Of all of the coursework I did in my social work program, I think the classes I took on DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) left the strongest impact on me. While I don’t have enough training or the proper setup to be a fully fledged DBT practitioner, many DBT concepts profoundly inform both my clinical work and how I engage my communities. The core concept of dialectical thinking struck a chord with me. The dialectical aspect of DBT involves the ability to sit with two conflicting versions of reality with the understanding that neither reality negates the other. A DBT practitioner would encourage her clients to switch their perception from “either-or” to “yes-and.”
This is also the first rule of good improv comedy. Given that improv is all about connecting with a scene partner, it makes sense that there is overlap between improv and DBT skill sets. “No/but” shuts the conversation down. In improv, as with life, if scene partners cannot acknowledge and integrate each others’ realities, a scene has nowhere to go. We also see this in politics and internet discourse. When two sides fail to come together and and really hear each other’s concerns, what results is an enraged and futile shouting match.
It can be easy to forget this basic principle when, instead of interacting with people face to face, you are engaging words on a screen. It’s all too enticing to fall into the trap of perpetual self-righteous anger. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times and places for outrage. Unfortunately, after a certain threshold, it just isn’t an effective tool for change. For change to really happen, it’s important that we learn when it is time to put the anger away and start listening to each other. This requires a ton of work and emotional maturity. Also, let’s face it, there is something deeply gratifying about self-righteous anger. It feels good, it feels productive, and it does not require us to take ownership of our own shortcomings. The source of blame becomes completely external, which is a far less vulnerable feeling position.
Whenever I bring up restorative justice principles as means for addressing abuse, I get a lot of pushback. This happens most when I talk about having empathy for perpetrators as a means of holding them accountable. More often than not, I will be asked some variation of “So you’re saying we have to coddle a rapist? Isn’t that rape apology? What about the victim? She’s the one who needs to heal, not her rapist.”
From my perspective, these arguments demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of yes-and. Yes, the survivor needs to heal. Yes the survivor needs to be given all of the resources needed to become healthy and whole. And admitting to wrongdoing, especially for those who were acculturated as men in our society, kicks up a dust cloud of shame and vulnerability that can feel almost unbearable without the proper container. And not all abuse is committed intentionally, since not all perpetrators of abuse are sociopathic. And some perpetrators may genuinely struggle with owning the harm they inflicted on another person. And empathy is essential to helping the non-sociopathic perpetrator to accept accountability and begin the process of making amends.
Simply punishing and accusing a perpetrator without any shred of empathy triggers fight or flight instincts and shuts down the structures of the brain responsible processing rational thought. When we empathize, it’s easier to circumvent this response and therefore create a space for actual constructive dialogue and genuine accountability. There’s a reason why good cop/bad cop is way more effective than bad cop/worse cop.
The restorative justice model, when done well, can have such a strong impact on society’s hearts and minds. It’s also completely counterintuitive, and requires everyone involved to embrace “yes-and”.
If there is to be lasting change, both perpetrators and survivors need support. There is no either-or in this equation. It requires work on everyone’s part, it’s less viscerally gratifying, it takes a lot of cool heads with emotional maturity, and it’s more effective than self-righteous anger.