HONOR AND SHAME: LOCAL PEACE-MAKING THROUGH COMMUNITY CONFERENCES*
Thomas J. Scheff
(Aug. 4, 1997)
Formal peace treaties between warring groups are made from the top, through
representatives of the groups in conflict at the highest levels. In cases
where it has proven difficult to arrive at a formal treaty, the problem
is usually that there is insufficient support for peace at the grass roots
level. At least part of the impediment to peace is usually emotional: each
party feels insulted and dishonored by the other. Formal peace-making procedures
seldom deal with these feelings. This essay proposed an approach to building
a foundation for peace at the lowest levels through the use of community
conferences in the control of crime. Community conferences, when managed
skillfully, might deal with both the crimes at issue and the emotions which
block peace-making. By referring non-capital political and terrorist crimes
to the local community, it may be possible to begin the process of bridge-building
between the antagonistic groups in that community. Since the idea that emotional
motives might impede peace-making is novel, I first will deal with this
Collective Emotions in Protracted Conflict
Current discussions of sustained disputes usually focus on conflicts
of interest and outlook between the contending parties. The Second World
War is a good example of a dispute in which there were clear, indeed, indelible
differences of interest and outlook between the opposing sides. The Allies
had good grounds for believing that their survival was at stake, since the
Axis powers were driving toward world conquest. In the case of the First
World War, however, the conflicts of interest and outlook were minimal (Scheff
1994). There were of course many points of contention between the Allies
and the Central Powers, but since none of them were fundamental, they could
have easily been dealt with by negotiation and compromise. For this reason,
the causes of the First World War remain a major unsolved problem for the
disciplines of history and political science, as do many other wars which
were fought over seemingly minimal conflicts of interest and outlook. Why
would opposing sides risk mutual ruin over relatively minor issues?
My approach to this question concerns the collision between human intelligence
and collective emotions which go unacknowledged. We know that humans are
intelligent enough to find a compromise that will resolve disputes, even
complex ones, a compromise that will bring maximal gains to the contending
parties, or at least minimize the damage.
When each party feels insulted and humilated by the other, however,
the ability and desire to negotiate is the first casualty. When honor is
at stake, negotiations which center on rational, non-emotional goals, as
most formal peace-making does, are largely irrelevant. The
*This paper is a modification of Scheff T, Crime, Shame, and Community:
Mediation against Violence. Wellness Lecture Series. 1996, Volume VI. UC-Wellness
Foundation Distinguished Lecture Series. Berkeley, CA.
Contending sides in the instigation of the First World War didn't even
go through the motions of planning for formal peace-making and negotiation.
The Germans, particularly, felt humiliated by a long series of relatively
minor diplomatic victories by the French and the English, and the French
had been suffering since 1871 from the humiliation of their defeat in the
Franco-Prussian War, and the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.
"War fever" triumphed over rational negotiations. Each side sought
in warfare a revenge for the humiliations, real and imagined, that they
had suffered from the other. And neither side had been able to acknolwedge
the shame that they felt had been visited on them, their loss of honor.
The acknowledgment of shame is painful, but it is also relatively brief.
Once shame is acknowledged, a person or group can go on with their lives.
But when it is not acknowledged, it pervades and disrupts thougts and actions,
and disrupts relationships with others. One path that unacknowledged shame
can take is masking the shame with anger, and acting upon the anger with
aggression. This sequence, unacknowledged shame-anger-aggression, I suggest,
is the causal motor for protracted disputes which do not involve fundamental
differences in interests and outlook. Unacknowledged shame is the emotional
basis for sustained resentment, anger and hatred between persons and between
groups, it is the emotional side of alienation. But if persons or groups
can begin to acknowledge their shame and alienation, then they can also
begin rational negotiation and reconciliation.
In the remainder of this essay, I will suggest how a new procedure for
controlling crime, community conferences, might be used as a vehicle for
acknowleding shame. I propose that the acknowledgment of shame for both
the offender and the victim is the main factor in effective conferences,
and that if the conference contains the right mix of members of the community,
might also become a means of acknowledging and dispelling shame at the grass
Mediation of Conflict
In recent years, an alternative approach to conflict, a worldwide mediation
movement, has been building momentum. This movement-alternative dispute
resolution (ADR)-has the potential to decrease violence and to resolve many
kinds of conflict. The form of ADR most relevant to violence is victim-offender
mediation, which is in use in many areas around the world. This essay focuses
on a new form of victim-offender mediation that could both decrease crime
and violence and build support for a peaceful settlement of political conflict:
Community conferences divert the offender(s) away from the court into
an alternative system that utilizes a meeting between victim, offender,
and other interested parties to reach a settlement of the case. It has been
in use for some time in New Zealand and Australia for many types of crimes.
Since 1989, when a conferencing law was passed in New Zealand, more than
half of all juvenile offenders in that country have been dealt with in this
way, rather than through the courts. In Australia, conferences are being
used for both juvenile and adult crimes. And last year, this format was
introduced in Philadelphia in the United States and in London, England.
The community conference is the most developed form of victim-offender
mediation. Last year my research partner, Suzanne Retzinger, and I served
as consultants for a comparative study of crime control being conducted
in Australia, the United States, and England. We attended nine conferences
in three Australian cities (Adelaide, Canberra, and Campbelltown), viewed
videotapes about community conferences, and consulted with police officers,
facilitators, and researchers. We came away from this experience with a
strong impression of the potential of community conferences for reshaping
any system of justice by involvement of the community.
Because it deals directly with emotions and involves relevant persons
in the community, the community conference corrects two deficiencies of
the court/prison system: its failure to attend to the victim's needs, and
to involve the community directly in the justice process. Although conferencing
is not appropriate for every offender, its use in selected cases of politically
motivated crimes could have a powerful peace-making effect on warring factions.
