Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shame by Any Other Name

by Cathy Scott

My childhood friend Vickie Pynchon, an attorney and mediator, has written a piece about restorative justice. "I'm asked about restorative justice from time to time," Pynchon says. "It's all about accountability, amends and reconciliation. Powerful stuff.  Take a look." Thus, here is a fascinating, heady piece about just that. It seems only fitting during this holiday season to talk about amends and reconciliation.

by Victoria Pynchon

Shame. We all know it in one form or another: tripping over absolutely nothing at the local mall, emerging from the restroom trailing a white flag of toilet paper, laughing last and loudest in a room suddenly gone silent, waving happily toward a friend only to realize we are beckoning to a complete stranger.

These are mild forms of shame--embarrassment, if you will. Yet the feeling of sudden exposure makes us flush red in the face, temporarily lose coherence, and engage in an elaborate public pantomime in a futile attempt to regain our dignity. We look to see who is watching, pull the toilet paper quickly from our shoe and stretch our arms as if yawning rather than mistakenly greeting a stranger. We tell an off-color joke and no one laughs. As a result, we flush red and our hands become damp. Staring with mortification at the floor, we sheepishly mumble, "My friends thought it was funny." Any little fig leaf will do. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we find ourselves naked, hear the voice of another, and are suddenly afraid.

Because the painful experience of shame is believed to deter anti-social and criminal conduct, it has long been a staple of our criminal justice system. Its purpose has been to accomplish moral education about the wrongfulness of the crime and to prevent its occurrence through social and self-disapproval. The concept of reintegrative shaming was first introduced by restorative justice theoretician John Braithwaite as a means of 
distinguishing between shame that stigmatizes criminal offenders (and thus increases crime) from shame that condemns wrongdoing but forgives and respects the offender, hopefully reducing recidivism and decreasing crime.

Braithwaite suggests that labeling criminal offenders as such "will actually reduce crime when the labeling is respectful and focused on the act rather than the person and where disapproval is terminated by ceremonies of forgiveness and apology." Others contend that labeling is inherently stigmatizing and likely to increase recidivism.

In criminal restorative justice circles, the beneficial affects of reintegrative shame are meant to be accomplished by a restorative justice conference or victim-offender mediation (hereinafter called VOMs). These  VOMs bring together victims and their loved ones; offenders and their friends and family; and, caring members of the community for the purpose of discussing the consequences of the crime and what can be done to set it right. Guided by a restorative justice mediator, the parties are meant to engage in a process of respectful dialogue, resulting in the expression of accountability, remorse and apology by the offender; and forgiveness by the victim leading to the participants' entry into a restitution agreement.

Restorative justice theorists and practitioners assert that censuring the offender's criminal behavior and its deleterious effect on the victim without stigmatizing him will engender  empathy for the victim and accountability in the offender, thus reducing recidivism. Whether participation in a single VOM can accomplish such far-reaching goals has been the  subject of much debate in restorative justice circles. A thorough understanding of the origins and effects of shame by restorative justice theorists and practitioners--together with shame-reducing practices and post-offender shame-reduction recovery programs--are absolutely necessary if restorative justice is to achieve its rehabilitative goals.

The challenge of restorative justice is the same as the daily challenge of being human in community with others. If we invite offenders to assist their brethren when they step up to the restorative-justice plate, they will give their fellows courage, strength and heart.

Because our earliest experiences of helplessness relate to our size, strength and intelligence, only anger and its explosive cousin, rage, allow us to prove to ourselves and others that we are powerful instead of weak, competent rather than stupid, large rather than small. Thus do many shame-suffused individuals respond to chronic shame in an attack mode, particularly those who feel endangered by the depths to which their self-esteem has been reduced. Such individuals experience shame as a threat to their physical well-being and lack the ability to trust and rely upon others.

Shame thus serves as a barrier to one's capacity to achieve empathy and develop conscience.

The distinction between guilt and shame in moral development is not a trifling matter of purely semantic interest. Guilt arouses emotional discomfort in response to our transgressions against others. By age 2 children develop the ability to empathize with the feelings of another and by age 3 to evaluate their own conduct against objective behavioral standards. As soon as we are able to experience shame and guilt, we instinctively attempt to regulate our emotional state by engaging in spontaneous acts of confession and reparation. It is guilt, therefore, not shame, that discourages us from engaging in wrongdoing.

This restorative-justice challenge is long-term and ongoing. It involves us all. We seek forgiveness by forgiving; love and compassion, by loving and giving; strength by acknowledging our weakness; and integrity by uncovering our shame. If we reveal ourselves in all our human fallibility, we can stop pretending and move toward the process of loving and healing. Are these extravagant expectations? I think not.

 Victoria Pynchon is an attorney-mediator with ADR Services, Inc. in Century City and a commercial arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association. She is a co-founder of the She Negotiates Training and Consulting firm. Pynchon's book, A is for A**hole, the Grownups' ABCs of Conflict Resolution, was released by Reason Press in October 2010.

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