The Restorative Community: Between Individualist and Collectivist Cultural Orientations

While living in China, the difference between Individualist and Collectivist cultures was something I frequently contemplated. I remember a Chinese friend teaching me to play what he described as Chinese poker, a game in which players team up to defeat the randomly selected “rich one.” At the end of the game, either the “rich one” wins or the rest of the players share the title of champion. I remember being struck by how different the goal and outcome of the game were from the Texas hold’em I was accustomed to, in which players use secrecy and deception to take the entire pot for themselves, gleefully leaving their friends with nothing. I felt intrigued and endeared to the Chinese version of the game and its emphasis on teamwork and equality in outcome, but also sheepishly noted that I missed the glory of being the winner and secretly hoped to be the “rich one.” The contrast carried over into many areas of daily life. When I ate with others, it was at a round table with shared food in the middle that I would make a feeble attempt to scoop with my chopsticks into my small personal rice bowl. Before I became more comfortable with the chopsticks, Chinese friends would often take it upon themselves to skilfully transfer a hefty portion of eggplant or bamboo into my bowl with their own chopsticks. I reflected on times that I had refused a friend or family member a bite of cake or a french fry with a defensive, “Why didn’t you order your own?”

Growing up in the United States, I have often felt an attraction to collectivist cultures, to the emphasis on group harmony and consensus, and in many ways resonated with the interdependent view of self as part of a larger social network. I wondered if a shift towards a more collectivist mind-set might have a positive impact on corporate greed, environmental degradation, or even be a catalyst for teamwork towards creative ingenuity to solve big world problems.

While I was in China, this optimism faded as I saw some of the challenges of a collectivist society. I worked in a school teaching English. My students wore uniforms and were taught to sit in straight rows quietly and obediently, to memorize answers to test questions, and to repeat back the content of the teacher’s lecture. I taught first through fourth and seventh grade and by the middle school age, noticed that the students’ creativity had been severely inhibited by the educational model. This issue is reflected in the Chinese economy, which is highly productive, but ultimately struggles with innovation and creativity. In my students, I saw individuals, each with their own strengths, challenges, interests and unique passions that were not being nurtured or acknowledged beyond a score on a standardized test.

Living in New Zealand now, I have recently delivered several trainings for the Residential Life professional staff and student RAs on how to create a Restorative Community at Victoria University of Wellington. The idea of a Restorative Community goes beyond Restorative Justice as an alternative response to crime and wrong-doing and embraces a collection of Restorative Practices that build, maintain and repair relationships in a community. This community can be formed in a school, a workplace, an apartment or dorm, a city, or even possibly a nation. The guiding principles of a restorative community are that everyone wants and needs to belong and that positive interpersonal relationships are a major influence on behavior. Increasingly, I see Restorative Practices as not just a way to reform our justice system and the way we deal with harm in the community, I see it also as a radical new approach to our cultural orientation and the way we view our relationship to one another.

It is often noted that Restorative Justice includes a shift in thinking (in the Western context) to seeing the community as an interconnected whole, so that any one action has a ripple effect on others in the community. Crime is not just a broken law, it is more importantly a harm to the relationships that make up the community. Because we are interconnected, all that we do impacts others. When harm to those relationships occurs, it must be repaired in order for justice (or “right relationship”) to be restored. Restorative Justice also values the individual. Each person is responsible for his/her behaviors and actions. A strengths-based approached is utilized through a conscious surfacing of the offender’s strengths and assets both to assist in forming a plan for reparation of harms and to assist in reintegration through seeing the offender as more than his/her mistakes or poor decisions. Each person has something unique: passions and skills that can be used to repair harms and to contribute positively to the community.

When we look at a Restorative Community more broadly, the Restorative Practices that are implemented in these communities devote time and energy to creating a sense of interconnected relationships, fostering trust and openness. At the same time, space is made for each person to show up as an individual in the interconnected whole. Each person’s voice is given an opportunity to be heard and each person’s strengths are given an opportunity to make a positive contribution. In a Restorative Community, Individualist and Collectivist views do not need to be at odds. The things that make us unique and different from others can be honored within a deeply felt understanding of interconnected social relationships.

“Within present understandings of self and society in the West, what might be required for optimal well-being is a situation where individuals and groups are recognized and respected by themselves as distinct, but also as belonging within the community. When individuals experience the ‘too-littleness’ of isolation they may experience shame. But they may also experience it if their individuality and its boundaries are overwhelmed by social incursion, as in the surveillance societies of the former Community East… The end that is sought, then, appears to be that of persons in society who have been adequately respected and honoured as individuals and valued as members of some kind of community by those around them.”

– Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology

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