denial (Deetz, 1990). Deetz concludes by suggesting the following elements as being capable of removing or prohibiting these blockages; Metacommunication, Rhetoric, and Strategy (Deetz, 1990).
Now that I have presented a brief summary of Deetz’s New Ethic concerning the genuine conversation, I’d like to apply the theory to the Restorative Justice (RJ) conference. RJ has become commonly known as a theory of justice that focuses on crime as an act against the victim and community rather than the state. The RJ conference can be interpreted as a group decision making process in which the victim, offender, family members and community converge together to see the group as a whole by genuinely "considering the weight of the other’s opinion," (Gadamer, 2004, p. 361) experience and interest with the aim of achieving restoration. The victim(s) plays a major role in the process, as do family and community members, and the offender(s). By coming together in a conference the participants search for answers and solutions that promote repair, acknowledgement, reconciliation and the reestablishment of relationships. Deetz (1990) writes that the New Ethic "does not eliminate personal responsibility but forces it on the development and maintenance of relational systems rather than individual actions or attitudes" (p. 228). The similarity here is striking.
The conference is an open forum for participants to communicate with one another in a free flowing, unscripted interaction. The smooth running of the conference depends on having the necessary parties present and the proper mediation by a facilitator to "keep the conversation open" (Class notes 10/25/2007). As Van Ness and Strong (2006) put it; "It is important to not lose sight of the fact that reconciliation – how ever incipient – is a possible result of the process of dialogue" (pg. 64). The bottom line is that RJ cannot exist without communication. The conference aims to bring involved parities together to jointly attain a level of understanding and restoration after an offense. In this way, genuine conversation is an indispensable element of the RJ conference, "the fusion of horizons that takes place in understanding is actually the achievement of [communication]" (Gadamer, 2004, p. 370). Unlike the criminal justice system RJ allows for the voice of the victim to be heard and their experience acknowledged. RJ is similar to the genuine conversation in that it "demands from us thoughts and feelings and the formation of concepts and evaluative criteria which do not precede its presence; it questions the adequacy of what we think and say" (Deetz, 1990, pg. 231). The fear of meeting their offender face to face and participating in conversation together can be an intimidating venture. By engaging in a face to face contact with the individual(s) who caused the pain and suffering, the victim(s) realize the human characteristics they share. For the first time the victim and offender engage in the process a "mutual formation of understanding" (Deetz, 1990, p. 230) about the crime. This encourages a humanizing of the offender; the victims begin to see them as an individual, rather than a representative of the offense. In listening to the narratives and storytelling the participants obtain a sense of otherness. More than sharing one's experience or point of view, it is the "art of seeing things in the unity of an aspect, i.e. it is the art of the formation of concepts as the working out of common meaning" (Gadamer, 1975, p. 331). This realization can be powerful in promoting the naming of the monster as something deeply tied to the offender (i.e. alcoholism) rather than innate to the offender themselves. The offense can now be contained within itself, separate from the offender and the victim as an act that has passed. By understanding the true impact an offense had on the victim(s) and community, the offender can now acknowledge what they have done, take responsibility and be sincerely apologetic. The foundation for reconciliation and the reestablishment of relationships has been set.
After describing Restorative Justice and applying Deetz’s New Ethic and genuine conversation, it became obvious that many similarities can be drawn between the two, so many in fact that it would be impractical to try an do so within this paper. RJ is to the Justice system what genuine conversation is to interpersonal relationships. I believe that in being progressive movements they share many common goals and premises that are compatible within one another. For example, the focus on all involved parties as equal participants within the interaction. To deny this equality would result in a blockage of genuine conversation through Disqualification (Deetz, 1990). The participants come into the conference with their own individual identities, interests, values and beliefs. Through genuine conversation these become altered and reshaped by those of others present. A blatant example of this is observable in RJ conferences where victims and community members arrive with their individual opinions about how they feel restoration can be achieved. Through genuine conversation these opinions are influenced by other participants’ stories. The stories told serve as the subject matter that guide the participants to a shared understanding of restoration. In an attempt to apply genuine conversation to the RJ conference it became increasingly complex. To apply James Carey’s (1989) Ritual view of communication would offer a different analysis of the RJ conference. The Ritual view is premised on meaning being created and recreated in the reproduction of a shared experience (Carey, 1989). The focus is on the participant’s engagement in the conference as a shared experience. However it would fail to acknowledge the reconfiguration of relationships as a necessary aspect of restoration. I acknowledge that this critique is superficial, but how can such promising advancements in interpersonal communication be undermined without being allowed the time to fairly establish themselves? I see elements of the genuine conversation incorporated within RJ currently. To further establish genuine conversation as a premise of the RJ conference as a requirement of restoration serves to more clearly define the RJ process itself.
In conclusion, the ties between genuine conversation and the RJ conference are easily identifiable and supportive of each other. Deetz’s (1990) New Ethic for interpersonal interactions proposes an alternative that RJ can benefit from. A current criticism of RJ is that its practice varies greatly as does the procedural premises set forth by different programs (i.e. CU Boulders RJ program compared to the Longmont RJ program). By incorporating the implications of the New Ethic in to the RJ conference a more defined and structured field of alternative justice can be developed. In doing so, Restorative Justice may soon become an integrated part of our current Criminal Justice system.
Carey, J.W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In Communication as culture: Essays on media and society (pp.13-23). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Braithwaite, J. (1997). Restorative justice and a better future. The Dalhousie Review, 76, 9-31.
Deetz, Stanley. (1983). Keeping the conversation going: The principle of dialectic ethics. Communication. 7, 263-288.
Gadamer, H.G. (2004). Truth and Method. (2nd rev. ed. trans.) (J. Weinsheimer & D.G.Marshall, Eds. and Trans.). New York: Continuum.
Van Ness, D.W. & Strong K.H. (Eds.). (2006). Restoring Justice: An Introduction to Restorative Justice (3rd ed.). Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing.
**Much of my personal knowledge on Restorative Justice was acquired this semester within the course COMM 4600 – Senior Seminar, Tribal Justice in the Corporate World. To the credit of the instructor, Mr. William Bledsoe.