A conversation with Federico Reggio[i]

BP: Federico, I am really happy to have this conversation with you. Perhaps the Coronavirus situation in Italy which has locked you at home in Verona now, will at least play in my favour[ii].

How does a restorative scholar go through such a complex social phenomenon? What are some of your thoughts and feelings at the moment?

FR: Brunilda, I am also very happy to have this conversation with you. I am currently at home in Verona. Any movement is reduced to the essential, and basically, everyone who can, is working from home (e.g. I am doing online lectures at my University in Padova, where all the teaching activities have been moved to online platforms). Socially, the situation is almost unreal and hard to understand to which extent the emergency has arrived, but trying to watch the phenomenon from a “helicopter point of view”, there are a few considerations that we can outline.

Piazza Bra, Verona, 12 March 2020 @Skyline Webcams

The first question on my mind these days, for instance, is the following: do situations like these tend to bring to the fore the extreme tendencies that are already there? In Italy we have witnessed reactions spanning from trying to cut down to size of the phenomenon (in different ways – from joking to providing such reassurance through medical or apparently scientific arguments), to amplifying alarms, to ignoring alerts. Amidst such schizophrenic reactions, I see how mass-media have played a very important role, acting both as “shop windows” and “amplifiers” of the phenomenon. Has there been correct information? Has there been… information at all? One sometimes has the feeling that each source of information tends to vehiculate, rather than a “complex and honest picture of the situation, as far as it’s known”, some “pre-determined theses” that have already been adopted as editorial lines. This has involved also “scientists”, and their opinions have been used according to the theses that the mass-media seemed to adopt.

We have seen something similar in the debate on climate change: media are spanning from catastrophism related to human influence in the environment, to absolute denial of any relationship between climate change and human activity. So, I think that mass-media, and information as a whole, need some critical rethinking. In times in which social networks allow anyone to say anything (we saw so many people turning into experts of virology, these days!), at least “official” sources of information could play a different role and rediscover the real function of “information”. Maybe it does not provide much share at the beginning, but if you look not only at “clicks and likes” but also at reliability and credibility, this could be a worthy investment, mostly in a mid-long-term perspective. Sadly, mid-long terms perspectives are the ones we have progressively lost, due to cultural and philosophical developments of our contemporary societies. Still, it is urgent to rediscover them.

A second consideration regards people’s sense of responsibility. The above-mentioned confusion does not help, but in emergency situations, like this it is the people who are invited to adopt measures directed to protecting themselves and the others. It is not only in Italy that people – with different degrees changing from Region to Region, from North to South – have difficulties to understand the justification and the implication of rules that are meant to reduce social contacts and risks of infection. Throughout social media it is frequent to read or see people that “just don’t care” about the rules and keep living their lives and having fun. This is not, actually, anything new: just have a look at how the spreading of AIDS had affected the communities that were most exposed to the virus, and you will see that in the 80’s some of them decided just to “party harder” rather than adopting precautions.

The issue, then, once again shows to me that rules alone are never enough, especially when they’re not supported by personal engagement and personal responsibility, and by the reflection on the “reason why” certain rules exist and need to be respected (this reason acting as an interpretation criteria that also enables or prevents “exceptions”). As a restorative justice scholar, this touches the strings of my personal sensitivity: rules are there not just to impose limitations, but mostly in order to habilitate, protect and restore a correct reciprocity and mutual responsibility. So, if this is true, the attitude to regulation, reciprocity and responsibility is a key-factor.

This leads me also to another consideration: how is the EU facing this situation. How have countries shared information? Have they been cooperative? Have they been transparent? Have they shown solidarity, unity, common commitment in protecting the people that live in Europe? I might be wrong, but what I mostly see (again, from the Media, so I might have inherited some biases from them) is that European countries still consider themselves concurrent one with the other, and in this situation suspicion, commonplaces, biases, speculation take the lead. If this is true, it shows that there is an emergency in Europe and this is not dealing with finance, but rather with her “soul”. The coronavirus crisis is showing, for instance, that “cuts” to the welfare and to health-care services have led to the difficulty of dealing with such an emergency. But these cuts have often been strongly pushed by policies whose priority list was clear and directed to a sacrifice of welfare in the name of financial parameters. I am conscious that the situation is more complex than that, but I wonder whether we’re just avoiding the issue of trying to match economic efficiency with social justice.