The format of community conferences involves a facilitator, the victim
and his or her supporters, and the offender and his or her supporters. In
the conferences in Australia, the facilitator is usually a police sergeant,
but in some jurisdictions, social workers, mediators, or others are used.
Unlike most mediation, this format always involves representatives of the
larger community participating directly in the outcome. For ordinary crimes,
the groups can range from only the offender and victim and their parents
or other supporters to as many as 30 or more participants. For the peace-making
effect to be maximized, in the case of political and terrorist crimes, the
groups should probably be much larger.
The involvement of representatives of the community avoids the "white
room" effect. In most mediations, only those persons directly in conflict
are present. The absence of other interested parties isolates the proceedings
from the outside world and often, therefore, precludes effectiveness. In
contrast, community conferences closely resemble the form that justice takes
in most traditional societies, in which small communities handle their own
crimes rather than delivering the offenders into the hands of legal and
Offenders who participate in community conferences are selected by the
police or the court according to the type of crime and whether or not there
are questions of fact to be decided. If there are significant questions
of fact, the offender goes to court; if not-that is, if the offender has
confessed to the crime-he or she may be diverted to a conference. In Australia,
sex crimes must go to court, as must capital crimes in both Australia and
New Zealand; but many other serious crimes are conferenced.
A well-known case in New Zealand involved armed robbery of a convenience
store by two juveniles. Both offenders were required to make restitution
and do community service. However, the victim, an elderly woman, was so
taken with one of the juveniles that she hired him to work for her. The
other offender was required to return to Australia to live with his mother
(a punishment he apparently perceived as cruel and unusual). The successful
outcome of this case was the result of direct communication between offenders
and victim, rather than of a procedure for ascertaining facts, which is
the function of the courts.
Selection of Facilitators
Facilitators for large conferences on political and terrorist crimes
would need to have considerable skill and cunning in order to manage the
intense emotions that would be likely to arise in the meetings. An equally
important task would be organizing the meeting in the first place, by selecting
the participants. Although some guidance in selection of the participants
would come from the victim and the offender, the facilitator would need
to envision the overall composition of the group that would be likely to
manage the tasks of bringing justice to the offender and to the victim,
but at the same time setting the stage for bringing the two opposing groups
closer as a result of the meeting. Certainly the facilitator would need
to exclude any sizable group of persons who would be likely to disrupt the
reconciliation process because of implacable ideological views.
As in conferences for ordinary crimes, participants for conferences
for terrorist or other political crimes would need to be selected with an
eye particularly for those on each side that will be more likely to feel
and express their vulnerable emotions. As will be discussed below, expression
of the painful emotions like grief , fear and shame is a key to the success
of conferences no matter what the type of crime being considered. For this
reason it is important that the facilitator herself contact the potential
participants, rather than delegating this job to clerical personnel. The
feeling out of the emotionality and political committments of potential
participants would need to be done diligently and skillfully.
The facilitator would also need to be a person trusted by both sides
of the conflict. Even if trust did not exist before the meeting, the facilitator
would be in a position to build trust prior to the meeting by talking, if
only by phone, to each of the potential pariticpants individually. Too much
stress cannot be put on the importance of the pre-meeting arrangments in
arriving at a successful outcome. With conference groups larger than thirty
persons, it might be desireable to have one or more co-facilitators, who
could help not only with running the meeting, but also with the lengthy
process of selecting and communicating with the participants prior to the
meeting. Large meetings would involve time and expense, but would still
be much less time-consuming and expensive than the typical court proceeding,
and hopefully much more effective in reaching both short term and long range
Finally, the facilitator would need the skill to detect unacknowledged
emotions, and the self-confidence that is needed to intervene in order to
bring these emotions to the surface. The emotion of self-righteous indignation,
a key component on both sides in protracted conflict, is a mask for unacknowledged
shame, as will be discussed below. A skilled facilitator will be able to
intervene to stop torrents of self-righteous indignation, in the first instance,
and in the second, to channel the underlying emotions to the surface. One
such maneuver is to interrupt the speaker by asking questions, such as "Excuse
me, but can you tell us how you felt the very first time that you found
out about this situation?" My experience as a small groups leader is
that this question, if pursued relentlessly, will stop the river of self-righteous
indignation and lead to feelings of fear, embarassment, shame, or grief.
At that moment, the entire sense of the meeting changes, because basic emotions
held by most of the group have come to light.
It is widely recognized that the court/prison route is both expensive
and not very effective in controlling crime, and that it has little if any
effect on gang and other types of group violence. Evidence is now available
that victim-offender mediation is not only cheaper than court and prison,
but also more effective in decreasing recidivism.3 One of the great advantages
of mediation is that in the confrontation between offender and victim, the
offender confesses his crime, is likely to recognize its consequences for
the victim, and therefore is able to accept responsibility for his actions.
For the most part, the court/prison system encourages offenders to deny
their responsibility, which may be one reason for the high rate of recidivism.
In a political context, the adversarial nature of the proceedings probably
serves to reaffirm the conflict, rather than diminishing it.
Conferencing also may be relevant to the problem of group conflict, since
its extended format allows for bringing together the two sides to the conflict,
with the families and officials of a neighborhood or community. Such a meeting
might lead to discussion, and even resolution, of more fundamental problems
than just the particular offense that led to the conference. At the very
least, some of the conflict in values between the offender(s) and the community,
and within the community could be aired. Such a meeting might be as educational
for the community as for the offender(s). The surfacing and sharing of individual
shame and collective shame, in particular, can lead to a basic realighnment
of the whole group. This latter issue will be discussed further below.
