In restorative justice we value the power of all voices to foster moments for healing. When a system silences voices through marginalisation, it commits narrative violence and excludes healing as a possible outcome. Effective restorative processes:

  • depend on allowing for narrative complexity to be established, heard, and recognised;
  • require the acknowledgment of master narratives that may reduce voices to noise;
  • appreciate that the recognition of narrative violence is an effective step in fostering restorative outcomes.

Introduction: the power of a label

In November of 2020 I had the honour of being the closing keynote speaker for a three-month long virtual conference put on by the Peace and Justice Studies Association. The presentation I gave was titled, ‘Many Sides of Silence: Polarised Narratives as Blockades to Justice and Healing,’ and the focus of the talk was to highlight the uses of voice in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation, contrasted with the institutionalisation of silence in the pursuit of American ‘criminal justice.’ The specifics of the talk are not so important to consider here; I only tell you about it to then inform you that I gave that presentation during my twelfth year of incarceration. I write today from the same computer on which I composed the PowerPoint for that presentation, sitting in the same room, confined inside of the same prison. 

I wonder if that information will make you consider what you will read in this article any differently than if you hadn’t known it? If you are being completely honest with yourself, how would you answer?

It is incredibly important for us as restorative justice scholars, researchers, and practitioners to confront the master narratives that influence our internal reactions to others.
Brandon Brown

It is incredibly important for us as restorative justice scholars, researchers, and practitioners to confront the master narratives that influence our internal reactions to others. I am a violent offender; that is the label that was assigned to me as a young man when I made a terrible mistake which caused another man great harm. Because of that label, I exist within a narrative space that makes it nearly impossible for me to also be multiple other things — especially in America. As noted earlier, I have been incarcerated for twelve years because of the mistake that I made, and one thing I have come to understand quite clearly is that more than a decade of silence has not helped any of the stakeholders in my crime to heal. Not my victim, not my community, and not me.

I should say that my experiences while in prison have been unique. Last year I received my M.S. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution and currently I am concluding my first year as a doctoral student in the same field (my focus is on narrative as a mechanism of peacebuilding within systems of structural violence). I have been a hospice volunteer, am a certified yoga instructor and recovery coach, a trained facilitator of restorative practices, and recently became possibly the first prisoner in the USA to conduct approved research within a prison in which I was housed. Despite all of that, I remain a ‘violent offender.’ Any objection to this label is heard only as noise because of the master narratives that follow the mistake I made thirteen years ago. Anything I may have to offer beyond this narrative is reduced to a whisper; some individuals who are listening closely enough will be able to hear me, but to the overwhelming majority of people, my voice is but gentle breeze consumed by the narrative tornado that places stakeholders into rigid categories within the system of criminal justice.

Narrative violence

According to a mentor of mine, Dr Sara Cobb (2013), when conflict narratives place actors into a state of exception — a liminal space where they lose the moral agency to control their narrative — those marginalised voices become victims of narrative violence; ‘the group that exists within the state of exception is the group subjected to narrative violence’ (2013, p. 29; italics in original). Additionally, Cobb describes the ways in which institutionalised violence disrupts the ability for marginalised people to narrate pain; this is a point that cannot be understated when we discuss the ways that narratives work within different types of justice-seeking processes. In his seminal text, Changing Lenses, Howard Zehr (1990) describes why restorative processes must resist the forces of marginalising narratives in order for all parties to heal from harm; 

“I have become particularly interested in … the importance that creating new life narratives — ‘re-storying’ lives — plays in overcoming the past’”
(1990, p. 233). 

To his point, it is necessary for stakeholders of harm to have the moral agency to re-story their lives in order to effectively move beyond harm and trauma. It is our responsibility to fight the narrative forces that seek to entrap individuals into overly simplistic narratives that reduce agency, and to create spaces for individuals to break free from the state of exception — and, equally as important, to recognise when they are placing others into it. The problem that we face as seekers of justice (restorative justice) is that we do not control the master narratives in society which have the power to prevent stakeholders from engaging in narrating their pain, as well as collectively re-storying their life narratives post-harm. We must find ways, despite the magnitude of the narratives about both victims and offenders, to become the shields which block the forces of narrative violence in order to allow for better formed stories to be told, and equally important, to be heard.

