Background: In Toronto Canada a new era of AA stewardship is sweeping AA Intergroup. It is the era of governance, enforcement and homogeneity of a singular interpretation of the message of Alcoholics Anonymous. Though this blind rage will hopefully burn itself out, this is the type of story the Bill Wilson would surely draw upon in his Beranstain Bears “this is what you should not do, so let this be a lesson to you[i],” style of essays that the Twelve Traditions are full of.
In Toronto, agnostic AA groups (a proud part of the AA fold since 1978) were carrying the message to nonbelievers and providing a haven of like-minded alcoholics for long-timers that never did find a God they understood. Some believers don’t like the idea of agnostic AA and stay away. In Toronto, intolerant believers saw the presence of agnostic groups in the meeting directory as a treat to the newcomer and the sustainability of their brand of the AA message. So Intergroup[ii] tossed the agnostic groups from the directory and the Intergroup steering committee stricken the agnostic groups from participation on the Intergroup floor, leaving no means of appeal – at least not by the directly affected parties.
Indianapolis, Des Moines and from what I hear, Boston have wrestled with this same bigotry which, like all intolerance is based in fear. Bill Wilson’s AA was and is one of reducing barriers to entry – not putting them up. In a Toronto General Service District Committee meeting the following essay was presented as a discussion piece on AA’s Twelve Concepts:
Concept V[iii]: “Through our world service structure, a traditional “Right of Appeal” ought to prevail, thus assuring that minority opinion will be heard and that petitions for the redress of personal grievances will be carefully considered.”
Bill W quotes a French nobleman, De Touquerville who visited North America to witness the new Republic. As noted by Wilson, the nobleman expressed that, “the greatest threat to democracy would always be the tyranny of apathetic, self-seeking, uninformed or angry majorities. Only a truly dedicated citizenry, willing to protect and conserve minority rights and opinion, could guarantee the existence of a free and democratic society.”
When unpopular opinions are forbidden and minorities are scapegoats, De Touchqerville would view these signals as a society in decay. Are we a “truly dedicated citizenry?” Is AA in our area apathetic? Have we ever been part of a self-seeking, uninformed or angry majority that imposed our will on a minority? Concept V – the minority opinion, is our best chance of not falling prey to this kind of complacency.
The General Service Conference may seem like they take forever to get anything done. Hearing the opinion of the minority is something that AA goes to great lengths to ensure. Often when a two-thirds vote could easily be obtained the floor agonizingly waits to hear what everyone has to say. The minority can alter the will of the majority.
Barry L, author of “Do You Think You’re Different” and “Living Sober” was a GSO staff member in 1973 and 1974 and tells of the story when the Conference had to decide if Gay meetings could be so identified in AA directories. The mood of the floor was dead-set against the idea. Remember that homosexuality was still a felony and gay men and women were spoken of as deviants.
In Barry’s 1985 World Conference talk in Montreal he recalls, “The discussion in 1974 went back and forth, back and forth for two days and two nights. Much of the agenda was whipped out. I remember one man saying, ‘I guess if this year you list the sex deviants, next year you’ll list the rapists AA groups.’
“A delightful woman from one of the northern States or maybe Canada, standing about three feet tall, came to the middle microphone and pulled it down to her face and said, ‘Where I come from alcoholics are considered deviants.’ The chairman astutely saw that the mood of the floor had changed and he asked if anyone wanted to call the question. The vote was cast and only two delegates voted against the gay and lesbian groups; it was almost unanimous, 129 votes to two.[iv]”
Every generation thinks it has found some new threat to AA sustainability. If I was to bring up the topic of a group changing the wording of the Twelve Steps, you might think I am talking about AA literalists vs agnostic groups at Toronto Intergroup Circa: 2011. While it is true that here in Toronto, what the minority calls “group autonomy,” a resounding majority of Toronto Intergroup reps call grounds for dismissal, 55 years ago, AA had a different attitude towards minority rights and group autonomy.
A poignant story comes from “AA Comes of Age.” In the mid 1950s AA was reaching alcoholics around the world, where the God belief that dominates AA culture was not shared by many. Bill Wilson was quite clear about the liberty for individual groups in his Chapter on Unity from “A. A. Comes of Age.” On page 81 he is talking about Buddhists who said that they would love to be part of AA, yet they would be replacing the word “god” with “good” so that the practice of the Steps could be compatible with their atheistic belief. In 1957, Bill writes:
“To some of us, the idea of substituting ‘good’ for ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of A.A.’s message. But here we must remember that A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”
Today’s Toronto Intergroup convincingly disagrees with our cofounder. Voting out atheists has surely increased the popularity of Intergroup participation. Intergroup is generally represented by 40 to 50 of Toronto’s 200+ groups. We got 82 bums in seats to keep two nonconforming groups from returning to Intergroup participation and to vote out a new deviant group.
AA stewards have come out of the woodwork to see and participate in AA democracy – or at least AA democracy minus Concept V. When agnostics were first banished from the meeting list last May, AA’s “Right of Appeal” might have included this reading of AA history from Comes of Age. The reading might have made it clear that the exact wording of our Twelve Steps are neither law nor orthodoxy. Intergroup could have been reminded that not only has it always been permissible for each group to do as it chooses, but this autonomy has always made AA bigger and better, reaching the hand of AA out to all who suffer.
But in May of 2011, the groups that were voted against were voted out of Intergroup. The voice of the minority was buried as the meeting names were stroked off the Intergroup list of members.
The AA Service Manual states that “When a minority considers an issue to be such a grave one that a mistaken decision could seriously affect AA as a whole, it should then charge itself with the duty of presenting a minority report.”
Bill goes on to say, “minorities frequently can be right; that even when they are partly or wholly in error they still perform a most valuable service, when by asserting their ‘Right of Appeal,’ they compel a thorough debate on important issues. The well-heard minority, therefore, is our chief protection against a, misinformed, hasty or angry majority.”
In an AA without Concept V unpopular opinions or ways of doing things are suppressed or eradicated, uniformity replaces unity and our AA becomes a culture of conformity, replacing the tapestry that preceded it. This is the natural consequence of apathetic, self-seeking, uninformed or angry majorities that resist scrutiny. Long live Concept V.
[i] Berenstain Bears: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berenstain_Bears
[ii] Toronto Intergroup minutes, especially May 2010, March 2011: http://aatoronto.org/webapp/app/webroot/index.php/intergroup/intergroup_meetings
[iii] 37th printing of “The Twelve Concepts” by Bill W., Concept V, page 22 in the A.A. Service Manual
[iv]Barry L got sober in 1945. Forty years later at the World Conference in Montreal he spoke, three weeks later he passed away. Hear it Here (from www.xa-speakers.org): http://rebelliondogspublishing.com/files/barry-l-originof3rdtrad.mp3