Pharisees and Recalcitrants

AA Medallion

By Joe C.

When asked about AA’s lack of rules and why we didn’t need them, Bill Wilson said, “AA is self-correcting.” It may be that Toronto Intergroup’s first controversial action of banning AA groups from their roster for nonconformity has been unwittingly self-corrected. Toronto Intergroup may have unintentionally made amends for their trespassing against fellow AA members by formally adopting Warranty Six in AA’s Concept XII (see below).

At June 2012’s Toronto Intergroup meeting a motion was brought forward by Eric K. of the Port Credit Group and seconded by Dee T of the Steetsville group, “to change the GTA (Toronto) Intergroup Procedures and Guidelines wherever necessary to make it perfectly clear that an AA group needs to adopt only the 12 Steps, 12 Tradition and 12 Concepts of AA; (as adopted by the AA General Service Board) in order to be recognized as an AA group by GTA Intergroup.

The vote was to be taken back to the groups and each member of each group would vote. Every vote would be reported back on the referendum ballot. According to the unaudited numbers, 832 voted for the motion and 286 against the motion. The referendum passed. According to Intergroup minutes, Brian of the Responsibility Group wondered if this matter satisfied Toronto’s own guidelines of requiring 60% of Groups approving of changes to Intergroup policies and Procedures. There are 330 groups in the Greater Toronto Area and 72 voted (22%). Groups not heard from totalled 248. Bruce D, Executive Committee Chair, assured the Intergroup floor that due process had been met and the motion has been carried.

In his new book Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler coins the phrase “toxic psychology.” One of his archetypes of impaired thinking is “If you wish upon a star, you make it so.” Yearning for something for nothing is another. Combine the two and welcome to the new baseline normal today. “It was exactly this magical thinking that came to infect the realm of capital finance and has so far come close to destroying it.” Kunstler goes on to say, “After a while I began to understand what lay behind the plea for ‘solutions.’ They were clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts.”

The anti-agnostic AA contingent brought this latest motion to galvanize the “accustomed comfort” of an Intergroup that governs groups. Like our financial crisis and depleting natural resources outside AAs doors, it is insane to try to sustain the unsustainable. Strict adherence to Steps, Traditions and Concepts is now the rule of law at Intergroup. As the new Toronto adherents read all the way to the end of the AA Service Manual they will be reminded of Warranty Six in Concept XII:

That (Intergroup) act for the service of Alcoholics Anonymous, it shall never perform any acts of government, that A.A. Traditions accord to the individual member and to his group extraordinary liberties.

Warranty Six that now governs Toronto Intergroup goes on to say:

No penalties are to be inflicted for nonconformity; no member can be expelled from A.A. – membership will always be the choice of the individual; each A.A. group shall conduct its internal affairs as it wishes; mutual trust should prevail; no action ought to be taken in anger, haste or recklessness; care will be observed to respect and protect all minorities (and) no action should ever be personally punitive.

Membership, like participation, is a fundamental right. It can’t be revoked or granted—it is inherent. Confusion about this is not an AA problem, but rather part of the human condition. In a USA court case in South Carolina this Spring, a high school graduating class voted to include prayer in their graduation ceremonies which atheist students found unconstitutional. The US First Amendment offers citizens freedom from religion and the judge said, “Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” [1] Rights are violated when religious ceremony is imposed on minorities by the majority. Prayer was not permitted at the school function.

In Ontario, there would not be a Human Rights Commission (OHRC) if violations weren’t commonplace. The OHRC considers Intergroup to be a service provider under the code and as such, accommodation has to be granted to minorities who do not share the same belief system as the majority. In other words, even if AA had a rule that the Steps had to be adopted by groups or individuals “as written” in the Big Book, in Ontario, such a rule would be struck down and Intergroup would have a duty to accommodate the nonbeliever.

The principle extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behavior (discrimination/harassment) has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics…either because the person who is the subject of the discrimination is seeking to practice his or her own religion, or because the person who is harassing or discriminating is trying to impose their creed on someone else. [2]

I bring this up not to crown a winner and ridicule a loser but rather to show that these types of differences are common. To my knowledge, no nonbelievers to date have reported Intergroup’s misdeeds. Such restraint may have been rewarded by AA’s self-correcting tendencies if Intergroup pushed so far that it has undone what it intended to restate. In math, two negatives may equal a positive. Intergroup may have unknowingly created a new-order of governance that can’t condone Intergroups will to discriminate. Arguably, the second motion to hold up the Concepts as governing law rescinds the previous motion to exclude groups from the Toronto meeting list.

Bill Wilson writes about two clear and loud AA voices – The Pharisee and the Recalcitrant – which I think he might refer to if he was here to comment. I looked these words up in Webster’s dictionary:

Pharisee: noted for strict observance of rites and ceremonies of the written law and for insistence on the validity of their own oral traditions concerning the law. (Without a capital the definition is self-righteous and/or hypocritical.)

Recalcitrant: resisting authority or control; not obedient or compliant; hard to deal with or manage.

I mentioned how Kunstler’s book looks at how irrational thinking is a sign of the times. Meanwhile, author Corey Robin reveals how traditional conservative and liberal politics (Pharisee/Recalcitrant) transgress their own sacred borders in The Reactionary Mind, “Conservatives usually style themselves as chastened skeptics holding the line against political enthusiasm. Where radicals tilt towards the utopian, conservatives settle for word-weary realism. But in reality, conservatives have been temperamentally antagonistic, politically insurgent and utterly opposed to established moral convention.”

