By Kerra L. Bolton
Is there a science of human dignity?
John W. Bailie, Ph.D. thinks there is.
Bailie is the president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), the first accredited graduate school wholly dedicated to restorative practices. Restorative practices is “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.”
He recently spoke on his theory about the science of human dignity to a transformational group of leaders, practitioners, changemakers, scholars and community advocates. We gathered at Buda Island in Kortrijk, Belgium to learn more about using restorative practices to enhance community wellbeing and resilience.
Restorative practices include a series of scripted questions, circles, and formal conferences. In nearly every case, restorative practices help participants discover what happened, who was affected, and what needs to be done to make things right.
“When we think about restorative practices providing justice or even social justice, the meaning of that is not about the redistribution of things,” Bailie says. “It’s not necessarily about access to resources. It’s about whether we are providing an experience of human dignity to all of our systems throughout the world.”
In his research, Bailie tackles the desire to be treated with dignity as common to all human relationships. He says this desire manifests as the need to belong, have voice, and exercise agency in one’s own affairs.
“To what extent can we purposefully structure our communities and society around these ideas?” Bailie asks. “They are old ideas that are simple to understand, but sometimes challenging to practice.”
We live in an era of false binary choices that taint our political and social discourse.
Communism, socialism, and fascism are at one extreme and hyper-individualistic global capitalism is at the other. Collectivist dignity (communism, socialism and fascism) requires the individual to subsume their needs, desires, talents and purpose to serve the community. The individual exists only to serve society. Individualist dignity vaults the rights of the individual over society’s needs. It can atomize people and isolate them from their social networks and communities.
“The idea of a zero-sum conflict between communal dignity and individual dignity is a fallacy,” Bailie says. “Societies that force people to choose between one extreme or the other are inherently unstable. The idea is not to think about some medium between the two, but to find some third way.”
A third way can be found in the South African concept of Ubuntu, and the medicine wheel spirituality of Lakota and other Native American, First Nations, and indigenous traditions, Bailie says.
Ubuntu describes a symbiotic relationship between the individual and community; one in which an individual’s essence is linked with the humanity of others. It says an individual’s community, health and faith is connected to others and lived out through our relationship with them. This philosophy is best expressed in the Ubuntu saying, “I am because we are.”
Medicine wheel spirituality, applied to reclaiming at-risk youth, describes four quadrants of the “circle of courage.” Belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity are the four quadrants. Each quadrant corresponds to the four cardinal directions of the Earth, and describe the primary areas that must be restored to achieve wholeness.
“Whatever skills you have mastered, whatever gifts you have been given, whatever privilege you have been born with,” Bailie says, “you might not be able to control those things. But you can turn all you have in the service of others. That (under medicine wheel spirituality) is what makes you whole.”
A Third Way
Restorative practices scholarship, Bailie says, also represents a “third way” between collectivist and hyper-individualist societies.
“The field of restorative practices draws people—sort of like social first responders,” Bailie said. “When there is a fire, there are certain people who run toward the fire. This field draws people who run toward social problems, not away from them. We practice these skills so that we can sacrifice ourselves to some extent, instead of living selfish lives.”
In its concern for the need to belong, have voice, and practice agency, restorative practices scholarship is “beginning to provide a framework for the concept of human dignity that is communicable across cultures and disciplines, via the language of the social sciences and testable through experimentation and research.”
Belonging addresses our need for connection. “Voice” refers to the need to know that our personal story matters, and that we have a safe space to share our stories with others. Agency is the ability to act on our ideas.
“These things act in reverse,” Bailie says. “If you want to oppress or destroy a community…you cut down opportunities for belonging, take children away from their parents, separate parents from one another. You decrease their ability to participate in cultural rituals that engage in storytelling about the tribe. You outlaw the language.”
While Bailie was specifically referring to the oppression of the Irish under Queen Elizabeth I, he could have just as easily been referring to the recent treatment of Latinx immigrants by the United States government.
Expressing Our Humanity
Bailie would be the first to admit that restorative practices are not a panacea, cult, or utopia.
However, restorative practices give us a common language to help us feel connected in a world in which we are increasingly politically divided, despite technological advancements that allow a person in Boston to easily communicate with someone in Bangkok.
Restorative practices provide a simple framework to give people a voice in a noisy world and agency at a time when global events happen faster and with more frequency than we have the time to keep up with. Restorative practices are indeed a social science that allow us to fully express and experience our humanity.