It has been a strange and despairing experience to watch the political journey of the United States from afar since moving to New Zealand to study restorative justice in early 2016. People often comment on how glad I must be to have escaped it all and how surely I’m in no rush to go back. I am certainly aware of the privilege of living in New Zealand through the safety I feel here, my affordable health care, affordable education, renewable energy, and relatively progressive policies across a wide range of issues. However, I think more than anything, the political strife at home has made me certain that I will go back. A friend and fellow expat living in New Zealand described it as like being away from a sick relative. You feel like you should be there just to be there, and to do the best you can to be helpful. That is the feeling I have now and as I look forward to the time after I finish my degree.
The most striking feature to me of the political climate at this moment and more generally is the degree of polarization, the adversarial nature. It is truly an “us versus them” construct with winners and losers and rampant dehumanization of the opposing side. In many ways, it resembles the mainstream criminal justice system in the way that it reinforces opposing sides, leans heavily on labels, and often makes things worse.
During a recent conversation with my partner and some friends, we began talking about whether a more “restorative” approach to the political system would be possible in the same way it has been possible in the criminal justice sphere. Could there be a way to move away from entrenched sides towards understanding the individual human stories and needs that drive our behaviors? Could we find creative policy solutions that meet the needs of all involved parties rather than leaving behind winners and losers? Is there a way to bring more open honest communication, empathy and compassion into the political process?
One specific issue we discussed during this conversation was the coal industry and renewable energy. We noted how, in many ways, the coal industry had been framed by the Democratic party as dirty, backwards, something bad that we needed to move away from. There is, of course, the possibility of financial insecurity faced by those working in the coal industry as politicians talk about transitioning to renewable energy sources, but there is also the issue of how the coal industry is framed and respected. Generations of families have worked in the coal industry and have played an important role in building the United States and getting our country to where it is today. If there were a space for us to discuss the importance of honoring that legacy and the importance of ongoing job security and the importance of developing and resourcing new energy technology for the health of the planet and humans, then would we be able to come up with some creative solutions that met all of those needs? Could there be guarantees that each person would have an equivalent job in the renewable energy market? Could we establish a national museum to recognize and remember the history of coal and the families who made the rapid growth of the United States possible?
What I know is that in restorative justice processes, when everyone has a chance to tell their story and express their needs and to hear each other in a respectful and safe space, phenomenally creative and collaborative outcomes almost always emerge.
Following this discussion, we of course wanted to test the idea. We were faced with the limitation of being a group of very liberal friends, all in our 20s and 30s, all white, all well educated and financially privileged enough to be on a weekend backpacking trip together. Therefore, I recognize the surface-level nature of the account that follows. I hope in the future to have the opportunity to trial this approach with a group that contains a wider range of voices.
After a bit of discussion, we decided that an issue we may have sufficient difference in opinion on is the issue of vegetarianism. In a group of six, there was one vegetarian, one vegan, and two previous vegetarians who had gone back to eating meat. It was quickly apparent once we began however that all six of us had thought about the impact of meat eating on the environment and public health, so again, it would have been better for the experiment to have greater divergence in opinions and personal histories. We assigned ourselves the mission of coming to consensus around a policy that we would like to implement.
We used the restorative circle format to have the conversation. I used my camping cooking pot as a talking piece and spoke about how food is an integral part of our personal histories and cultures and also represents a unifying human experience through eating together. For the first round, I asked each person to share his or her hopes for the conversation. For the second round, I asked each person to share his or her personal history in relation to meat eating or vegetarianism. It was interesting to notice myself relaxing during this round. Hearing where each person came from helped me to understand his or her position on the issue. It was also great to have the chance to share my own story of growing up vegetarian, of the disbelief I felt when I first saw the movie Bambi and found out that people eat meat, of the bullying I experienced in middle school because of being the only vegetarian, of my own transition from trying constantly to convince people to be vegetarian to deciding to just live my own life well, and finally the decision to become vegan. I felt like my own journey and position on the issue was heard and understood. After that, we transitioned into talking about needs moving forward and then into concrete ideas for policy that would address those needs. At this point, we suspended the structure of the circle and the use of the talking piece to have a more free-flowing conversation, but I noticed that the respect and equal voice remained. The solution we arrived at involved providing free vegetarian lunches at all schools in order to introduce children to delicious vegetarian food, promote public health, combat child hunger and as a result, improve learning and behavior and school. It is a solution that certainly reflects the liberal leaning of those present in the circle, but I do think that a circle with a wider range of voices would be able to come up with an even more creative solution that would address the needs brought to that circle. We closed with a final circle round offering an opportunity for a final word.
I recognize that there are certainly limitations to this political method. It is time consuming for one and it would never be possible to incorporate the voices of ALL people. Conversations would take place in smaller circles and then there would still need to be a way to transfer that learning about each other and the positive outcomes to the wider society. However, I think what we are desperately needing in this moment is a structure, a way to create a safe space that encourages respectful communication and listening that seeks to cultivate empathy and recognize the human across the divide. Restorative approaches such as the circle could be a helpful tool towards this end.