By Ted Wachtel
I’m so tired of it. I bet you are, too. All the angry tweet wars and nastiness. I’d like to see something more productive happening, that actually helps people make good decisions and resolve conflicts.
For example, Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment, publicly punished Roseanne Barr for tweeting a racist joke by cancelling her popular sitcom. I’m sure Dungey didn’t realize she had a better option — restorative justice.
I don’t mean to blame, but rather to inform people about the possibilities for a new reality. Unlike the chaotic exchange of tweets and press releases that leaves everyone feeling angry, a restorative justice approach—whether formal or informal—provides a calmer, more thoughtful environment. The people who themselves were affected by the incident get to participate directly in the decision-making. How ironic that the public, which has no real stake in the incident but lots of angry opinions, now seems to have more say in the outcome than those who were personally affected.
A formal restorative justice conference, however, brings together those who have caused harm, those they’ve harmed, and some of both parties’ family and friends. By meeting together, those directly affected gain a shared understanding of what happened and a voice in how to resolve the problem, rather than engaging in a public shouting match.
Based on Roseanne’s first statements apologizing to Valerie Jarrett, the former Obama adviser who was Roseanne’s target, I think Roseanne would have jumped at the chance to participate. Jarrett, who publicly noted the importance of making the incident a “teachable moment” would likely have agreed as well. All those who were directly affected would have been invited, including Channing Dungey herself and representatives of the cast and crew.
Research outcomes confirm that such events are reliably satisfying. Valerie Jarrett would likely receive a proper apology and acknowledgement from Roseanne. Roseanne, if she were humble, would get reciprocal acknowledgement from Valerie Jarrett and others. I can imagine John Goodman telling Roseanne, “You really screwed up, but you know we all love you.”
I can even imagine Dungey reconsidering her decision to close down the show, possibly in exchange for a commitment by Roseanne to provide concrete ways of making amends and to change her behavior in the future. Black comedian Wanda Sykes, a consulting producer for the show, might have reconsidered her participation. But even if the decision to end the show was sustained, the opportunity for a face-to-face exchange makes it easier for everyone to accept decisions in which they, at the very least, have had a say and received an explanation.
If you doubt that communication and apology work better than public punishment and angry exchanges, consider how Starbucks, only weeks before the Roseanne uproar, reacted to a video of a racial incident that went viral. Two black men were unjustifiably arrested by police after refusing to leave a Starbucks coffee shop in a predominately white Philadelphia neighborhood, where they had asked to use the toilet while waiting for a friend.
The leadership of Starbucks responded to the widely publicized incident by taking an informal restorative justice approach. As if in a restorative conference, they modeled sincere apology and thoughtful communication. They personally flew to Philadelphia and met with everyone. They did not abruptly fire the store manager. Rather, they took responsibility and recognized that their company’s policies needed to be changed and clarified for their employees. Instead of retribution toward their employees, they set up a nationwide half-day racial bias training for all their staff throughout North America. The company settled with the two men and donated money toward a local entrepreneurial program for Philadelphia youth.
Rather than fuel an angry public exchange, Starbucks fostered an atmosphere of reflection. In that kind of atmosphere, the Philadelphia police commissioner publicly apologized to the two men and said the episode warranted a change in police procedures.
For more than two decades, my colleagues and I have been implementing “restorative justice” in school and criminal justice settings. Restorative justice deals with the emotional implications of crime and wrongdoing, and seeks to repair harm and restore relationships. Courts and schools, on the other hand, do not deal with the emotional implications of wrongdoing. They just hand out punishments and shame offenders.
Research shows, however, that restorative justice provides significant benefits. Even if offenders receive prison sentences or other sanctions, they can still participate in restorative justice. Participants report high levels of satisfaction and fairness. Victims experience a dramatic reduction in post-traumatic stress. Offenders are significantly less likely to re-offend in the future.
And because people get a chance to talk with one another, the community itself is restored. That’s what our public community needs now, in response to all these public offenses: less angry tweeting and more opportunity for thoughtful conversation.