The conference procedure promises both to reduce the cost of crime control
and to make it more broadly effective in controlling crime and reducing
tension. To the extent that police forces become involved, conferences could
also transform officers' attitudes toward their job and toward offenders,
since face-to-face meetings allow them to see both offenders and victims
as human beings. In Australia, all of the groups participating in the conference
process were highly satisfied, but it was the police who expressed the highest
degree of satisfaction. And because representatives of the community participate
directly, conferences also might be a significant step toward rebuilding
community in cities, and between disputing sides.
Admittedly, mediation is not useful for truth-finding. For crimes in
which significant facts are in dispute, there is still no substitute for
a court trial. Courts of law are truth machines: the adversarial system
and the rules of evidence are necessary for cases in which facts are disputed.
The court system is the best mechanism we have for dealing with such conflict.
However, if the facts are not disputed-that is, if there is a confession
or a plea bargain-then the cumbersome and expensive court machinery is unnecessary.
In most societies, a large percentage of criminal cases are settled without
trial (either by confession or by plea bargain). The array of highly paid
professional personnel-judges, attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs, etc.-need
not be involved in these cases.
This is not to say courts and prisons are not necessary, even in these
cases. Their very existence leads to many confessions and plea bargains,
because many, if not most, offenders confess or plea-bargain in order to
avoid trial and imprisonment. The existing court system serves many necessary
functions; but it need no longer be the first line of defense against political
crime. The first line could be the conferencing-mediation system I describe
here. This issue is germane even to political conflict, since the offenders
of non-capital crimes would probably have the same motivation as ordinary
offenders; to avoid prison by cooperating with the conferencing process.
The conference format typically involves four steps. First, the offender
describes his or her offense in detail. Next, the facilitator asks the offender
to describe the consequences of the offense, how it affected him, and how
it affected the victim and others. Thirdly, the victim and the victim's
supporters tell how the crime affected them. This step is often highly emotional,
with visible tears and/or anger. The last part of the conference entails
working out a settlement that is acceptable to both victim and offender.
This last step, the working out of the settlement, is an informal version
of court procedures. But the first three steps all involve crucial emotional
elements-the exchange of feelings and developments in the relationships
between the participants. These processes are virtually absent in the court/prison
system. When this emotional part of the conference is managed successfully,
the new procedure has a powerful advantage over the one that takes place
in the courtroom.
The most important strength of mediation is that it allows direct communication
between offenders and their victims. With direct communication arises the
possibility of community involvement in the disposition of the case. Direct
communication also allows for the possibility of negotiation, understanding,
confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness-that is, symbolic reparation,
repair of the moral values and social bonds that have been threatened by
the crime and the damage it caused.. Because direct communication between
offender and victim is ruled out by the court system, so is the possibility
of symbolic reparation. Since symbolic reparation is much less well understood
than the material aspects of reparation, most of what follows is concerned
with spelling out how it works.
MATERIAL AND SYMBOLIC PROCESSES IN CRIME CONTROL*
Material reparation. Material and symbolic reparation occur side by side
in community conferences. Material reparation leads to the actual settlement:
the undertakings agreed upon by the participants to compensate the victim
and society for the offender's crimes. These reparations almost always
consist of restitution or compensation for damage done, as well as some
form of community service and an apology. The process of arriving at a settlement
is verbal, highly visible, and largely unambiguous; it provides the ostensible
purpose for the meeting.
Underlying the process of reaching a settlement, however, is the much
less visible and more ambiguous process of symbolic reparation. This process
involves social rituals of respect, courtesy, apology, and forgiveness,
which seem to operate somewhat independently of the verbal agreements that
are reached. Symbolic reparation depends on the emotional dynamics of the
meeting and on the state of the bonds between the participants. The emotion
of shame and the negotiation of shame dynamics, in particular, are of critical
importance to this process.
The core sequence. For symbolic reparation to occur, two steps seem
to be necessary. The offender first must clearly express genuine shame and
remorse over her actions. In response, the victim can then take a first
step toward forgiving the offender. I call these two steps the core sequence.
It is the core sequence that generates repair and restoration of the bond
that was severed by the offender's crime. The repair of this bond symbolizes
a more extensive restoration that is to take place between the offender
and the other participants, the police, and the community. When the offender
accepts responsibility for his actions, then the stage is set for his reacceptance
into the community: he need not become a habitual offender. Even though
the emotional exchange that constitutes the core sequence may be brief-even
a few seconds-it is the key to reconciliation, victim satisfaction, decreasing
recidivism, improved relationships between the opposing sides in the community.
The core sequence, as crucial as it is in itself, also affects the material
settlement. Emotional conciliation typically leads directly to a settlement
that satisfies the participants-one that is neither too punitive nor too
lenient but seems more or less inevitable. Such a settlement is a creative
response to the situation, and develops naturally out of it. Without the
core sequence, the path toward settlement is impeded; whatever settlement
is reached does not decrease the tension level in the room but instead leaves
the participants with a feeling of arbitrariness and dissatisfaction. Thus,
it is crucially important to give symbolic reparation as much importance
as the material settlement. Unless this is done, conferences may turn out,
in the long run, to be only marginally better than traditional court practices.
Symbolic reparation is the vital element that differentiates conferences
from all other forms of crime control. It is also the element that has the
most potential for reconciling groups in conflict.
Community conferences observed. In our study of crime control, my co-investigator
and I were impressed by the power of the conference format. We consider
it to be a justice machine, as contrasted with the court, which is a fact-finding
and punishing machine. In a conference-independent of the development of
a material settlement-the movement seems to be toward justice and reconciliation.
Nevertheless, in eight of the nine cases we observed, we had the feeling
of difficulty, tension, and arbitrariness in reaching an agreement. The
vital component of symbolic reparation, the core sequence, occurred only
once during the formal part of the nine conferences we observed. But in
three cases, the core sequence seemed to occur immediately after the formal
meeting was over.
