An “emotional-and-restorative justice” approach to address bullying

A couple of months ago, at one of the sessions on Peace Education for Conflict Resolution that we conducted at a school in Chennai, we had a session dedicated address bullying. After a round of activities and interactive gamification, we sat down to discuss the impacts of bullying. One of the participants, a girl in Class 6, broke down. Through tears and sobs, she talked about how someone in that room attending the session (we had a mixed group of students from classes 6 to 8) had been emailing her, abusing her through emails, and hurting her. She told us that she had no idea how to tackle it, and through the session, had found her voice and decided to speak up before everyone. She said, to no one and to everyone in particular, that she had lost sleep, lost her appetite, and was walking every step with fear. She asked the person to stop. She owned her story, shared her story, allowed herself the time, space and effort it took to be vulnerable in front of the class. By the end of the session, we had a ten-minute note-writing endeavour, in pursuit of a few moments of reflection. The child who had sent out the emails to the girl who spoke up had an apology to offer. I share this with the child’s consent.
“Sorry,” it said, “that I reduced you to a pile of tears. That I hurt you. That I did this to you. I want an eraser so I can erase all the wrong things I said to you. But I don’t have an eraser. Will you forgive me? I don’t know why I did that to you, but I know why I did it. Someone in my family was hurting me, and I got so angry that I had to show it out to someone. I feel safe now because it has stopped and my parents help me, but I didn’t see that I made you feel unsafe. I am sorry.”
They made peace, and like in many classrooms I’ve seen, they begin to work together to counter bullying. The episode has been on my mind for a long time. I reflected on it, and on some of the other workshops we’ve done around the issue of bullying. The first one that validated our approach, to the one that happened recently — they’ve all had white hot divisiveness turn into peaceful coexistence, and sometimes, lasting friendship that continues as I write this. In almost all the incidents of bullying in the classrooms I’ve worked with, bullies have been victims of violence, themselves, and have tried to take control of their journeys by using violence in a sphere where they felt they could assert their dominance, to offset a sphere where they felt they were unable to.
The value of infusing “emotional justice” in an approach, as I learned from these experiences, in order to address bullying, is tremendous. Coined by Esther Armah, a journalist and radio show host, Emotional Justice is essentially about “working towards remedying the legacy of intergenerational trauma that black people have due to unrelenting cycles of violence.” She explains that it requires “finding and creating the language to describe this trauma and articulating it as a reality, creating space to explore it, dealing with it by developing a counter-narrative.”
What a powerful approach, especially to intersectionality, and oppression!
Before I proceed, a disclaimer: learning from the method to apply it around me, is not intended to take away from the core idea, it’s key goals and aims and what it was established for. Therefore, the crux of Esther’s coinage, the key issue it addresses and the impact it aims at having on the issue, is not in anyway intended to be demeaned or reduced by my piece.
I was introduced to the idea of how emotional justice can operate while having a conversation with an academician in the field of theatre on the impact of restorative justice in the Rwandan context. I learned that a four-fold process that goes into a genocide: dehumanize the victim, provide a system for the eradication of that victim, fund that in some financial way, and make sure that good people do nothing. At a micro-level, this process is true of bullying: dehumanize / exclude the victim, provide a system for the continued hate of that victim, keep that alive with brute support, and make sure that the good people do nothing. In that conversation, I learned the way to counteract bullying, oppression and genocide involves three steps, which was learned from Rwanda: one, the perpetrator must apologize; two, the victim or their representative must forgive for that apology to have any value; three, the two of them must come together to agree to a reconciliation process guided, driven and tailored by them. I learned that people in Rwanda have used this — to the point that a person they once saw as the devil, is now seen as a family member. This process is difficult and incredibly successful in Rwanda — exposing our students to this proves to them that real change through forgiveness is actually possible.
Going back to Esther’s framing of the concept of Emotional Justice, and tying it to what Restorative Justice offers, we have a rather intriguing approach towards ending bullying. Both concepts of justice operate from the standpoint that oppression in every form creates trauma on the one that is oppressed, and this trauma is exacerbated by systems that keep the oppression alive, or refuse to act to end the oppression. This trauma creates personal hurt, and if the bullying has cultural overtones then cultural hurt, and, societal hurt. Addressing these traumas using a combination of emotional and restorative justice can go a long, long way in creating peaceful classrooms today, that translate into emotionally empowered, pain-free, peaceful citizenship, tomorrow.

By Kirthi Jayakumar