Needfulness: Thoughts on Obedience and Empathy

There is much that’s contested and disputed over what restorative justice “is” – and what it isn’t. Despite this, I think it’s fair to say that most would agree that at the core of restorative justice – and restorative practices more widely – is a concern to identify and meet the needs of people who have been affected by the actions of one or more parties. Volunteering for Circles of Support and Accountability brings me into contact with people (core members) who have caused serious harm, but who also have significant unmet needs. Meeting these needs will not only support them to have a better life, but will also enable them to manage their behaviour and reduce their risk of reoffending. What also strikes me about many core members is the apparent inability and unwillingness to recognise or address their own needs. In getting to know core members well, the reasons behind this often become clearer, but recently I came across a discussion by Hal Pepinsky which I thought shed some interesting light on the subject.

In his essay, ‘Empathy Works, Obedience Doesn’t’ (1998), Pepinsky makes a powerful case for the dereliction of the concept of obedience as a tool which forces us to subjugate ourselves to the wishes and directions of others, losing any sense of our own needs and inclinations in the process. I find this argument fascinating. It’s not without its problems, particularly in framing it with the logical conclusions he wishes to draw from his assessment (a complete absence of punishment or the requirement of obedience). What his discussions highlight for me, however, is that there is a need for a better balance between what we sacrifice of ourselves, and how we are enabled better to identify, understand and meet our own needs. This seems crucial in order to function in a healthy, balanced, empathetic and emotionally literate manner, as Pepinsky, and many others besides, articulate cogently.

Reading his discourse, I was minded to reflect on my own experiences of addressing needs, what tools I’ve been given to do this throughout my life and by whom. We would all imagine, I assume, that our parents and families would be the primary source of such qualities and skills, followed perhaps by school, and friends. But here, as with so many things, families are able only to pass on what they already possess – any deficit is nearly always inherited. And Pepinsky is right in one very crucial sense; our socialisation is about how to fit in and how to please others. When our baby sibling is born, our parents undertake careful exercises of incentivising our “good” behaviour toward them. And so we learn that addressing someone else’s needs, and pleasing others brings reward and gratification, and that this should become our priority. We learn that attending to the needs of others is more important than attending to our own. It seems to me that very soon, not only will we lose the inclination to engage with our own needs, we may well lose the ability to distinguish between our own needs and those of others at all. We switch our internal gratification through self-fulfilment for a second-rate external version, handed out by others for pleasing them; our fundamental needs supplanted with far shallower, but more amenable ones.

This is different from being compassionate and altruistic, where we are able to work towards the needs of others whilst keeping our own inclinations and requirements in balance with this. Essentially, according to Pepinsky, this is subjugation of the self, and strikes me as being very dangerous. In any given situation, not to know whether our instinct and our decision making is being driven by our own or someone else’s goals creates a deficit in self esteem which can be utterly corrosive, and the consequences far reaching. Every time we undertake an act which fulfils anothers’ needs at the expense of our own, we are sending and reinforcing a message to ourselves that our own needs are less worthy of attention and action than anyone else’s. The result of this, most obviously, is a failure to meet our own needs. This is damaging enough in itself, but is accompanied by a constant downgrading of our own self-worth, and more irrevocably, a further disengagement from our own needs. An additional consequence may be a potentially permanent inability to identify or engage with these issues at all on our own behalf, or at least to be able to separate them from those of other people in any meaningful or useful way.

Pepinsky argues that in such a state of needful disenfranchisement, people resort to dissociated violence and aggression, perpetrating crimes against their fellow citizens. Whilst this line of thought feels intuitively plausible, I would go further and say that there are many people for whom the subjugation created by obedience leads to a very different but equally corrosive dynamic. Imagine, for example, how someone who is unable to make emotional decisions based on anything other than meeting someone else’s needs (without even necessarily being aware of this), would go about creating and sustaining healthy intimate relationships. Imagine how they might fare at work in negotiations with colleagues or business contacts; how they might build supportive and healthy friendships; how they might cope with stressful and demanding situations at home or work. Imagine how they might raise and nurture their own family. Acknowledging and addressing our own needs is, foremost, an act of self acceptance, which is a permission giver in the most positive sense. It enables us to say ‘no’ in a respectful and engaged way; it allows us to put ourselves first, to negotiate, to change our minds, to move on from things, and to feel less guilt about all of these things. It even gives us permission to try – and fail – at things, which is possibly the most important thing of all, especially for core members who are trying to rebuild more positive lives, often in completely new ways.

It is a very slow and complex piece of work getting people to unlearn such an ingrained response pattern, which is usually established in a formative stage of development. For many, it can never be fully undone, but as the cliché goes, awareness is the first step to addressing an issue. So I guess vigilance is the key, and crucial to that, is having the right people walking beside you too. Fundamentally that is what Circles of Support and Accountability is about. As is true friendship.

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