The exception in which the core sequence occurred during the formal meeting
was a case in Adelaide. It involved a large and powerful juvenile who had
stolen from one of his fellow residents in a halfway house. This offender
stonewalled through most of the formal proceedings, giving minimal responses
and showing the other participants the top of his head (his chin resting
on his chest) and the soles of his shoes. But when it came time for his
apology, he surprised everyone present by looking directly at the victim
and making a heartfelt statement that went far beyond the formal requirements.
His action drained away the tension in the room, so that the settlement
that was reached seemed satisfying and inevitable.
In three of the cases, the vital movement from shame and remorse to forgiveness
may have occurred immediately after the formal end of the conference. In
two of these cases, we observed the victims in what appeared to be normal
conversation with the offenders while they waited to sign forms. In the
third case, the facilitator, who escorted the participants out of the building,
reported that the victim had patted one of the offenders on the shoulder
after he had made a tearful apology to her. These three instances suggest
that it might be advantageous to build in a delay after the formal end of
the conference, such as the signing of a written agreement, which would
allow the participants to complete their unfinished business of symbolic
Some community conferences work better than others. How can the difference
between an effective and an ineffective conference be explained? The emphasis
here is on a new idea: the emotion of shame. This emotion, which is usually
hidden, is a strategic part of the conference process (and of all forms
of mediation); if managed properly, it can be the key to a successful conference.
One framework for understanding the role of shame in community conferences
can be found in Braithwaite's concept of reintegrative shaming: that is,
enough shaming to bring home the seriousness of the offense, but not so
much as to humiliate and harden.4 (Braithwaite and his associates have
published a series of articles describing conferences and their outcomes,
most recently in 1994.)5 There was a time in England when thieves were punished
by branding their foreheads with the letter F (for felon). This punishment
actually led to an increase in crime: since the branded felons were excluded
from ordinary life, they had no alternative but to become professional thieves
and highwaymen. The symbolic branding of the offender is one of the key
pitfalls not only of the court/prison system, but also of the community
conference: too much shame can be just as destructive as too little.
With juveniles, the problem of too little shame in the conference seldom
arises. Even before the first words are spoken, the typical offender is
deeply ashamed. If asked to nominate friends for participating in the conference,
the young offender will usually recoil: he or she doesn't want friends to
know. But with adults, the issue of too little shame comes up frequently.
In the widespread problem of "drink-driving" (as it is known in
Australia), the typical offender doesn't feel guilty of any offense. He
was simply stopped at a police barricade and found to have too high a level
of blood alcohol. Another difficulty in many of these cases is the absence
of a victim, and therefore of high levels of emotion. In the drink-driving
conference I observed in Canberra, the offender and his family denied feeling
any guilt at all. Even the facilitator, a police sergeant, seemed to agree
that a real man could hold a six-pack of Australian beer. In these types
of cases, creative means of overcoming denial and lack of emotion are sorely
needed. But in any and all cases, the effective management of shame dynamics
may be the key to a successful outcome.
For conferences to be maximally effective, two separate movements of
shame should occur. First, all shame must be removed from the victim. The
humiliation of degradation, betrayal, and violation that has been inflicted
on the victim must be relieved. This step is a key element in the victim's
future well-being; it is the shame component-the victim's feeling that if
only he or she had acted differently, the crime wouldn't have occurred or
would have been less painful-that leads to the most intense and protracted
suffering. The usual handling of crimes through courts and imprisonment
does very little to relieve the victim of her suffering. Perhaps this is
the main reason that many victims and much of the voting public want to
visit excessive punishment on offenders, to make them suffer as their victims
The removal of shame from the victim is accomplished by the second move:
making sure that all of the shame connected with the crime is accepted by
the offender. By acknowledging his complete responsibility for the crime,
the offender not only takes the first step toward rehabilitation, but also
eases the suffering of the victim. For the shaming of the offender to be
reintegrative, however, the facilitator must take care that it not be excessive,
as already indicated. Humiliating the offender in the conference makes it
almost impossible for him both to accept responsibility and to help remove
shame from the victim. By recognizing and encouraging the core sequence
of emotions, as described below, an effective facilitator can direct the
offender toward rehabilitation and help relieve the victim's suffering.
It is difficult to discuss shame dynamics as a major factor in conferences
because of the repression and suppression of shame in Western societies.
In certain Asian and other non-Western societies, shame covers a wide variety
of feelings, including embarrassment, modesty, and shyness, as well as more
intense and negative feelings such as inadequacy, rejection, and humiliation.
But in Western societies, shame has been restricted to only the intensely
negative feelings. For that reason, in Western societies shame leads an
The idea of hidden shame has been popularized by John Bradshaw.6 Bradshaw
has been effective because he comes out of the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous,
the one institution in our society that recognizes shame. Shame is an integral
part of many of the exercises required by AA, such as the listing and acknowledgment
of shameful actions by the participants.
In earlier publications, Retzinger and I have argued that shame is subject
to disguise and hiding in modern societies.7-10 A key finding in our work
is that one can feel shame about shame, and shame about that, and so on,
without end. This idea that one can be ashamed of being ashamed leads to
the concept of continuous loops of shame, which may be the explanation of
how repression works. In the case of crime, this kind of stigmatizing shame
by self and/or others leads to the exclusion of offenders from the community.
In order to manage shame beneficially, it is necessary to recover the
positive, reconciliatory uses of normal shame from the maws of repression
and silence, and to relearn its value as a powerful emotion for forming
community. As sociologist/psychoanalyst Helen Lynd notes, "The very
fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one can find
ways of sharing and communicating it, this communication can bring about
particular closeness with others."11 The idea expressed in this passage
is crucially significant for community conferences: if the offender can
come to the point of "sharing and communicating" his shame instead
of hiding or denying it, the damage to the bond between the offender and
the other participants may be repaired.