All in all, this situation is – like any crisis – a surely a challenge, but also a chance. A chance to rethink many things that have been taken for granted. For instance, now that we’re all closed at home – in my case alone, with no chance to stay with my beloved ones, that do not live with me – we have the chance to savor some things and rethink some others. We can understand the importance of relationships, of freedoms, of health, the pleasure of enjoying life – and this is not to be taken for granted! Not forgetting… that many people in the world have already been experiencing this in a structural way. Moreover, loneliness, being at home, can also help showing how much we just “rush” in our normal lives, running from one place to the other, from one meeting to the other, from one “deed” to the other, leaving other priorities aside. This is a situation similar to the biblical “desert”. You can experience deprivation, but also a return to the essential, a chance to review your life from a different perspective. This includes also, in my own view, the chance for some spirituality. I don’t mean “spirituality” only in religious terms, but as a “situation” in which you can experience your being connected to other “dimensions” rather than the “self” the “here and the now”, the daily “to-do-list”. Among the reflections that spring from cultivating spirituality I see the following questions: “how am I facing this situation of limitedness and fragility?” “can this help me understand something (more) about my being human, about my place in the world”?

Be it natural or an OGM, this virus – so small and so dangerous in the meantime – is showing that human “sovereignty” in the world is all but solid and justified. It comes spontaneous, then, to think about how many times we, humans, have pursued dreams that have turned into nightmares, or exploited other humans, or nature, under the illusion that “having a power on something” means “having control”. The truth is that “power without responsibility and respect” is often just a face of violence. And you never know when a spiral of violence will sooner or later turn you into a victim as well.

Restorative justice has taught me to be sensitive to power imbalances. It has also taught me to understand connections, as well as impacts of behaviors on other people’s lives. So, through this restorative lens, the whole emergency of coronavirus shows me that there’s a warning in the air, and it is not just about saving ourselves from a possible pandemic. The warning is: how are you dealing with your fragility and your human limitedness? Can you understand that this is common to all human beings? Are you trying just to overcome limits, or to deal with them in a respectful and, still, constructive way? Restorative justice shows that experiences – including those that cause fear, grief, loss, anxiety – can be turned into chances for “making things right”. And, even when it seems impossible, or just far from being realized, a change is possible, if you’re wearing the lenses that enable you to see it and to take your own responsibility in that process. But, as any real change, it needs a mix of “ingredients” that can make it happen: humbleness, commitment, sacrifice, vision, realism, patience, flexibility, taking some risks… and having hope.

BP. This all reminded me of the recent piece that Valerie Braithwaite wrote last December from the burning Malua Bay in Australia. In the midst of extreme adversity, she also had some precious reflections on grief, anger, solidarity, trust. This is nothing new though, probably our best literature and philosophy is made in extreme conditions. Character is also made at the edges. The very material of the human soul are ethical choices, difficulties, ruptures. Societies are perhaps not very different.

I would like to ask you further about something you were reflecting upon: limits. Have you ever thought about the idea of limits in relation to restorative justice? For example, Nils Christie wrote on limits. For him it was limits to (man-made) pain. But he relied on Ivan Illich and his ideas on Limits to Growth. The prisons in Italy right now are quite a symptom that reflected some of the problems you were mentioning. Has our justice system lost its limits? In terms of reaction, in terms of proportion, in terms of quality, in terms of essence?

FR. Actually, the issue of “limit” is a core-concept in my own philosophical perspective, affecting also my work on restorative justice, which is supported by what I called a “dialogical” idea of justice. I can try to resume it this way, hoping it’s neither too long nor too simplistic.

We, human beings, are structurally limited under many different viewpoints: limited in time and space, limited in our knowledge, limited in our possibility of viewing things as a “whole”. We are part of the whole, so we cannot have an “absolute” point of view. Acknowledging such limitedness does not fully deprive of legitimacy the contents that human being can outline across time, neither does it mean that such contents are radically unfounded and undeterminable: it rather suggests that human beings are structurally “indigent of truth” (I am drawing this also from my mentor’s work, Francesco Cavalla). Consequently, none of our concrete expressions – be these rules, behaviours, or procedures – can be considered as ultimate, absolute, non-revisable.

