Being restorative and non-violent in a non-restorative violent world….
Both in my work as an RP trainer and as an Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator (a peer-led experiential RP programme run in Irish prisons and all over the world), I very often experience the tension between restorative approaches and mindset and the violence of the world, specifically when it is structural and institutional. The temptation to react violently or retributively to oppression seems so legitimate…
I have been reflecting on Geoffroy de Lagasnerie’s (a French philosopher and social scientist) views on non-violence for the past few years. I usually agree with his views on many topics, and he is always very strongly condemning non-violence which has challenged me for a long time. In several of his books (Judge and Punish, 2016, La conscience politique, 2019, Sortir de notre impuissance politique, 2020 - not all yet translated unfortunately) Geoffroy de Lagasnerie condemns non-violence for its lack of sincerity. Part of his work is about revealing State violence - building on Foucault and Bourdieu’s work - and it does make sense. We all are born in a State that is colonising us from birth. We don’t apply the same categories to what the State does to us as we usually apply to what our fellow citizens may do: having to pay tax is not extortion, being sentenced to jail is not false imprisonment, the death penalty in countries where it exists is not murder. Imposing six hours of sitting in a classroom on children is not coercive control. We are blind to State violence and don’t want to recognise it for what it is (whether we think this violence is necessary for civil peace or other reasons is another discussion, and Lagasnerie is not an anarchist either). If we advocate for more public education funding, we fail to recognise that there is a form of violence in desiring an increased tax burden for all citizens. Most of us don’t want to live without policing of some sort - which is the sword arm of the State. Therefore, according to Lagasnerie, adopting a non-violent stance is not sincere. Whatever we do, by being born in a State, we are trapped in structures of oppression and violence that we may be contributing to and perpetuating.
It becomes even trickier when it comes to promoting restorative approaches among people who are trapped in institutional situations where they have little power compared to most of the people they are interacting with (students in schools, people who are incarcerated, who experience structural poverty, women…) - and that is why also it is so crucial to promote these approaches and mindset among people who have the power. When it comes to non-violence, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie states that it can often be reduced to ‘sacrificial acceptance of self-exposure to State violence which leads to its conservation’. Will restorative approaches empower the powerless or will they support the perpetuation of oppression?
In his reflection on political empowerment, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie states that the only valid question about the means of action against oppression is how efficient they are (2020). When it comes to political action against an oppressive structure, he quotes Gunther Anders who refused to engage in a moral dilemma regarding the use of violence for just reasons: he is not responsible, oppressors who are putting people in situations where violence is the only option, are responsible. Anders makes this powerful statement: 'Those who force me to break the murder taboo can be sure that I will never forgive them’. For Anders and Lagasnerie, deciding upon a means of action is not an ethical question, it is, first and foremost, a calculation: what will work better.
I think there are ways of reconciling the ethical question with the practical one and that a non-violent solution is primarily always a more efficient one. First, I must put aside a misunderstanding that comes up often: the protective use of force is not violence. If I am assaulted, I can legitimately and ethically defend myself (by using force) and it might be more efficient. In other cases, I believe that most of the time there is a transforming power in non-violent and restorative ways that will always make it more efficient and radical and that violence and punishment usually make things worse for everyone.
Finding a win-win is difficult, it requires thinking and creativity and also giving up the idea that the other, the opponent, needs to lose, but that is the ethical element that I am not discussing here. Neither will I discuss here empathy and how strong emotions and trauma are an obstacle to its expression. The first step of any intervention is regulation: Regulate, Relate and then Reason. But maybe this is the last step that is not valued enough. A restorative approach requires sometimes a complex cognitive process: what can I do that allows me to meet the needs of all involved, including, of course, my own - the idea is not to sacrifice oneself.
When there is a power unbalance or, even worse, when someone is abusing their power, it’s unlikely that a violent solution is going to be the most efficient. Interestingly, Lagasnerie himself, when exploring political empowerment, is not advocating for violent ways: he is advocating for specific and radical focuses with identified targets. Each struggle is specific and requires specific and clever ways of being addressed. At the political level, it was reminded to me recently, by a student volunteering with me in prison and currently doing work with The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel: witnessing the horrors of the Israeli occupation reinforces his commitment to non-violence. He reminded me of the words of a Palestinian leader from the First Intifada: "You can't beat Tyson in a boxing match, you have to challenge him to a game of chess”.