The nature of the formal apology in community conferences provides a
good example of the crucial part that acknowledging shame plays in the drama
of conflict and reconciliation. Formal apologies are an important step in
all forms of victim-offender mediation. The chance that a conference will
produce healing and repair is significantly linked to the quality of the
apology-that is, its genuineness.
But what is a genuine apology? One formulation is that not only must
one say that one is sorry, but one must feel sorry.12 What are the emotions
involved in feeling sorry? As the word sorry itself indicates, one of the
emotions is sorrow or grief; a genuine apology involves sadness. But the
most important emotion in a genuine apology is probably shame: the offender
must be ashamed of what he did, and this shame must be visible to the person
receiving the apology. (Although Tavuchis does not make this point, William
Miller (1993) does). It is this shame -along with other emotions, such
as grief-that allows a preliminary bond to be formed between offender and
victim, because the offender's visible expression of emotion allows the
victim to see the offender as a human being.
Another reason that recovering the full breadth of the shame concept
is important for the conference process is that shame often spreads among
all of the participants. The offender will be ashamed because she stands
publicly accused of wrongdoing. The offender's supporters will be ashamed
because of their relationship to her. The victim will be ashamed in the
sense of feeling betrayed, violated, and/or impotent. The victim's supporters,
insofar as they identify with her, will share this kind of shame. If all
this shame is disguised and denied, it inhibits the participants from repairing
the bonds between them, and therefore interferes with symbolic reparation.
This last point is extremely important in understanding the emotional
bases of protracted conflict between groups. A terrorist act involves not
only physical violence, but also emotional violence, and insult that can
damage or destroy the civil bond between the offender's group and the victim's
group. The cycle of violence and counter-violence as revenge is too well
known to need extended commentary. But I propose that this cycle can be
broken in a context which allows the expression and dispelling of shame
on both sides of the conflict, since it is the unacknowledged, and therefore
pathological shame which provides the motor for the conflict.
It is therefore an issue of great importance for the operation of conferences
to distinguish between pathological and normal shame. Braithwaite has proposed
that effective crime control requires normal (reintegrative) rather than
pathological (spiraling) shame.4 By paying close attention to the particular
way shame is manifested, it is possible to distinguish, moment by moment,
between the two forms of shame as they occur in the conference.
According to Retzinger, manifestations of normal shame, although unpleasant,
are brief, sometimes lasting only a few seconds.8 Shame, anger, and other
related emotions that persist continuously for many minutes are pathological.
Shame is a highly reflexive emotion, one which can give rise to long-lasting
feedback loops: as already mentioned, one can be ashamed of being ashamed,
and so on, around the loop, resulting in withdrawal or depression. Or one
may be angry that one is ashamed, and ashamed that one is angry, and so
on around that loop. Furthermore, shame-anger loops can occur between, as
well as within, participants. Indignation can be contagious, resulting in
mutual and counter-indignation. Both individual and social emotional loops
can last indefinitely. Continuous, relentless emotions (such as continuing
embarrassment, indignation, resentment, and hatred) are always driven by
unacknowledged spirals of shame.
Shame plays a crucial role in normal cooperative relationships as well
as in conflict. Shame and embarrassment are normal signals of a threat to
any social bond. If the other person is too close in some way, one feels
invaded or exposed. If the other is too far, one feels invisible or rejected.
Cues to shame and embarrassment (such as blushing, stammering, speaking
too softly, looking away, and so on) allow one to know where one stands
in a relationship. Similarly, pride signals a secure bond. Shame is the
emotional cognate of a threatened or damaged bond, just as threatened bonds
are the source of shame. Normal shame is thus an essential building block
of relationships and of community.
If, as Goffman and others have argued,13 normal shame and embarrassment
are an almost continuous part of all human contact, we can see why the visible
expression of shame by the offender looms so large in symbolic reparation.
When we see signs of shame and embarrassment in others, we are able to recognize
them as human beings like ourselves, no matter the language, cultural setting,
or context. The central role of shame in human contact has long been recognized
in the scientific-humanist tradition, as expressed by Darwin, Nietzsche,
Sartre, and many others. To understand the way that successful conferences
run on normal, reintegrative shame, we first need to overcome our view of
shame as a disgraceful emotion to be denied and hidden from self and other.
PATHS TO SYMBOLIC REPARATION: REFRAMING INDIGNATION
AND ELICITING PAINFUL EMOTIONS
In order for the offender to clearly express genuine shame and remorse,
the trigger for symbolic reparation, he needs to be in a state of "perfect
defenselessness."12,14 At the critical moment, the offender needs
to place himself completely at the mercy of the victim, uncovering his repressed
emotions. The victim also has a role to play, being aware of the offender's
feelings. Since, in modern societies, states of perfect defenselessness
and keen awareness are unusual even in private, much less in a public gathering,
this is a task of some magnitude. How can the offender and victim be encouraged
to overcome the effects of repression in the presence of the participants,
whose own emotions are highly repressed?
The principal paths seem to be:
1. reframing displays of aggressive emotions such as anger and moral
indignation against the offender, and/or
2. eliciting a vivid expression of the painful emotions caused by the
crime from at least one of the participants, usually a victim or a supporter
of the victim.15
These two paths to symbolic reparation are related; as described below,
reframing aggressive emotions can lead to vivid expressions of painful ones.
The aggressive emotion that predominated at the conferences I observed
was moral indignation by the victim, the victim's supporters, and-when he
or she was present-the arresting officer. Moral indignation would also be
the principle emotion to be expected in conferences concerning political
and terrorist crimes. The offender and the offender's supporters would represent
one side of the conflict, the victim and the victim's side the other. In
this context, feelng of moral indignation and moral superiority by each
side over the other might be extremely intense.
