Wednesday, May 9, 2012

AAs Concept V make unpopular opinions legit!

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:
[ii] Toronto Intergroup minutes, especially May 2010, March 2011:
[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

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Subjectivity of my Reality

The only problem with reality…

The only problem with reality is there are so many versions of it. Game Time: Think of a 12-Step meeting you look forward to going to. Now think of one that makes you roll your eyes. I practiced what I preached - they are in my head right now. Man those sanctimonious bastard think they know everything. Not like my home group - we aren’t perfect but we know a little something about humility, love and tolerance. How different are these two groups? To an impartial observer, they might not see much difference in either of them.

In 1966, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann expanded this theme in a book called The Social Construction of Reality. Consider that each autonomous 12-Step group is its own society, like two towns in the same country (fellowship). Berger and Luckmann write:

“Two societies confronting each other with conflicting universes will both develop conceptual machineries designed to maintain their respective universes. From the point of view if the intrinsic plausibility the two forms of conceptualization may seem to the outside observer to offer little choice.”

Let’s say a medical student picked two meetings to attend to learn about our brand of addiction and recovery. He picked the two closed meetings to school on consecutive nights. One was a mainstream AA meeting and the other was a Gay group, or Agnostic or young people’s group. Would he notice that one was different from the other. Each of them were peer to peer groups, they both read, “What is AA,” took a Seventh Tradition, talked about the only requirement for membership, the problem of powerlessness, the idea that alcoholism is a progressive, fatal illness and together we can do what alone we cannot. So even if one group was a “special interest” group, formed because members needed a place they could really relate to other alcoholics or addicts that appreciated what makes them different, these “conflicting universes” between mainstream and special focus groups could be so small that the casual outside observer doesn’t even see it. If we are members of these groups, we see what differentiates us; the outsider sees the common theme.

What I know is real is really what I believe; what I believe colors everything I perceive as I tend to ask life to corroborate my worldview. My worldview is what I see outside my window. I don’t see the whole world, but  I create my view of the world from what I can see (and a little more from what I imagine). My view has limits.

Everyone in recovery knows that our worldview can change. I was sure that alcohol and drugs were the missing piece in the puzzle of my life. Everything made more sense and I felt more complete when I was intoxicated. I vehemently defended this perceived truth when confronted about my addiction. But now I accept that I am powerless. I have a totally new worldview, because I am looking out a different window.

To borrow from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860):

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

You told me I was powerless and my life was unmanageable. I scoffed at first. Then I raised my voice and got drunk at you. Now I am sober and expect to stay sober all day. My truth of the past went through three stages as it morphed into what I believe now.

If we keep seeking, we go through this three-stage phase all the time. We all learn to “let go absolutely.” What becomes of that will once released is a much debated idea. Many know exactly what happens and why; that is their truth. All I know is that I hate being controlled and I want to have control. I believe that letting loose of my desire to control the agenda is good for me. What becomes of this willfulness is purely subjective. Now there have been times when I needed to understand what’s behind the curtain. Isn’t that funny – I was willing to let go of my controlling tendency, but I insisted on understanding what became of this will of mine – as if that’s important. But it was important to me, so I listened to some smart sounding people and made something up that kind of made sense to me. I explained this truth of mine in exquisite detail. Then I started to believe something else and explained how wrong I was then, and what the real truth is now. Oh, “there are none so righteous as the recently converted.” I have been converted a few times now.

Understanding that my truth and what is real to me is subjective is important to me for two good reasons. First, I don’t want to stop growing. Second, I want to have compassion for others and if they differ from me, I best not think I am enlightened and they are deluded. It wouldn’t be any better to see them as whole and me as incomplete. Humility for me today is about me and my world being right sized. Maybe I am my brother (and sister’s) keeper, but I am not their master.

I think that a spiritual journey is a continuum, more circular than linear. My tendency is to lock in on those who reinforce or validate my current worldview. I am quick to dismiss alternative worldviews. It is a reflex. It happens before my cognitive functions are engaged. That’s why I like think, think, think; if I give myself time to think and think some more before I react I can be more civilized than my base instincts. And really, who am I going to learn from. The people who mirror my moves, or the many who move to the beat of another drummer

Have you ever seen the award winning documentary, “Escape from Death,” about the books by Pulitzer Prize author Earnest Becker, called, “Denial of Death” and “Escape from Evil?” See the trailer  

This movie and the work of Terror Management Theorists shines a light on why I am more likely to dismiss, or feel threatened by, someone different than me, than I am to feel communion and connection. I want to get along; I want to see the beauty in others. To do so takes exercise to rise above my base instincts. Like all of us, I suffer from attribution tendencies. I attribute “reasons” for my flaws and those I love and I attribute “defective character” to the flaws of those outside my circle. For example: I am late because of traffic and look how busy I am. You are late – how could you show so little respect for my time, you narcissist!

Part of Step Ten and Eleven for me is to meditate on compassion and assess how I am doing when I am in the kitchen where things get hot. I also review when I find myself defending my reality. When I am so sure I am right and I have figured a problem out, I now like to ask myself, “What else could this mean?” That’s one way, I have learned from others how to think, think, think.