This does not mean falling into sceptical relativism. “Indigence of truth” means, socratically, entering an unending research, which is not solipsistic but open to dialogue. In this “search for truth” – whose implications are epistemic, ethical and existential as well – no human being is superfluous, no human being can be silenced or set free from asking and providing reasons, and no one, in fact, is provided with definitive reasons or arguments for claiming that another human life is meaningless and therefore to be treated as though it was an ‘object’. In a situation in which no contingent expression or idea can claim to be definitive, everyone is bound to a dimension of continuous ‘asking’ that expresses both her/his own inherent limitedness and her/his own capacity to try and search for answers and provide reasons in support of personal convictions. In such a situation – which we may also call dialogical dimension – all human beings are reciprocal to each other and mutually involved as subjects entitled to ask questions and offer answers. Limitedness shows here a double nature. It is not only a “limitation” but also a “starting point”, as it opens and binds human beings to enter a research through the dialogue with each other. Denying such a dialogical principle embodies both a contradiction (denying the condition of indigence falls into the contradictions of either sceptical relativism or dogmatic absolutism) and, potentially, an act of violence.

This last consideration is a bridge-concept that shows how a dialogical approach can be applied also to the theory and practice of criminal justice. I cannot fully stretch these concepts here (for more see my essay “Dialogical Justice” published in Civilising Criminal Justice), but it is possible, at least to see some general corollaries of what I have previously said: (1) first, the idea of crime as a harm to persons and relations (as it violates the dialogical condition); (2) second, the impossibility of considering punishment as a mere ‘application of legal norms’; (3) third, the consequent refusal of a self-referring and self-grounded idea of legal order, in favor of a conception of law that is itself consistent with the dialogical principle and respectful of its implications. This means that also the legal order – be it embodied by a certain criminal justice system – (4) cannot “restore its validity” without respecting the dialogical principle, acting both as a delimitation of power and as a goal that justifies the presence of legal regulation as a means for enabling, protecting and restoring relationships of mutuality and respect among persons. Consequently, (5) also the instruments that a legal system adopts to face the issue of human conflict ought to be studied in order to preserve, enable and foster dialogue to the maximum extent possible. You can easily see how these philosophical considerations are aligned with a restorative approach and can sustain it.

This goes straight to your question on the prison issue, which is of course part of a bigger picture that requires a non-ideological rethinking. Considering imprisonment as “the one and only” way to deal with the reaction to crime does not work, neither theoretically or practically, as a large amount of specialized literature has shown from different angles. Yet, we should not be naïve and remember that there are many issues at stake that need to be confronted into a systemic view, open to complexity: often those who criticize the prison system tend to forget about the issue of protecting social security and taking care of victims; on the other hand, those who think of protecting social security are seldom open to thinking about alternatives to imprisonment or to a different meaning of punishment…and so these positions remain stuck into a view that does not embrace the problem in all its complexity. Not forgetting, these arguments have political implications and ideological roots.

I guess it’s time to transcend narrow views and open to complexity and to the courage of rethinking legal and mental schemes. We must sadly recognize that the Western world seems to have forgotten what systemic thinking is. The issue that lays behind such consideration is huge, and I will just name it, without deepening it: the underlying problem is the question about the prevalence of techno-economical thinking on humanism, which seems to characterize at least the last 500 years of Western history, with an increasing progression that nowadays might have reached its peak.

Reaction, proportion, quality, essence: those words that you related to justice embody, all of them, fundamental issues that need to be faced without recurring to easy answers, commonplaces, political interests: the challenge is to leave “narrow”, “short-term” and “utility-based” attitudes and to start taking the question on “what justice is” and “what does justice require” as a very serious one. This cannot be faced through a techno-economical lens, in my opinion.

It is here that I personally see one of the most courageous and ground-breaking aspects of restorative justice: the attitude to thinking about justice into a “paradigm”, to take the challenge of thinking outside the schemes, without losing contact with reality, as it happens when restorative justice invites to consider also crime as an experience involving people and relationships in different ways and at different levels.

BP. How optimistic are you in light of what you are suggesting? The techno-economic approach seems to me currently overwhelming, and the humanistic approach to be fading away, almost literally, for ex. l am thinking of how the disciplines of humanities are being cut out and considered as being superfluous. And besides that, do you also feel that restorative justice has currently been turned into a method and stripped of its true dialogical potential? l am thinking of its relationship with other disciplines, but also with other fertile traditions of thought.