I understand moral indignation to be a particular manifestation of shame
and anger. The victim, especially, is likely to feel the shame of helplessness,
impotence, betrayal, and/or violation in response to the offense against
her. However, this shame is usually not acknowledged-by the victim or others-but
masked by the more visible emotion of anger. Repetitive and relentless anger
at the offender is an effective defense against feeling shame. It is unacknowledged
shame that drives repetitive episodes of moral indignation. If this shame
can be acknowledged (along with other hidden emotions such as grief and
fear), anger and moral indignation directed toward the offender will be
relatively short-lived and constructive.
The shame component, the main emotional freight carried by indignation,
is hidden even in dictionary definitions of the word indignation, which
emphasize only anger. To find the shame component, one has to go to the
root word, indignity, which means a humiliating insult to one's self-respect.
How is one to detect moral indignation? One study hinted at the key indicators
when it described "helpless anger" (shame-anger) in one subject,
Rhoda, directed toward her aunt, Editha: "she [Rhoda] is so choked
with emotion at the unreasonableness of Editha's behavior that she cannot
begin to describe it accurately."16 This study describes the indicators
of helpless anger, using terminology such as "helpless exasperation"
and "sarcastic exasperation." Rhoda's language implies that Editha's
"violation of normal standards is so gross to the point of straining
our verbal resources."
This description of "helpless anger," and especially "exasperation,"
comes close to what I saw as moral indignation in the conferences. The helplessly
angry person feels unable to describe the enormity of the other's trespass,
not because she is particularly unable, but because the trespass feels so
overwhelming that it would defy description by anyone. The feeling that
an emotion is so unmanageable is a clue to the repression of the occluded
emotions that are driving the conscious one.
Furthermore, the use of "sarcastic" points toward a second
dimension of indignation. The subject seems to feel that the enormity of
the trespass is so glaring that her audience should (but doesn't) feel as
strongly about it as she does. The sarcasm is directed not only at the offender,
but also at the audience that is not as riled about the offense as it should
Protracted indignation thus interferes with a feeling of mutual identification
(a secure bond) not only between victim and offender, but also between the
victim and the rest of the participants. To the extent that indignation,
a shame-anger loop, pervades a conference, it isolates the participants
from one another.
This analysis suggests a central point about the management of indignation:
if it is to be discharged, the expression of anger should be reframed so
that the underlying emotions (shame, grief, fear) can surface and be discharged.
Unless shame is acknowledged, expressions of indignation are likely to continue
without relief.7-10 The detection and reframing of moral indignation is
thus a crucial component of effective conferences, requiring skill and
sensitivity on the facilitator's part.
The crucial point about moral indignation is that when it is repetitive
and out of control, it is a defensive movement. It involves two steps: denial
of one's own shame, followed by projection of blame onto the offender (I
am not dishonorable in any way, whereas the offender is entirely dishonorable).
For the participants to identify with the offender, they must see themselves
as alike rather than unalike (there but for the grace of God go I). Moral
indignation interferes with the identification between participants that
is necessary if the conference is to generate symbolic reparation. Thus,
uncontrolled, repetitive moral indignation is the most important impediment
to symbolic reparation and reintegration. On the other hand, to the extent
that it is rechanneled, moral indignation can be instrumental in triggering
the core sequence of reparation.
Shame-rage spirals can take forms other than moral indignation. Forms
such as self-righteous rage17 or narcissistic rage18 are not often seen
in conferences. These other forms are likely to be more intense than indignation,
and more likely to lead to verbal or physical assault. Compared to these
other forms, the unacknowledged shame in moral indignation is close to the
surface, and more easily accessed by skillful questioning.
TWO TYPES OF MORAL INDIGNATION:
SELF-RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION AND MORAL SUPERIORITY
In the cases I witnessed, moral indignation appeared in two forms, self-righteous
indignation, the more flagrant form, and moral superiority, the more covert
Self-righteous indignation. This was expressed most frequently and relentlessly
by the victims, but also in some cases by the victims' supporters and even
the offenders' supporters, especially the offenders' parents. This emotion
was conveyed not only by what was said, but more strongly by how it was
said, and in what context.
For example, the two victims in a fraud case in Canberra bombarded the
offender with demands for material reparation (one demanded the return of
the money, the other that the offender help protect the victim's reputation).
Their manner as well as their words conveyed their self-righteousness, their
feelings of betrayal by the offender, their distrust of him, and their feelings
of helplessness and anger. The repetition of their demands, especially-in
spite of the responses by the offender, the crying of the offender's wife,
and the attempts by the facilitator and the investigating officer to intervene-clearly
signaled the victims' intense indignation. The repetition of a request,
when it disregards the other's responses, is at best challenging and in
many cases actually insulting. Such repetition is disrespectful and rejecting:
it implies that the indignant person is not listening to the offender, that
the offender is not listening to the indignant person, or, more potently,
that the offender is lying.
Self-righteous indignation was also expressed frequently and intensely
in a break-in and theft case in Campbelltown. In this case, not only the
victim but also the parents of the offenders expressed indignation. In the
case of the victim, her flagrant indignation took the form of incredulity;
she was incredulous not so much that the crime could have been perpetrated
against her, but that the offenders were capable of such a deed. As for
the parents, they could hardly believe that their children could be involved,
that is, that the conference involved them (the parents). Similarly, the
parents in a Canberra shoplifting case also expressed incredulity that their
son could be a thief, but indirectly; most of their comments seemed geared
to distance them from the offender (their son), because they saw themselves
as hardly the kind of people to be spending time in a police station. Incredulity,
hardly being able to believe what has happened, is a highly visible sign
of self-righteous indignation.
Moral superiority and overt threats. A second, more covert form of moral
indignation is moral superiority. It occurs frequently in the form of lecturing
to the offender, particularly by police. The arresting officer in the cases
we saw in Adelaide always gave some form of moral instruction to the offender.