At an individual level, it’s similar. Each conflict is specific and will require some imagination to be handled efficiently - a way where all get some of what they need and want and learn something about the other. Sometimes, participants in workshops tell stories of institutional bullying that lead to bad situations for them when dealt with violently and improved outcomes when patience, humour, surprise, or diversion are used. Michael Inside, Frank Berry’s film, based on testimonies of former offenders is another illustration. There is a truly tragic fatality in the way the hero is always led to a worse situation than the one he was in before. And part of this fatality is linked to the fact that it seems to him at the time that there is no other way he can deal with the situation than violently - he is himself threatened by violence. Without denying the depth of his socio-economical underprivileged struggle and the dysfunctional penal system (there is a very powerful scene when he is sentenced and the judge is off-camera, we can only hear her voice and she seems disconnected from his reality) and the impact they have on his fate, I still believe that there could be creative ways for to get out of trouble. He is completely alone and has no support, and creativity requires collaboration or cooperation with others.
I often think of Odysseus and the Odyssey, as they were foundational to my education when I was a young adult. Odysseus is different from other heroes because he has metis, he is ‘polumetis’. Metis was Zeus’ first wife and mother of Athena, (Athena is the protector of Odysseus). Metis gave her name to a special cognitive skill, a sort of cunning wisdom. To ensure his power, Zeus swallowed his bride…. In Iliad, Odyssey, and the Homeric tradition Odysseus doesn’t use metis without violence. It’s the skill that allows him to plan the Trojan Horse which will ensure the Greek’s victory by killing Trojans during the night when they are sleeping. Back in Ithaca after his long journey, he makes a clever plan and slaughters all Penelope’s Suitors, to reclaim his wife, house, and kingdom. It’s because he has metis that he can survive in an inhuman world populated with man-eating beasts and find his way back home. He is not a restorative man at all…
I reread Vernant and Détienne’s fascinating book (1974) about Metis. They emphasise the characteristics of metis in the Homeric world. It can overturn a power struggle and allow the weaker party to win. It’s also a skill with a specific temporality: the ‘polumetis’ man is focused on the present, has learnt from his past experiences, and can anticipate what is going to happen. Metis is a polymorphic, multiple, colourful, and rolling form of intelligence, like reality and life... For that reason, it’s the most efficient form of practical intelligence. Lastly, it uses masks and deception. In Ancient Greek culture, the two animals associated with metis are the fox (who can change a situation by deception) and the polymorphic octopus.
In some ways, it resonates with how I see a crucial skill of restorative practitioners, with of course essential differences: metis aims to overturn a power struggle and to win despite an unbalance in power and despite obvious weaknesses in a fight against a powerful enemy. The idea of balancing power (a ‘win-win’ situation) is completely absent from Homeric culture. Homeric heroes are far removed from the perspectives animating our current moral system and explaining why, looking at the 3000 thousand years that separate us from Homer, would take us too far away from my point.
What I like about the Homeric idea of metis and what makes it empowering are two main elements: it moves from the past to the future and it embraces complexity. Powerful attributes for anyone interested in finding non-violent ways of dealing with conflict. Interestingly, Vernant and Détienne show how metis is culturally and lexically connected to the link and the circle - the perfect object that encapsulates both the link and the circle is the net, like the one the fisherman uses. Of course, again, in this Ancient Greek context, the net helps to defeat an enemy. According to them, metis needs the complexity of the link and the circle to be efficient. In the ethical context of RP, the circle is the caring community it builds, and the link is the interconnectedness that the restorative processes nurture. When in this space created by the net - we could maybe say the web to make it less threatening - we are empowered and our practical intelligence can work on finding creative, colourful, and clever ways to change the shape of a situation and make it a win-win. I am dreaming of Odysseus experiencing transforming power and trying to find a solution where he and the Suitors could get what they need.
I believe there is sometimes too much emphasis on the ethical and emotional grounding of non-violent and restorative ways, especially with resisters, as if it is merely a moral stance, and that it creates the idea that non-violence and restorative approaches could be a simplistic and naive or insincere way of seeing things. I think a modern form of metis should be emphasised when advocating for non-violence and restorative thinking. The cognitive foundation of non-violence and RP could be more valued: it’s about acknowledging and embracing the complexity - not to say the chaos - of life, valuing problem-solving skills and recognising that it’s also actually the most clever way…
Dorothée Potter-Daniau is a restorative practitioner, consultant and researcher in RP and Education.
Lagasnerie de, G (2016). Juger. L’Etat pénal face à la sociologie, Paris, Fayard.
Lagasnerie de, G (2019). La Conscience politique, Paris, Fayard.
Lagasnerie de, G (2020). Sortir de notre impuissance politique. Paris, Fayard.
Vernant, JP et Détienne, M, (1974). Les ruses de l’Intelligence, La mètis des Grecs. Paris, Flammarion.
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