FR. It’s hard to say. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the Lord of the Rings: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Tribute to Gandalf, Lord of the Rings, Italy, Street art by Flet @StreetArt360Magazine on Twitter

This leads me to two further considerations: one philosophical, the other historical. The important – let’s say so – spiritual, philosophical acquisitions that each culture at some point gains are always there to be forgotten, mistaken, but also re-discovered and revitalized. In the history of western culture (I can only talk about that) there has always been some “dialectic” between a more humanistic and a more technical approach: I am thinking about, for instance, Plato and Anaxagoras in classical times; the evolution of the Scholastic after Thomas (on one hand voluntaristic, on the other rationalistic), Vico’s critic to the Cartesian metaphysics and to the rationalism of his time in the early XVIII century and so on.

Vico had quite a clear idea that Western culture, already in 1700, was adopting a rationalistic and techno-utilitarian approach as predominant, yet his voice remained unheard and his alternative path remained some sort of “discarded paradigm” as I argued in 2018. We can nevertheless access his approach and draw from it. So, was it absolutely a defeat? Or was it a seed left somewhere to others, who can plant it and try to make it grow? During the XX century many philosophers tried to rediscover the dimensions of “praxis” of “phronesis” of argumentation, and thereby to restore a space for a humanistic approach to knowledge, ethics and other disciplines. They did it drawing from ancient traditions, but also renewing and enlarging them with new contents and argumentative paths. There is a long list, but to name a few authors, I think of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Hans Georg Gadamer, Juergen Habermas, Robert Spaemann and Charles Taylor (not forgetting, from a more ethical-theological viewpoint, Martin Buber and, more recently, in dialogue with many philosophers, Joseph Ratzinger). There is quite a treasure of thought that we can still access and draw from, if only we can re-enlarge our vision, our approach to culture, our approach to research, which has also become too techno-economic, too specialistic, too number-centered, mostly unable to regain a humanistic view.

So, getting back to your question, yes, I am pessimistic, but I don’t feel it’s time to give up. I think this is a time for a new commitment, for going against the flow, and it’s not easy, as the main trends and flows of our contemporary societies are heading towards the opposite direction.

As to your question on restorative justice, I totally agree with your concern. The “reduction of restorative justice to a method” is a true risk. It can be partially understood by the fact that, after 45 years, in which the core of restorative justice has been outlined and has reached a wide audience, now it is urgent to put it into practice, to take it away from its “Indian reservoir”, and to show all its potential… in the real world. This is how, probably, people came to focus on “how to make restorative practices work”, and from here to reducing restorative justice to methodology it is not such a long road. Moreover, this is quite a tricky situation, as it leads back to a typical bias that affects a predominantly “technical” approach: focusing mostly on “how it works”, rather than on deeper and wider questions (the “why” and “for which purpose” and “under which conditions” questions, for instance). Such an approach is often characterized by an underlying prejudice, according to which thinking, researching, asking questions, widening perspectives, deepening conceptual premises is, in the end, “useless”. I mean, in a sense, it is truly “useless”, if you consider utility from quite a narrow perspective. We could say, though, that some of the most important and meaningful things in life are “useless”, mostly in a short-term, pragmatic perspective: so, is utility the only parameter we have?

We ought not to forget, anyhow, that restorative justice’s enormous potential lays in the fact that it came out both as a practical attempt (think of the first VOPS in North America) and as a conceptual paradigm, as Howard Zehr has reminded, also in recent times. We can and must “do” restorative justice, but restorative justice requires also a perspective, a sensitivity, a way of thinking: it can’t be reduced to practical rules, methodologies or operative protocols. If this is not clear, there is a risk to witness the development of practices that, under the “restorative” umbrella, keep doing something that responds to other logics, rules and goals. That would be a way to “empty out” its innovative strength from inside.

BP. I couldn’t agree more, and I know Federico that you are quite committed to recover and revisit philosophical roots and make new connections that can support us to develop further the restorative thinking. Which non-English sources would you find most worth looking into, and how you plan to do that?

FR. The restorative paradigm was supported by the work of many inspirational scholars, and thanks to their efforts, it has developed and remained some sort of “open workshop”. I believe, nevertheless, that it could be important to enlarge this network of studies and work. This could be done by (re)discovering the work of scholars that do not belong to that “core” of restorative justice-related studies, but that could contribute to it with some further ideas. This, first of all, regards those studies related to criminology, philosophy of punishment and other connected subjects, that did not enter the “network” of restorative justice scholars, due to a variety of reasons, such as, for instance, time (being written before the consolidation of the restorative paradigm), language (the lack of English translations), or lack of direct link to restorative justice. As you know, I have brought this idea to the attention of the research group at the European Forum for Restorative Justice.

