Psychology, Restorative Justice and Approaching Complex Situations

Psychology, Restorative Justice and Approaching Complex Situations

By Claire de Mezerville and Paulo Moratelli

(Versão em português deste artigo / Versión en español de este artículo

How are psychology and restorative practices related? Psychology is the study of the psyche, a Greek word traditionally associated with the concept of soul. We currently understand the psyche as all the processes related with the mind and its multiple dimensions: affects, behaviors, thoughts and personal relationships. Psychology is not only a theoretical field; it is a discipline oriented to actively accompany and alleviate human suffering, as well as devoted to promoting mental health for both individuals and groups. Psychology is psychotherapy, but not only psychotherapy: there is educational psychology, organizational psychology and community psychology.

The social movements for restorative justice and restorative practices, as well as their emergent theoretical developments and body of research, are nourished by many different disciplines and approaches, among them, psychology, philosophy, social work and, very importantly, indigenous traditions prior to the modern era. In the work with groups, the restorative circle is a most valuable tool to create an environment where people feel comfortable and are able to trust and participate. To build that safety in the shared space is a complex and difficult task, and the circle is an effective and quick strategy to, collaboratively, generate that feeling of togetherness. On the other side, approaches such as Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and restorative questions offer us accessible and clear guidelines in regard to conflict resolution that should become personal and professional development trainings for all citizens to build better societies. All of these strategies engage communities into critical and participatory actions to build a culture of peace. These tools will also serve people to improve their sense of self efficacy and empowerment to solve the constant issues that everyday life presents.

Now, what happens when we face situations of severe trauma, serious crimes or complex conflicts related with structural and/or historical violence? The most solid approaches towards the complexity of human suffering and transformational processes probably won’t just spontaneously arise from modern restorative justice: they root in philosophical, sociological and psychological proposals. We can discuss the important foundations from psychoanalyses, social psychology and humanist psychology. We know about the wonderful collaborative work between the psychologists Carl Rogers and Marshall Rosenberg, the NVC pioneer, who was also Rogers’ student. Approaches with communities and groups grew from analytic strategies, such as psychodrama from Jacob Levy Moreno, operational groups from Enrique Pichón Riviere, systemic-ecological approaches, like Urie Bronfenbrenner’s, Michael White’s narrative therapy, and social psychology, such as Seligman’s, Rappaport’s and Ignacio Martín-Baró’s, as well as Schizoid-analyses (a body of theory and practice to work with groups, that merges philosophy from Gilles Deleuze with psychoanalyses from Félix Guattari), among many others. Psychology as a discipline goes beyond storing bodies of theory and the historical trajectory of its many authors. It trains social scientists in specialized skills for listening and discernment; it prepares us to accompany and alleviate suffering so we can explore it in the light of the possibilities for healing, as well as on the active promotion of personal growth, based on the internal resources of the person being accompanied.

As part of our passion and commitment with restorative practices, we recognize the importance of honoring the leading voice of people and communities towards the management of their own lives and realities. We must not encourage an expertocrat culture, as the one denounced by Nils Christie in the nineteen seventies, and more recently by Wood and Susuki in their 2020 paper “Are Conflicts Property?”, when we consent that judges, lawyers, social scientists, mediators or even restorative practitioners “steal” conflicts by proclaiming that only specific practitioners or experts with an university degree can solve them. We also acknowledge, as expressed by both John Braithwaite and Kay Pranis, that there is no substitute for contextual wisdom, and that community insight must take a leading role in all decisions concerning people’s realities. This reminds us of the importance of social sciences committing to ethical and culturally sensitive approaches towards the real experiences of individuals and groups, from a position that bewares and moves away from colonizing standpoints and negligence regarding potential biases of power or class.

As criminologist and as an international authority in the field of restorative justice, John Braithwaite insisted on the idea that “if crime hurts, justice should heal”. Healing is a shared mission in society. It is not a one-person task, nor a one-community, or one-discipline task. It requires the capability to work together and to offer community-based tools to empower all citizens. It also means to create safe and appropriate spaces for therapeutic healing and attention to trauma in a reflective, ethical and responsible manner. Restorative justice trainings offer us appropriate methodologies to build stronger communities, inclusive participation, belonging and harm reparation, while they also challenge us not to put aside the importance of experience and specialized training in the face of complex situations. Only that way will we be able to honor and recognize the deep suffering that will emerge before us, and that cannot be limited to a specific restorative practice: it will need the appropriate support in order to heal. As restorative practitioners, do we have a network of professional supports that can allow us to encourage people to continue their healing and therapeutic journeys? What do we need to do as a society so that this is possible and accessible to everyone? Mental health should not be a privilege. Healing should not be a privilege. Psychological support is often a need.

Considering all these, as psychologists, we recognize two important challenges:

(1) To encourage a practice that nourishes from different disciplines from the social sciences. We are in a point of history where we face the menace of anti-science movements that offer the idea that specialized scientific research is irrelevant, and that personal experience is more than enough. This is a very dangerous approach. Juan de Salisbury is attributed this phrase (often also attributed to Issac Newton): “if we have seen a bit further, it is only because we stand on the shoulders of giants”. Every restorative approach needs to nourish from the advances of philosophy, sociology, psychology and every other discipline that is interested in and working with human experience: personal, relational and community wise. It is true that within each discipline there is a diversity of theories, perspectives and fields, so restorative approaches need not to be positioned as a new substitute or competitor, but as an ally to interdisciplinary, reflective and profound scientific advances and practices.

(2) To counter-culture the addiction to fast answers and formulas. It is true that an important part of our work includes fostering autonomy in individuals and groups, so they can face their daily lives and to acknowledge their own personal resources and strengths. Some restorative tools are very practical and offer clear guidance for this, and that is wonderful! However, there are situations of trauma, violent conflict and complexity that need specialized support. We live in a culture tempted with substitutes for therapeutic approaches, with fast self-help solutions, or coaching strategies that are not well suited for the profound and messy work of dealing with severe psychological pain. The sad reality is that quick solutions often carry with them the risk of creating even more pain, and worsen conflictive spirals.

Human experience cannot be encapsulated in simple answers, fast procedures or pre-fabricated-one-size-fits-all guidelines. Restorative justice is an excellent strategy that appeals to our most profound human fibers, but in situations of high complexity, we need to rest on the confidence that, if restorative justice doesn’t work, we will have the professional, therapeutic and human competencies to honor and accompany pain, as well as to encourage its healing. In the most high complexity issues, we should only intervene with restorative justice what we are also professionally trained to intervene outside of restorative justice. This represents a commitment to a humanist approach that honors our complexity and recognizes those moments when a process requires to be developed without any rush, through profound flexibility and with reflexive depth from people trained in understanding and navigating the psyche.

The social movements for restorative justice and restorative practices have taught us the urgent need of this XXI century for interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, inter-sectoral, and inter-community dialogues, in order to continue to grow towards a humanist worldview on relationships and life. Restorative practices can support our discipline to get better at that. As psychologists, part of our job is to communicate about these complex issues in a way that is clear and that can engage communities to talk about them. We should not be perceived as professionals that make things more complicated. On the contrary, only collaborating we can respond to the needs of our century. This is the time to work with communities, acknowledging our boundaries as professionals, from a deep sense of respect and the pristine clarity of our interdependence in the joined construction of a more inclusive, just and solidary world.