Restoration is a metaphor

January 31st, 2013 by Howard Zehr in Key Principles

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.