The second level of this “enlargement” of views is outside the subjects strictly related to criminal justice. Restorative justice needs a legal system and needs to be ruled within a legal framework, but I am also convinced that the main premises under which our legal systems and legal mentalities have been articulated are hardly compatible with those premises and goals that restorative justice has embodied. In one word, it is not only criminal justice that needs some rethinking: it is the whole idea of law. Restorative justice supports a contextual, relational and mostly “habilitative” conception of law, which is the opposite of what came out, in our Western countries, since the beginning of the modern mentality.

So there is much work to do, but without doing that, you’ll always meet lawyers, judges, prosecutors, legislators (and the list is long) that, once you explain to them what restorative justice and which goals it pursues, will likely reply “nice: but this is not my job”, or “nice, but my job is to apply the law, and what you suggest is not compatible with my legal system”. Or, if it’s compatible, it’s destined to stay at the borderlines of that system, taking care of a minority of cases and never accessing the “core” of the reaction to crime.

I am also conscious that such “enlargement” should be careful not to obtain the side-effect of “diluting” restorative justice into some kind of vague aspiration, at is it might happen whenever you face the challenge of working on “restorative justice AND…”, with the risk that you would completely lose restorative justice’s specific role. I wonder whether this shows that restorative justice is one part of a bigger network (conflict transformation?) in which connections should be explored, but also distinctions maintained.

I think that, aside with the issue of dialogue, we should not forget how important is the element of “reparation”, when we are talking about restorative justice: without that, restorative justice is easily reduced to a methodology, or to some sort of pre-theory of mediation, while it is much more than that. Of course, a fully restorative process should include dialogue, participation, “reparation”, possibly within the framework of a consensual model, but, as we know, this would reduce restorative justice to a very limited number of cases and situations. The challenge is to “inform” a whole system with a restorative lens, knowing – on the one hand – that not all the instruments we have can be “fully” restorative, but also taking care that – on the other hand – we’re not diverting restorative justice from its fundamental principles.

This shows, once again, that the issue on “principles” and underlying philosophy is vital, probably much more than the one on methods, which is still quite important: most of all it shows that the work on restorative justice always requires to keep an eye on principles, goals and underlying premises. Theory and practice, innovation and critical thinking, projecting and analyzing are and ought to remain strongly related: that’s why, organizations like the European Forum for Restorative Justice, for instance, play an absolutely precious role in fostering these connections.

This also invites us to move beyond the mainstream of contemporary philosophy that, in my opinion, was precious in making us become more conscious of the limits of our knowledge, and, in a sense, more humble, but probably went too far, often “digging its own grave” by adopting skeptical-relativistic frames, which are unable to “support” a paradigm, due to their structurally non-foundational character, and, mostly, result to fall into self-contradictions. Once again, the issue of “foundations” ought not to be easily dealt with, as it goes to the heart of philosophy’s struggles and difficulties since the second half of the XX century.

BP. Federico, it has been a pleasure to have this conversation and I look forward to developing common projects together, to look at foundations anew and make new discoveries. I hope the coronavirus will be merciful to all of us in terms of health implications, it has certainly taught us more that we could have ever imagined, without each other our lives are meaningless, and for that reason we need to have each other’s backs, protect one another, and especially the bond between us as the most precious good. We are all lost without it.

[i] Federico Reggio is currently Senior Researcher in Philosophy of Law at the University of Padova (Italy), where he also teaches Legal Methodology. He is a lawyer, mediator, and currently member of the Research Group of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. Apart from his academic involvement, Federico has been training civil mediators in North-Eastern Italy, thereby developing a personal perspective, designed around a “Socratic” model of mediation. Federico has brought to restorative justice sustained links with philosophy in general and philosophy of law in particular. Besides his Giustizia Dialogica (2010) and several other publications on restorative justice, worthwhile mentioning is his last book on Giambattista Vico, Il paradigma scartato. Saggio sulla filosofia del diritto di Giambattista Vico (2018).

[ii] The interview started during Italy’s lockdown, but the lockdown has meanwhile extended to Belgium, and to most European countries.