May 28th, 2009 – by Howard Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)
I’ve always assumed that the ubiquitous erectile dysfunction ads in the media today were a recent abomination. Turns out I was wrong. One of the first radio pioneers to realize the potential of the electronic media was a “doctor” John Romulus Brinkley (his medical degree was purchased by mail order from Eclectic Medical University in Kansas). In 1922 he launched one of the first radio stations, KHJ, to market his remedy for what was colloquially called “flat tire.” (The remedy involved implanting goat glands in men. One couple who conceived a boy after this operation reportedly named him Billy.)
According to Anthony Rude, who begins his fascinating book Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio, with this story, previously the mass communication potential of radio was largely unrecognized. The paradigm governing this new medium was shaped by the telegraph. The telegraph, which used direct wire connections, made possible – and was limited to – point-to-point communication between specific senders and receivers. The frustration of radio within that paradigm was that radio waves scattered everywhere; they couldn’t be limited to a specific receiver.
The reaction of one early executive of RCA – the Radio Corporation of America would soon dominate the industry – when told that that ordinary people might receive radio transmissions in their homes was this: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” Wow, was he wrong! He was wrong because his vision was limited by the old paradigm.
And here is the link (finally, you might say) to restorative justice, the theme of this blog. As long as we allow the “old” justice paradigm to shape our thinking, our options and vision will be limited.
We often think of crime and justice as givens, as something with a fixed reality, as common sense. We rarely question what they mean. But both “crime” and “justice” are social constructs. How we think of both has been shaped over time to meet various needs and contexts. But neither is inevitable. What we call crime, for example, is a small subset of the harms and conflicts that occur every day. And how we address these wrongs and resolve these conflicts – how and when we “do justice” – has varied significantly in time and place.
These social constructs, these paradigms, shape what what we see as possible and logical. Sometimes they provide helpful solutions. But sometimes, as with the early pioneers of radio, they constrain our imaginations. The importance of restorative justice is that it helps us realize our ideas of wrongdoing and response are indeed social constructs. These constructs are not inevitable.
In Changing Lenses, I observed that restorative justice was not developed enough to be considered a full paradigm. To use an analogy from the sciences, to be a full paradigm we would need a fully-developed “physics” to explain and govern the range of situations we face. Twenty years later we’ve come a long way but we are not there yet.
But restorative justice does encourage us to be aware of and think critically about our assumptions and to begin envisioning new possibilities. That is perhaps its most important contribution.