Restoration is a metaphor

In an earlier blog entry I discussed the importance of metaphor and promised to say more about how this applies to justice. Here, finally, are more thoughts on metaphors and justice.

The following points are inspired by James Geary’s book, I Is An Other:  The Secret Life or Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World as well as by earlier reading, most importantly George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. Numbers in parentheses are page numbers from Geary.

  •  Metaphors are fundamental to thought, communication and emotion. They shape the way we make sense of the world.
  • We use one metaphor for every 10-25 words, or about six per minute. ( 5).
  • “…thinking is a kind of simulated interaction with the world, a metaphorical engagement that makes what we imagine more realistic.” (105)
  • Metaphors highlight and clarify aspects of reality but because they are a comparison and not an exact match, they also hide and obscure realities.
  • The best metaphors are “sticky” but once they take hold, are often mistaken for facts.
  • Many – perhaps most – of our metaphors are unconscious, below the surface. Even when we are conscious of them, we are often unconscious of all the baggage they bring with them.
  • The effectiveness of a metaphor does not depend on its truth but on its easy accessibility. (148)
  • Metaphoric names and language vary in their effectiveness. One reason “global warming” has not been taken more seriously is that it may be too mild to convey a sense of crisis. (120)

Our justice language is full of metaphors. Some, such as the “war on crime” or the adversarial system as a boxing match, are easy to identify. But others are much more subtle and unconscious. For example, we often treat justice as a commodity:  justice is spoken of as “received” or “given.”

Sometimes in restorative justice we use the metaphor of “healing.” One critique of the healing metaphor is that it may promise too much. Another is that it is a medical metaphor, and medical metaphors for crime during an earlier rehabilitation era led to some unfortunate consequences. Like all metaphors, it highlights certain characteristics or goals, but like all metaphors, it is also likely to hide or mislead.

The restoration image in restorative justice itself is a metaphor.  t is a metaphor that communicates and resonates, which may account in part for the popularity of the term and concept. But the resonance of the metaphor also helps to account for the growing misuse of the term. And like all metaphors, “restorative” is bound to hide and mislead.

What are the implications and down sides of the restorative metaphor? What new metaphors for this kind of justice can we imagine? I welcome your ideas.

Webinar series: We are continuing the webinar series that started last fall. The next webinar is entitled “The Promise & Challenge of Restorative Justice Practices in Schools” on Feb. 27.

To view or download the last webinar, “Does Restorative Justice Need Forgiveness,” click here.

6 comments on “Restoration is a metaphor”

  1. i am wondering when in the evolution of man metaphors were first used? is there any theory about? Or came it up when people just started to to communicate?

  2. isabel sousa says:

    It´s curious you wrote that ante I was just thinking abou the relation betwen crime and language. In our lives, we usually says to each others words than express violence even if we dont´t know it or don´t agree. It´s like a memory of violence. It´s very important that we assume it. the restorative comunication brings a new/old way of leading with the reality that make us confused with ours “great truths”. what it is restorative in practical terms that we can after all nomited as a restorative language?

  3. name(required) says:

    @ Panneaux: Though I am sure it is easy enough to find conflicting ideas, many cognitive linguists see metaphor not as an extra trick of language, but the constitutive ground of language. (such as Pinkerton, Humphrey, Jaynes come to mind). Metaphor here being used in a general sense, the use of a term for one thing being used to describe another because of some perceived (or real but filtered) relation between them. Likewise, many argue that language and consciousness are intwined. That the mind functions in a kind of metaphor language, so thought is always symbolic thought or understanding is always understanding in metaphor. Hence, metaphors are as old as language—or language as we now think of it: naming. (once again there are lots of nuances and variances in this idea, and some which oppose it)

  4. Henk Smidstra says:

    In our communicatiion of life’s realities we of necesity search for adequtae vocabulary, word, expressions etc to convey feelings and meanings that often are hard to put into mere words;sometimespoetry or song or art do a better job. Metaphor helps in, as we say speak in word pictures….. and a picture is worth a thousand words. How do we put our deep human needs for inter and intra-personal wholeness and wellness into words? That is what restorative justice attemps to address, the existential human experience of resoration when harm hasbeen expereinced. That is what the highly symbolic language and process of the traditional justice system can’t achieve.

  5. Howard Zehr says:

    There are many false or misleading metaphors related to justice. The “war on crime” is one of those invited by politicians to promote their specific agendas. So also is “closure” when referring to those who have lost someone to homicide. I heard a researcher once trace this application of the term to the media and politicians trying to justify the death penalty. Closure is not a word that describes most victims’ experience and it is highly misleading. It is a false and inaccurate metaphor. You may close a door, cutting off access to the space behind it, but you don’t close off the memory and impact of harm.

  6. Gerry Johnstone says:

    Really interesting!
    One note: The word ‘healing’ actually predates its medical use – it is in fact used metaphorically in medicine. In fact, the way the word is used in restorative justice is closer to its pre-medical meaning – ‘to make whole’
    This radio progamme from a great series on UKs BBC radio 4 is well worth listening to:

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