What do you think of when you think of adults? What do they do? How do they carry themselves?
How about in an intact, and indigenous culture? Does that picture change at all?
It does for me. In our culture we have the ‘provider’ side of adulthood down, but we seem to have long lost our traditions of agreements and community collaboration.
In Gypsy Law, Romani Legal Traditions and Culture, editor Walter Weyrauch has assembled a group of essays that address the heart of this subject, using a cultural group that has role-modeled a sustainable and vital adult tradition of collaboration and agreements for centuries now. Alternately demonized and romanticized, at the heart of Romani culture sits something extraordinary, invisible to modern eyes because it in fact impacts the mundane flow of day-to-day life the most; an unarticulated, yet ever-present system of religious (and therefore to indigenous minds, legal) strictures that modulate behavior and prepare the ground for community disputes and dischord, called the Romaniya.
For this essay I’d like to focus in on one piece of this vast and ever-evolving (yet also unchanging and the most ancient of traditions – deal with the paradox, you can do it!) web of laws held and passed on by the community elders. I’d like to single out the legal proceeding and communal adjudication known as the kris. A kris forms whenever two adult parties have irreconcilable differences and need some more powerful tools to find a resolution (and often, some kind of reparation).
In the United States of America, any typical courtroom in any legal context operates using a very important guideline: in a community of highly diverse religious traditions and values, from cultures all over the world, you must narrow the scope of the proceeding, and the kind and source of information, or total chaos will result.
Whether or not you agree with this notion, it defines our legal system, the system that, barring radical and fundamental cultural change, we do have to deal with as part of the bargain of living in the modern world.
The Roma (Gypsies) flip this idea of narrowed-scope. At a kris court proceeding, no complaint, story, comment, or rant from an adult belonging to the community lies outside the scope of the proceeding. Every kris acts as a chance for adults to voice the current crop of imbalances and issues at play in the community; this can seem like a stream of non sequitors, irrelevant to the stated reason the community convened the kris in the first place. And the spokesman for the different parties, what you might call ‘citizen attorneys’, act more as mediators.
So, in a state-controlled diverse context of highly varied values and traditions, we narrow scope to help find a resolution. In an egalitarian and communal context of very similar values and traditions, we widen the scope of information kind and source.
Note that each has a narrow scope, but of a different kind. Non-Roma (whom gypsies call gadje) do not attend a kris; the community excludes them. The Romaniya does not, in fact, apply to non-Rom, so they simply do not belong and have no say. So Roma narrow the scope of a kris by only including adult community members, and find their own kind of efficiency.
If you know anything about Open Spaces Gatherings, you may have just had quite the revelatory moment.
The Roma, amongst themselves, use the kris for every intra-Roma dispute that they can; issues of theft, adultery, and rare incidents like murder, they try to convince the state legal system to allow them to resolve. When the ‘crime’ or dispute has occurred between Roma and gadje outsiders, then they use the state’s legal system. They have interfaced in this way, between egalitarian Roma community and majority hierarchical state culture, for several centuries at least, and only have more success with this balance as they go along.
As a cultural critic I cannot help but note one other contrast between these two cultures, and of the balancing act it illuminates.
The United States legal system, along with narrowing the scope of information allowed, also employs an adversarial paradigm. The system applauds and supports the discontent of two parties, and assures them that, in the end, the state will announce one party ‘Right’ and the other ‘Wrong’, and divvy punishments and rewards accordingly.
The Romani legal system uses a paradigm of remedy; the kris endeavors to answer the question, “what must we do to make this situation right again?”, as opposed to “who do we blame, who do we punish?”. To stay clear, the kris does allot fines and other penalties at times, but it prioritizes the return to community balance over such solutions, and uses penalties and fault-finding in accord with mediation and peacemaking.
Boiling it all down, in one hand we have an adversarial system of narrowly-focused information exchange between parties of different values, and in the other a peacemaking system of widening-scope communal information exchange between parties of very similar values.
Ironically, I don’t see the state’s legal system as more efficient and less time-consuming; I emphatically see evidence of a situation quite the opposite, where the days or week of a kris court end in a resolution satisfying to the community, where state trials can last months and years ending in a resolution that truly satisfies few or even no one (anybody who gets paid from it probably feels pretty good).
For regular readers of the College of Mythic Cartography, I hope to tie a whole assortment of parallel threads together in this. In a culture of people who don’t actually listen to each other, but rather just wait for their turn to talk, we have very little experience when it comes to making systems of agreement, collaboration, and conversation that works. This whole field of knowledge really has just begun to open up with real possibilities.
I believe, that just as we can work with community energy by changing the games we play, just as we can choose our culture depending on the kind of experiences we want, we too can choose how to resolve disputes and remedy dischord by learning from the Romaniya and applying some of its principles.