… we reduce victims and the accused alike to narrative snippets where the only parts of the story that matter are the ones that can be ‘proven’ beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, what about the process that we have currently, here in the United States? A quick description of criminal proceedings reveals quite a bit. Victim and offender are pitted against one another, both represented by gatekeepers who control their narratives in order to seek an outcome where one party wins and the other loses. As opposed to having a focus on creating space for complex narratives to be told and heard, we reduce victims and the accused alike to narrative snippets where the only parts of the story that matter are the ones that can be ‘proven’ beyond a reasonable doubt. The system depends on the state of exception in order to create a story that fits a narrative that the law requires—the entire process is one of narrative violence and re-traumatisation. Under the façade of justice, the criminal system in this country parades people through the courtroom, controls their narratives through coaching, questioning, and objection, and pits narratives against one another. Both the victim and the offender, or the State and the defence, must place each other into a state of exception where the validity of the other’s narrative is silenced in any way possible, until a pool of spectators has decided whose narrative to call the ‘winner.’ 

The fact is that when meaningful justice is the sought-after result, there can be no losing narratives.

The fact is that when meaningful justice is the sought-after result, there can be no losing narratives. There can be no states of exception, no marginalised voices, no stripping of moral agency. The very ways in which the criminal process controls narrative is an act of institutionalised violence, one which not only disrupts narrative in the moment, but creates long-lasting narrative trenches that can seem almost impossible for victims and offenders to climb out of. This is not justice; it is most certainly narrative injustice, and the long-term ramifications are too complex to accurately quantify.

The violence of silence

One thing that can be quantified, however, are the ways that narrative violence affect marginalised individuals. I believe that the system we have currently is forming layers of armour around the master narratives which keep people in the state of exception, and although it is my belief that victims are just as affected by this as are offenders, my research to-date has focused on the offender experience because of my unique access to, and experience in, this group.

When I embarked on my thesis research, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for or what I would find. I hoped to explore the ways that stereotype, shame, stigma, and expectation affected the stories that men in prison told about themselves, and I believed (and still believe) that my status as a long-term prisoner within the research environment would give me access to more honest and complex stories. Never did I imagine that what I would produce was an understanding of the ways in which silence, an institutionalised hushing of well-formed stories, negatively impacted the ability of prisoners to have narratives that offered the possibility of re-storying their lives beyond the master narratives that effectively stripped them of their humanness once they entered into the category of the felonious other

Hilde Nelson (2001) terms this process the damaging of identity through an infiltrated consciousness. According to Nelson:

“A person’s identity is twice damaged by oppression when she internalises as a self-understanding the hateful or dismissive views that other people have of her.” (2001, p. 21). 

To break free of this infiltration a group must raise an effective counter-story that both the oppressor and the oppressed may come to recognise as true …

To break free of this infiltration a group must raise an effective counter-story that both the oppressor and the oppressed may come to recognise as true — without such a counter-story, the marginalised narrative that seeks to break free from a harmful master narrative will fail. This is important because it is the story that twenty-seven men told me during our semi-structured interviews. The men that I spoke with explained to me three-dimensions of marginalisation through the institutionalisation of silence: 

  1. the inability to extend their narratives beyond the walls, and the clear reality that media and pop-culture defined their moral characteristics as prisoners, which were understood and widely accepted by society as accurate; 
  2. the forces of silence within the institution that resulted in the expectation from staff that they, as prisoners, were to be voiceless and only speak when allowed or ordered to; and 
  3. a culture within the prison that created a lack of opportunities for new narratives to form, take hold, and last.

