Restoring justice through narrative identity and dialogue

Professors Annamaria Astrologo (Left)  and Sara Greco
Professors Annamaria Astrologo (Left) and Sara Greco

Institutional Communication Service

3 January 2022

In the 18th century Cesare Beccaria, the great Italian thinker of the Age of Enlightenment, established that the purpose of punishment for a criminal act is to create a better society, not revenge. Today, when confronted with certain crimes, we sometimes feel a sense of powerlessness, and so we try to react, perhaps emotionally, by invoking justice and asking the perpetrator to be punished, even if we are not always sure of their guiltiness. However, this request for punishment fails to consider the real needs of the victim who, behind an apparent request for revenge, could be seeking much more or even something else. So, when talking about criminal justice and respect for human dignity, we can – and probably should – reread the enlightened words of Beccaria. Or, we could also explore the more modern theory of restorative justice (RJ) which, in a nutshell, is an approach to justice that looks towards the future, not the past, focusing on what needs to be healed, what needs to be repaid, what needs to be learned in the wake of a crime.

The discussion around RJ in Switzerland is currently underway through the Swiss RJ Forum, which has recently reached the Italian-speaking part of the country with the creation of a Ticino chapter, coordinated by USI professor Annamaria Astrologo. "The objective of restorative justice is in fact to recognise all parties involved in the crime: the offender, the victim, possibly, their families and communities in order to recompose the conflict between them. The very idea of recomposition is opposed to the crime committed. Talking about restorative justice requires courage because it is an ambitious idea of justice that places the person at the centre and has among its founding values the key concepts of consideration, listening and respect for the other person. In this sense, we can perhaps understand this vision of justice as one that converts from a mere conception of justice into a (generic) approach of disagreement management or a true inter-relational method. Restorative culture can, in fact, cast light on different areas: work, education, and social issues, which are all areas in which the essential elements described above become operational tools for implementing prevention and/or intervention strategies in cases of dispute". 

To introduce the subject of RJ in a way that is not only theoretical but also experiential, Università della Svizzera italiana, together with the Division of Justice of the Canton Ticino, has devised an innovative course, as part of its continuing education programmes, addressed to former convicts focusing on the concepts of narrative identity and dialogue. Narrative identity entails that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalised, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life. In order for the respective narratives to be heard and understood, they need to be included in a process of critical and open (argumentative) dialogue. The three-day course, which took place at the USI campus in Lugano during the past month of August, saw a small group of former convicts attending classes to learn and work in groups on subjects such as mediation, reconciliation, dialogue and, of course, RJ. Prof. Astrologo and Prof. Greco were responsible for the course and other colleagues collaborated by organizing part of the lectures. Prof. Sara Greco shares with us the pedagogic approaches and experiences collected during and after the event.

"The course was structured in two parts, theory and practice – just like an ordinary university course. It began with an introduction on the theory of argumentative dialogue and the construction of dialogue spaces, leading to workshops during which the participants applied what they learned. The course was intensive – three full days of classroom activity – but also intense, with emotions and personal situations exposed and discussed. The main objective of the course was to instil a culture of restoration, which can only be done through dialogue, by explaining what is not explicit in context: reasons and emotions. In a way, words are essentially all we have to overcome a conflict. At the end of the three days, the students learned a few basic principles of dialogue, like how to ask questions that are neither offensive nor rhetoric (enabling thus an open conversation) and how to listen to the other person's perspective. The course, though designed specifically for this audience, is one that anyone can attend. The idea of this course in fact was not to discuss the crime-related and justice-related issues but conflicts that may occur in anyone’s experience. This is important in the accompanying our students re-enter society. Indeed, conflict management through the construction of dialogue spaces is especially useful when you are faced with everyday life".

See attached to read the full interview published in Ticino Welcome n.72 (December 2020-February 2022) pages 42-44.

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