In 1854, Dr. John Snow, an early epidemiological pioneer, interrupted a deadly epidemic of cholera by tracing the source of the “poison” in sewage-tainted water to a specific London water pump. For two decades prior to this, Snow had made unsuccessful attempts to shift the prevailing belief that cholera was caused by “miasma in the air.” The cost of societal failure to embrace a new understanding of the origins and spread of disease was over 10,000 lives.
Today we continue to struggle with other epidemics, such as the widespread persistence of interpersonal violence, structural violence, and violence based in inter-racial and inter-ethnic tensions. Not only is the cost great in terms of lost lives and personal trauma, but considerable resources are also spent on attempts to subdue, redirect, and control the violence. Yet, as in nineteenth-century London, we may continue to make little progress in treating this disease until we are willing to honestly re-examine our deeply held beliefs about its origins.
One such “epidemiological” re-examination comes from my (Dominic Barter’s) work in Brazil, which has led me to posit that violence increases as we attempt to suppress painful conflict. Rather than being dangerous, conflict holds within it vital messages regarding unmet needs and areas of necessary change. Given this understanding, safety is increased not by avoiding conflict, but by moving toward it with the intention of hearing the messages within.
During the last seventeen years of working with conflict from this approach, I have observed and systematized the practice known as Restorative Circles (RC), a restorative response that engages individuals and communities undergoing painful conflicts in creating conditions for mutual understanding and collaborative action. The dramatic increases in social cohesion and safety in schools, local communities, organizations and families have prompted the United Kingdom’s National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts to choose Restorative Circles as one of the world’s ten most “radically efficient” social innovation methods.
As an apt symbol of this process, the youth of one Brazilian school now use a circular, glass-walled “fight room” located in the center of their building to address their painful conflicts within the visible presence of the school community.
Perhaps, as our society embraces a new way of understanding the origins of violence, we will begin to regularly see transparent, circular, restorative fight rooms at the heart-center of every community and institution in which people gather to live, learn, work, govern, pray and play.
(Click here to read more free online articles associated with Tikkun's Winter 2012 print issue on restorative justice. Don't miss the print issue's twelve inspiring, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking subscriber-only articles on this topic: subscribe now to read them on the web via the Winter 2012 Table of Contents or order a single copy in the mail.)