The Pharisee can react to such an extent as to become the Recalcitrant. Like the Tea Party in USA politics, Toronto AA anti-agnostics call themselves conservatives and paint agnostics as a (liberal) insurgency. These so-called traditionalists ignore AA’s legacy of inclusion, humility and autonomy, pointing a blaming finger at the widening our gateway agnostics as holding a radical un-AA agenda. Neoconservative Intergroup builds consensus by eradicating nonconformity.

At the same time, I expect every pro-diversity AA member calls herself or himself a conservative also. Inclusion and liberty are traditional AA values. Agnostics may call Intergroup the Recalcitrant for resisting and opposing AA’s long history of tolerance and love.

While each side points a “you are not real AA” finger at the other side, let us not forget that we have been here before. Pick up the pamphlet, A.A. Tradition, How it developed, and see what Bill had to say in the 1940s:

The first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous makes this brief statement about membership: “The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination nor do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted.” This expressed our feelings as of 1939.

The number of membership rules which have been made (and mostly broken!) are legion… The way our “worthy” alcoholics have sometimes tried to judge the “less worthy” is, as we look back on it, rather comical. Imagine if you can, one alcoholic judging another.  At one time or another most A.A. groups go on rule-making benders…Gossips gossip and righteously denounce the local Wolves and Red Riding Hoods. Newcomers argue that they aren’t alcoholics at all, but keep coming around anyway…Others refuse to accept all the Twelve Steps of the recovery program. Some go still further, saying that the “God business” is bunk and quite unnecessary. Under these conditions our conservative program-abiding members get scared. These appalling conditions must be controlled, they think, else A.A. will surely go to rack and ruin. They view with alarm for the good of the movement!

At this point the group enters the rule and regulation phase. Charters, bylaws and membership rules are excitedly passed and authority is granted committees to filter out undesirables and discipline the evildoers. Then the elders, now clothed with authority, commence to get busy. Recalcitrants are cast into utter darkness; respectable busy-bodies throw stones at the sinners. As for the so-called sinners, they either insist on staying around, or else they form a new group of their own…The elders soon discover that the rules and regulations aren’t working very well. Most attempts at enforcement generate such waves of dissension and intolerance in the group that this condition is presently recognized to be worse for the group life than the very worst that the worst ever did.

After a time fear and intolerance subsides…Everyone has learned a great deal…Those who rebel at the program, those who trade on the A.A. reputation—all such persons seldom harm A.A. for long. Some of these have become our most respected and best loved. Some have remained to try our patience, sober nevertheless. Others will drift away. We have begun to regard those not as menaces, but rather as our teachers. They oblige us to cultivate patience, tolerance, and humility. We finally see that they are only people sicker than the rest of us, that we who condemn them are the Pharisees whose false righteousness does our group the deeper spiritual damage.

Our A.A. door stands wide open, (We) sign nothing, agree to nothing, and promise nothing. We demand nothing. (We) join on our own say-so. We do not wish to deny anyone the chance to recover from alcoholism. We wish to be just as inclusive as we can, never exclusive…We are losing all fear of those violent emotional storms which sometimes cross our alcoholic world; perhaps it bespeaks our confidence that every storm will be followed by a calm; a calm which is more understanding, more compassionate, more tolerant than any we ever knew before.

Here’s another bit of AA history that isn’t read at every meeting: In the mid-1950s Bill Wilson made a stand about the liberty for individual groups to adapt the Steps when in 1957 he wrote a chapter entitled “Unity” not “Uniformity,” in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. Buddhists wanted to join AA and run their own meetings. To do so, they needed to replace the word “God” with “good” so that the practice of the Steps could be compatible with their non-theistic belief. Bill wrote:

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. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p 81)

The same man wrote Appendix E of the AA World Service Manual which speaks of ”the negative right of preventing, so far as it may be within (The General Service Board’s) power to do so, any modification, alteration, or extension of the Twelve Steps.”

The agnostic exterminators took this single passage as a call to action from the grave of Bill Wilson—Protect the Twelve Steps from artistic liberty in practicing, reading or publishing them. If the “negative right of preventing…modification, alteration or extension of the Steps” means to make a singular theistic representation of the program of recovery, this rigidity will be reiterated consistently throughout AA literature. Alternatively, could the rights and responsibility of preserving our integrity be meant for something else? What would that something else be? Maybe it’s a public relations strategy for when AA is misquoted or misrepresented in the press. Maybe AA service structures serve and do not govern (I swear I have read that somewhere before).

Society at large and our own AA manifesto will come to the rescue of persecuted minorities. But is the goal of the disenfranchised to achieve vindication or reconciliation? An argument for vindication in not found in our AA way of life. The AA way of life is about living right – not being right. And in the big picture there is no “us” and no “them.” There is just us alcoholics who, according to history, have never had an easy time getting along and treating each other right.

That’s not an “ism” unless you call it human-ism. The winners in this standoff will be those who better demonstrate our way of life – to live and let live. Better arguments and more articulate defenses beget greater resistance. The greater AA community still loves their agnostic sisters and brothers, so why focus on the problem and not the solution? Use words like “bigotry,” “rights” and “justice” if your goal is to be proven right. But in truth, the only way to win a fight that will be resolved in a single generation is to avoid it all together.

Toronto Intergroup is learning that the AA story is more than 164 pages long and that if we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it. The only thing worse that a bad loser is a bad winner. The true “winner” in this will be those who act like winners, whose love and tolerance is neither conditional nor bragged about, whose AA will always lovingly include the Pharisees and the Recalcitrants.


[1] U.S. District court in Columbia, S.C. against School district 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties – follows Supreme Court (2000) decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, “a student election does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority.”

[2] Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC): Policy on Creed and Accommodation.

Share this post:
facebooktwittermailfacebooktwittermail

Comments are closed.