This tactic signals the moral superiority of the instructor to the offender,
and therefore threatens the bond of mutual identification between them.
In one case, in Campbelltown, even the facilitator joined the chorus; he
gave the offenders a lengthy lecture on the nature of conscience.
The lecture usually contained a threat as well, which also disrupted
rather than forged the social bond. A threat implies that the offender is
not responsible but needs an external goad to behave. When there is mutual
identification, threat is unnecessary. In Adelaide, the arresting officer
always threatened the offenders with court. In the break-in and theft case
we observed there, the arresting officer was at first highly respectful
toward the offender, and solicitous of his rights. But later in the conference,
perhaps because she felt the offender had not sufficiently expressed shame
and remorse, she became very emotional, lecturing the offender on how "stupid"
and "silly" it was to break the law, and on the certainty of strong
punishment. At this point her outburst showed self-righteous indignation
as well as feelings of moral superiority.
In the same conference, the victim of the break-in expressed moral indignation
and perhaps a sense of violation by her repetitive description of each of
her material losses and of the loss of the keys and locks for her house.
The discussion of finding the stolen key and of the problem and cost of
changing the locks went on at some length. Along with her account of the
material losses, this discussion absorbed a significant proportion of the
In this instance, and in several other cases, a skilled facilitator might
have been able to interrupt the display of indignation by interpreting it
in terms of a sense of betrayal, helplessness, loss, and violation. (In
the Canberra fraud case, however, it would have taken a great deal of skill
and self-confidence on the part of the facilitator to be able to stem the
torrent.) Although it may be necessary to allow a preliminary outburst of
indignation at the offender, it is important that the facilitator be trained
to detect repetitive waves of indignation, and that he or she be skillful
enough to reframe them. To be able to manage most of their cases successfully,
facilitators need to be trained not only in procedures, but also in detecting
and reframing covert emotions.
THE HIDDEN SHAME IN INDIGNATION
In a case of school vandalism, the moral indignation of one of the victims
was so indirect as to be difficult to detect and manage unless the facilitator
were highly skillful. It is worth looking at this instance in some detail,
since it illustrates the way in which the shame that underlies indignation
can be hidden not only from others but from oneself. The victim, Fred Johnson
(a pseudonym), was a middle-aged teacher at the school that was vandalized.
The vandalism consisted of defamatory statements about the teachers spray-painted
on the walls of the school. Johnson was the principal victim, since he was
the subject of three insults, each of the other teachers having been the
subject of only one. To make clear the nature of these insults, it is necessary
to quote the actual defamations:
Johnson is an old folgie [fogey?].
Mr. Johnson sucks dick with Mr. Smith [another teacher].
Mr. Johnson is a bald-headed cocksucker.
The author(s) of these particular defamations was unknown. The offender
admitted to spray-painting only one statement, intimating a homosexual relationship
between two students. Under repeated questioning, the offender maintained
that he had no knowledge of who had spray-painted the graffiti about the
From the beginning of the conference, the pattern of Mr. Johnson's behavior
suggested unacknowledged shame. When she introduced him, the facilitator
was puzzled by his presence, since she had understood that he was to attend
only if the principal couldn't be there to represent the school. Mr. Johnson
explained that he had decided to attend along with the principal because
he wanted to comment also.
When his turn to speak as a victim came, Mr. Johnson first denied injury
to himself. He explained that having taught as long as he had, "this
kind of slander was water off a duck's back." He further denied injury
by explaining, somewhat defiantly, that contrary to what students think,
teachers stick together; one of his fellow teachers had phoned him about
the defamations so that he wouldn't be surprised by them. Like his presence
at the conference, these comments were somewhat gratuitous: they seemed
unnecessary, and they were carefully addressed to the air rather than to
any particular person.
Having denied injury, Mr. Johnson then launched into an indirect verbal
assault on the offender. He stated that when he counsels students, he tells
them that such slander is cowardly. Johnson was insulting the offender but
only indirectly, since he was calling him a coward only by implication.
He repeated this insinuation three more times, saying that students who
resort to such actions are cowards, underhanded, and have no guts. When
it was her turn, the offender's mother felt called on to refute the charge
of cowardice by saying that her son couldn't be a coward because he played
Mr. Johnson's words and manner suggest a shame-rage spiral. He seems
to have been humiliated by the defamations, but he could not acknowledge
this feeling even to himself. A statement such as "I was upset and
offended by the graffiti" would have been a step toward the acknowledgment
of shame. Instead, rather than express his shame and anger, he denied injury
and attacked his putative attacker with an indirect verbal assault on the
The basic problem with indignation, which is a kind of impotent anger
(a shame-anger loop), is that if it is repeated enough it can damage the
potential bond between the victim and the offender. The torrent of criticism
and disrespect from the victim or other indignant participant almost surely
gives rise to defensiveness in the offender; this is the very opposite of
what is needed for symbolic reparation, namely, that the offender open himself
to be able to express true remorse. Moreover, since the offender usually
displays his "cool" from the beginning, his behavior unfortunately
triggers defensive anger in the participants, and therefore sets up a vicious
circle. This cycle of insult and counterinsult is counterproductive; it
is the basis for destructive and unending conflict.8,10
Perhaps the basic job of the facilitator is to ask questions that cut
through the defensive stance of the participants. In this way a successful
conference maintains a balance between anger toward and respect for the
offender, between shaming and reintegration. Patient, respectful questioning
by the facilitator could have helped Mr. Johnson acknowledge some of his
feelings of being ridiculed and insulted, and thereby might have eased the
attack on the offender.