What the themes within these stories reveal is that the process of imprisonment is described by prisoners as a process of institutionalised narrative violence. At first thought this may not seem to be that big of a deal, but when we consider that our identity is made up of the stories we tell about our lives and our experiences, and that those stories shape how we exist within this world; effectively, that we are the stories we tell, then we may begin to see that the process of incarceration is stripping opportunities for moral agency within prisoner’s narratives, and the result is that men, women, and children in prison are likely becoming the stories that are told about them. I want you to take a moment and let this sink in. What stories do you know that are told about people in prison? Considering that more than 90% of prisoners eventually are released, are those the stories that you want them believing about themselves when they return to their communities? I didn’t think so. So, it is incumbent upon us to begin exploring ways to create the possibility for narrative repair within our prison systems; within our communities’ understandings of who and what prisoners are; within our justice-seeking processes that currently create marginalised spaces where master narratives hold stakeholder’s hostage. 

The real prison is not the concrete and steel that separates offenders from the rest of the world; it is the narratives that offenders are trapped within even once the gate opens …

The real prison is not the concrete and steel that separates offenders from the rest of the world; it is the narratives that offenders are trapped within even once the gate opens, and their bodies are free to move about the world again. It is time that we begin considering the roles that these harmful narratives play on issues of recidivism and cycles of violence, addiction, and the hopelessness that leads to reoffending. The inability of incarcerated people to have a voice while incarcerated, paired with the inability for counterstories to form because of the state of exception that society places us in; that is the violence of silence. In the field of conflict analysis and resolution this is not seen as a small thing; a product of narrative violence is said to be the perpetuation of physical violence; ‘violence is the only recourse when words no longer work’ (Scarry, cited in Cobb, 2013, p. 59).

Conclusion

There is a reason that restorative justice and criminal justice are viewed as completely different paradigms, and I believe it is specifically because of the way narrative is used in such drastically different ways in each. There is no need for me to go into how restorative processes are set up and the specifics of how more complete and complex stories or narratives are allowed; we know this is foundational to the process. What is needed, however, is a cautionary statement to all current and would-be future scholars, researchers, and practitioners of restorative justice. Just because we aim to create opportunities for stakeholders to share their stories and feel empowered to be heard does not mean that we provide them escape routes from the marginalised narratives that come with certain labels; nor does it mean that we eliminate states of exception from occurring. To consider ourselves effective healers we must encourage all parties, including ourselves, to confront when such spaces are being created even indirectly and unintentionally. Having an awareness of the many master narratives that are at play in society; those around gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexuality, religion, ability, etc. must be foundational to how we proceed with our work, but perhaps more importantly, we must consider and seek out understandings as to how those labels co-exist with narratives about victims and offenders, specifically.

Our work begins once a harm has been committed and stakeholders are ready to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation, but we must never fool ourselves into believing that it stops when the process has commenced.

Our work begins once a harm has been committed and stakeholders are ready to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation, but we must never fool ourselves into believing that it stops when the process has commenced. People take the narratives that are created in justice-seeking processes and institutions with them, and those narratives are not always accepted outside of the circles and rooms where restoration takes place. 

The narrative approaches to healing and justice require much bigger work than the stories which exist between community, victim, and offender immediately after harm. Perhaps one of the first steps we need to take in conceptualising opportunities for narrative repair, is to gain a better understanding of not only what detrimental stories are being told, but what stories we are not allowing to be told as well. If we want to promote peace, one of the first things we must combat is silence.

Brandon Brown is an incarcerated researcher, scholar and practitioner. He is currently first-year doctoral student at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University. 

References

Cobb, Sara B, Speaking of violence: the politics and poetics of narrative dynamics in conflict resolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Nelson, Hilde Lindemann, Damaged identities, narrative repair (London: Cornell University Press, 2001).

Zehr, Howard, Changing lenses: a new focus for crime and justice (Scottdale PA: Herald Press, 1990).