Want inclusion for a more gracious society? Restore don’t punish

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Last Saturday I wrote a post about my response (as a parent of an autistic son) to a recent bullying incident in my country that received a lot of media attention. The victim in that incident was an autistic teenager who had graduated from the same school my son’s now in.

An edited version of that post had also appeared in the national daily as a Forum letter.

The thing about having one’s letter made public is you run the ‘risk’ of someone responding in a different way with a different point of view.

(In the spirit of healthy discourse, I guess ‘risk’ would be the wrong word to use. For embracing differences in opinions lies at the heart of my inclusion message; meaning different, dissenting even disagreeable voices deserve their day in the sun.)

Well, two days ago, such a ‘risk’ was actualized. A lady’s letter was published in the same daily, and it was a direct response to my letter; she even named me specifically in one of her paragraphs!

In the letter, she contended that parents bear sole responsibility for the attitudes demonstrated by their children.

While there’s no denying the important role parents play in raising kids, her letter compelled me to write a response to reiterate the points I made in my original letter.

Though this second letter I wrote for publication was rejected by the national daily, I’ve reproduced it below as an ongoing record of my efforts to stay true to my message of advocacy for inclusion in society.

More importantly, I wish to continue calling out the insufficiency of punishment as a convenient consequence, and Restorative Justice (RJ) as a more effective and sustained answer to juvenile delinquent behaviors like bullying.

To see RJ as a way forward to making ours a more gracious, kinder society for my children to grow up in. One that believes acts of inclusion — in the form of giving a young person a second chance (in this case the bully) — are efforts well worth their weight in gold!

My 2nd Letter rejecting punishment and advocating inclusion

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A parent’s role is certainly pivotal when it comes to raising what reader Ms Pereira refers to in her March 25th letter as “responsible and civic-minded adults.”

In many instances, that role trumps all others, going by studies that show how much of society’s problems can be traced to an absentee parent.

However, we cannot downplay the functions of others too, including siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, technology, the law and media. “It takes a village to raise a child” is not a line but a fact of life, as any family will testify.

So parents’ role, though critical, is not exclusive.

When I spoke of punishment as a ‘bandage’ in my previous letter, the point I was making was that “punishment”, with its inherent negative connotation, is insufficient in and of itself to infuse values expected of a gracious and inclusive society.

In fact, punishment in the eyes of the law actually has five recognized purposes: to deter, incapacitate, rehabilitate, retribute and restitute. None of these however emphasise “restoration”, which teaches us that while we can always choose our actions, we often cannot choose the consequences. However we can come together as a community to focus on restoring broken relationships, and emerge stronger and wiser together.

That bullying incident has happened, and laying the blame squarely on parents alone will not help.

But what we can do is bring “the village” into a collective discussion on how best to move forward to achieve “restoration”. Doing so would be longer and harder, but the outcome would also be stronger and more permanent, especially when everyone affected is invested in working things out.

Sadly, in our fast-paced urban society where efficiency rules, such discussions rarely occur. Punishments, like the expulsion of that bully, are seen by far to be quicker and more expedient to mete out justice. It suggests we as a society will not hesitate to make perpetrators pay, even if they are teenagers who have lots to learn.

But how does that align with our push to be more gracious and inclusive?

For “punishment” will not achieve better outcomes in such instances; only fear and submission.

As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “The broad effects which can be obtained by punishment in man and beast are the increase of fear, the sharpening of the sense of cunning, the mastery of the desires; so it is that punishment tames man, but does not make him ‘better.’”

[PS The authority’s response to my original letter, Ms Pereira’s, and other concerned members of the public can be found in today’s daily here. It seems the outcome of expulsion for the bully still remains. ]

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