Another way of helping an offender to acknowledge her responsibility
would be to enlarge upon the formula used in Canberra when separating the
offense from the offender. For example, if the air is thick with indignation,
after condemning the offense, the offender's supporters might be asked to
name some of the offender's good traits. The facilitator could then summarize
their positive comments to bring the distinction between the bad offense
and the good offender into high relief. This tactic would need to be handled
with some skill and discretion to avoid antagonizing the victim's camp.
Such initial support might make it possible for the offender to remain
emotionally open in the face of moral indignation. Perhaps if a space of
this kind were created initially for the offender, she would become less
defensive whatever the participants' emotional responses.
ENCOURAGING THE EXPRESSION OF PAINFUL EMOTIONS
A complement to the reframing of moral indignation is the tactic of encouraging
the expression of painful emotions. This idea was developed by Terry O'Connell,
a police sergeant whose work in a predominately Aborigine community was
instrumental in bringing conferencing to Australia.15 The offender may express
genuine shame and remorse, even if she has defended herself against moral
indignation, under certain conditions. If the victim or supporters of the
victim clearly express painful emotions (such as grief) that were caused
by the offender's crime, the offender may be caught off guard and identify
with that pain, to the point that her defenses are breached. Under these
conditions, she will then show the shame and remorse that are necessary
to generate the beginning of forgiveness in the victim. In a case already
mentioned above, the victim was highly indignant during the whole formal
conference. Yet, afterward, when the offender offered her a tearful apology,
she patted him on the shoulder, indicating identification and a step toward
forgiveness. This entire episode took less than a minute, yet it was probably
the most important event in the entire conference.
O'Connell gives emotionality pride of place in the conference process.
The chief focus of the facilitator in organizing and presiding should be
setting the conditions that will allow painful emotions to be felt, expressed,
and shared by the victim, the offender, and other participants. However,
it is important to realize that the kinds of emotions that O'Connell is
referring to are primarily the painful emotions, such as grief and shame,
and not the aggressive ones, such as rage and anger. The goal of the facilitator
is to encourage the former and rechannel the latter. As already indicated,
if aggressive emotions are interrupted and reframed, they may give rise
to the expression of the painful emotions that are needed to trigger the
The skills needed to facilitate a conference successfully involve detecting
and negotiating emotional and relational states, a far cry from the traditional
concerns in police recruitment and training. In fact, these skills are unusual
in our Western society as a whole. Even in the training of psychotherapists
and mediators, behavioral and cognitive skills are emphasized, to the detriment
of emotional and relational skills. To the extent that police officers and
other facilitators develop the understanding and skill needed for managing
conferences, to that extent will they also begin to transform prevailing
police attitudes and the relationship between law enforcement and the community.
This transformation and the building and empowering of the community are
the three great goals of the conferencing movement. Therefore, the use of
conferences and the training of facilitators for them could represent a
powerful force for reducing crime and reducing the intensity and duration
of conflict between groups.
EDUCATION AND MEDIATION
I have urged that community conferences be tried as an alternative to
courts and prisons in those cases in which political and terrorist offenders
have confessed (with the exception of capital crimes). This approach promises
to be a more effective way of managing these types of cases. This approach
could have many desirable effects, such as helping to rebuild community,
transform police attitudes, and possibly decreasing emnity between disputing
However, community conferencing is only an indirect approach to crime
prevention and building community. To attack the problem close to its roots,
it would also be desirable to introduce mediation and conferencing into
elementary and secondary schools and colleges. The first step would be to
develop classes based on mediation ideas and skills. The direct effect of
such classes would be to give students skills in negotiation and peacemaking.
These skills would serve students their entire lives, enabling them to communicate
and negotiate their needs and settle their differences peacefully, avoiding
subterfuge and violent confrontation.
When taught properly, mediation courses are highly dramatic and would
probably be popular. Through the use of role-playing, students could exchange
roles, alternately playing the parts of the victim, offender, and facilitator.
In this way, they would learn to view disputes from different viewpoints,
not only their own. This experience, of understanding the world from others'
points of view, is an important building block of community.
The idea of mediation might be too sophisticated for elementary and junior
high school students. But similar ideas could be introduced in a course
dealing with family and peer relationships: the skills of negotiation, communication,
and compromise with one's parents, siblings, and schoolmates. These classes
could begin early in elementary school, perhaps in the fourth or fifth grade.
In such classes, students would learn valuable lessons: that talking has
many advantages over fighting, and that most human relationships can be
enhanced by negotiation and compromise.
A parallel step in education would be to use family and community conferences
for responding to student offenses and misdemeanors. In this way, many offenses
could be handled by the schools themselves, without calling in police. Using
conferences in educational institutions could provide an avenue for strengthening
those institutions by enabling them to handle offenses in their own domain.
Schools in Australia, New Zealand, and England have already had considerable
experience with this procedure.19 Participation in conferences of this
kind would also give students mediation experience with real offenses, and
so would supplement their course work in mediation classes.
In all likelihood, the use of conferencing to mediate settlements in
criminal offenses and the establishment of conferencing and mediation classes
in schools would helpfully reinforce each other. Students who have learned
mediation skills, for example, might be less likely to resort to crime.
And if they have been involved in a community conference, either as offender
or as victim, they would also have learned how to participate more effectively
in one. The spreading of conferencing and mediation skills throughout a
society could direct us away from excessive coercion and punishment and
lead us toward more cooperative societies.
This essay suggests that community conferences for controlling political
and terrorist offense might offer a way of peace-making from the bottom
up, since it would involve local communities in the settlement of both interpersonal
and intergroup conflict. Community conferences on crime might expose and
modify community involvment in the conflict. In particular, the community
conference may allow for the sharing of individual and collective shame,
the first step toward defusing feelings of resentment, anger, and hatred.
In this way, conferencing of political offenses could be the occasion for
meeting and conciliation between opposing groups.
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