Within the swirl of outrage, courage, exhilaration, anxiety and dread lies a question that animates nearly every conversation in Hollywood these days: What's next, after the #MeToo hashtags have gone viral and the Time's Up pins have been put away? And can "next" be something more productive than public humiliation and professional banishment on the one hand, or lawsuits and prison on the other? Is it possible to move from litigation-by-clickbait to genuine accountability and healing?
Laura Dern has already given us the answer. In her blazingly eloquent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in January, she recalled being brought up in "a culture of silencing [that] that was normalized," adding, "I urge all of us to not only support survivors and bystanders who are brave enough to tell their truth, but to promote restorative justice."
Dern's colleagues gave her a warm round of applause, even if many of them might not have known exactly what she meant by "restorative justice" (Something to do with a courtroom? In a spa?). But what may sound like a vaguely aspirational aphorism has a very specific meaning, that happens to hold particular promise for an industry in the midst of intense self-examination, and equally intense avoidance thereof.
Restorative justice is not new. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa was probably its most famous example. But as a concept, it's been around for centuries. In modern-day contexts, it's most often used in communities, schools and workplaces as a nonpunitive alternative to traditional proceedings involving accusations, arguments and punishment.
Unlike adversarial trials and tribunals, restorative justice facilitates conversations between people who have been harmed and the people who harmed them, as well as family, friends and members of the surrounding community who were negatively impacted by the offense. The encounters, held after careful preparation on both sides, focus on the injured parties airing their feelings, with the perpetrators listening and, ideally, taking responsibility for the suffering they caused. Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor and sex crimes policy researcher at California State University at Fullerton, describes restorative justice as a framework "concerned with people and relationships, not statute definitions and sentencing guidelines." Rather than prison terms or monetary damages, restitution may take the form of community service, a private apology or a more public form of making amends.
Given the spectrum of behaviors recently described in Hollywood — from subtle boundary violations and verbal abuse to outright assault and rape — restorative justice offers a way to reframe situations that are sometimes steeped in shades of gray. What would it look like if Franco's alleged victims, who have said they just want an apology from the actor, could pursue that wish away from the glare of morning TV and in a quieter, more mutually supportive context? Would the emotional needs of the woman who felt intimidated and disrespected after her encounter with Ansari be better served by airing her grievances outside the call-out culture of social media? Given his half-defensive, half-self-aware statement last November, is there potential for Louis C.K. to take concrete responsibility for his behavior?
Not that any of these conversations would be easy, or instantaneous. "There's so much hurt and pain that survivors need to feel" before they're ready to confront their perpetrators, says Sonya Shah, who has worked with several survivors of sexual abuse at the Ahimsa Collective in the Bay Area. "People who have been harmed need to feel outraged, angry, validated — they just need a lot of space to be angry and wounded and grieve, and a lot of space to just be."
That's the emotional space most people seem to be occupying right now. But should someone decide to pursue restorative justice in a particular case, it's essential that it be initiated by the aggrieved party, Shah says. "There are some survivors that come to immediate spontaneous forgiveness, and there are others that would advocate for the death penalty," she says. "For most of them, right after an incident happens is not when a survivor reaches out. They have their own trauma, rage, shame and anger that they need to work through before they're ready to engage in a conversation, or to even figure out if this is something they want to entertain: 'Will this help me with my healing? Will this help me live a full, beautiful life?' "
Lauren Abramson, who practices restorative justice at the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, adds it's incorrect to assume that restorative practices have failed if they don't result in forgiveness. "I think people have this misconception that if you do this, it's all going to be wrapped up in a bow," Abramson says. "It is absolutely not about forgiveness. It's about people being able to have a space to give voice to their experience, to hear the experience of others, and in doing so to open the doors to healing. Forgiveness may or may not be a part of that."
In the meantime, she adds, there are affirmative steps individuals and institutions in Hollywood can take toward escaping the current cycle of naming-and-shaming and denial-and-defensiveness.
"What if men in Hollywood started to meet in their own groups and feel what it's like to acknowledge their own behaviors with each other?" Abramson asks. Such candid encounters, she says, would "give people a sense that it's not just the Harvey Weinsteins and the Louis C.K.s. It's saying, 'We've got a lot of power as a community to understand that something's going on here that's not right.' It could be just a group of people saying, 'Something's going on that we're a part of by not engaging with it, and by denying it. And there's something we can do to bring our own behavior to a higher level.' . . . Because the pin-wearing is just too easy."
The good news is that some men are already going beyond the pin: At the SAG Awards in January, William H. Macy mentioned he had attended a gathering of men organized by Time's Up. For her part, Ackerman would welcome the chance to help festivals, guilds and the academy to formulate restorative methods for enforcing their internal rules. "I'm based in Southern California," she says, adding that each time a case becomes public she asks herself, "How do I get into contact with these men? Because when you disarm the shame, when you disarm the panic and you just bridge a connection, the things that come out in these conversations are incredible."
With her proximity to Hollywood, Ackerman is well situated to become the Gloria Allred of restorative justice. And, if its most vaunted ideals are to be believed, Hollywood should be an ideal platform to model a practice based on storytelling and deep listening. When filmmakers talk about their craft, they often say the things they prize most highly as artists are authenticity, empathy and narrative truth. Now is the time to marshal those values in service to real, off-screen catharsis.