Even people who have never had a drinking problem know that Alcoholics Anonymous has 12 steps. You admit you’re powerless over alcohol (Step One), for instance, and apologise to people who’ve been harmed by your drinking (Step Nine). But fewer people know about AA’s 12 Traditions, the glue that holds a motley crew of recovering drunks together. The 12 steps keep your life in order; the 12 traditions keep the group in order — or so it is said in AA.
Arguably the most important tradition is Tradition 10: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” The Washingtonians, a group of recovering alcoholics that preceded AA by about a century, disbanded due to infighting over its involvement in social reforms like prohibition, religion and slavery abolition. AA’s founders, William Wilson and Dr Robert Smith (Bill and Dr Bob), didn’t want AA to suffer the same fate. Best their organisation remain neutral, they thought, so as to be welcoming for alcoholics from every walk of life. For nearly 88 years, AA has never weighed in on foreign or domestic policies, nor has it endorsed political candidates or legislative proposals. And so desperate drunks of every race, colour and creed have kept on coming and — together — got sober.
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It is up to every individual AA meeting to uphold the programme principles. (Tradition 4: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole”). But where many struggle, I’ve found, over the 20 years I’ve been going to meetings, is with Tradition 10. In AA, alcoholics are free to share about anything they like, so long as it pertains to alcoholism; politics and the culture wars, they can leave at the door. And yet, a lot of recovering alcoholics can’t resist hot takes when they’ve been handed a mic. I noticed this particularly after Donald Trump was elected, and especially in New York City. Members started sharing about a fight they’d had that day with their idiotic, MAGA-hat-wearing uncle on Facebook — apparently unaware of newcomers, desperate to get sober, who might now feel unwelcome because they had voted for the wrong guy.
In 2020, violations of Tradition 10 reached a fever pitch. After George Floyd’s murder, institutions across the nation absorbed progressive ideals into their mission statements. I was finishing my last year of study at Columbia University. Having entered the university in 2017 as a self-described radical progressive planning a career in LGBT activism, I was graduating an exile. I had become disillusioned with, and spoken out against, my fellow progressives’ tactics: suppressing free speech, purity policing and reducing every individual to his or her skin colour, gender and sexual orientation. During my last semester, which was moved online due to the pandemic, I’d sign on to virtual AA meetings after class, and immediately be struck by how similar the two spaces had become. Pronouns lit up the screen. Whereas opening readings once consisted of the AA preamble, the 12 Steps and 12 traditions, and details about the meeting, now some groups chose to add a thinly veiled threat: “We will not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist or transphobic rhetoric in this space.”
From my experience of post-Trump academia, I knew these proclamations wouldn’t so much prevent inappropriate speech as put everyone on high alert, encouraging an atmosphere of self-censorship. Recovering alcoholics carry a lot of guilt about the harm their drinking has caused others; they are often irrationally fearful of causing any more. If they feel like they’re traversing a mine field of potential triggers that could set off listeners in the room, they may be reluctant to admit shameful details about the past, which they want and need to get off their chests. Recovering alcoholics’ lives depend on their ability to share honestly, and to feel like they will be accepted by AA no matter their histories or their personal views. Increasingly, certain opinions — although you could never be totally sure which ones — were no longer worthy of respect in a democratic society. Meetings were not unlike my university classes, where the silence during discussions would extend for what felt like an eternity, as so many students stayed quiet rather than risk transgressing.
But even silence could get alcoholics in trouble. In June 2020, Toby N. had been in the programme in New York for six years. He was raised in the Mormon church, but left it when he was 24 and came out as gay a couple of years later. On #BlackoutTuesday, when white people committed to posting nothing but a black square on Instagram for a full 24 hours, Toby decided not to partake. “I didn’t feel like it was going to do anything,” he said. Then he got a direct message from a friend — another gay man in AA — who asked: why hadn’t Toby posted anything about racial justice on social media? He accused Toby of inadequate allyship. (Toby had donated to Black Lives Matter.) In meetings, he would hear people whispering about other members’ “white privilege”.
Toby was generally in alignment with them about social justice issues, but he found the manner in which they spoke about them exceedingly “toxic”. But a line had been drawn in the sand, he told me: “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Exclusively attending meetings for gay alcoholics, Toby had previously found acceptance in AA, but now he felt like a stranger in the programme that had for years been like a second home. He decided to leave. The 12 steps worked for him, but the dogma and the groupthink, he felt he could do without. “It feels like I’m a man without a country,” he said. “I don’t have the gay community that I thought I did.”
For many years, I also attended affinity AA groups for gay and lesbian alcoholics. In these meetings, we felt no need to use coded language when sharing: we could say “my boyfriend” or “girlfriend”, rather than “my other half” or “significant other”. We could be honest about our difficulties with various spiritual aspects of the programme (Step Three: A decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him): the only God many of us had ever understood was one who despised us. It may seem like affinity groups violate Tradition 10, since some of the topics discussed in these meetings are technically “outside issues”. However, they are always spoken about as they pertain to alcoholism. And because these meetings are clearly labelled in the directory, straight members who attend are aware that some of the issues discussed might not pertain to them.
Sometime over the past decade, gay and lesbian meetings became “LGBTQ” meetings. After “intersectionality” leapt from university campuses into the mainstream, these meetings became the most ideological of them all. Suddenly, a whole range of difficulties had to be acknowledged. “If you suffer from chronic fatigue and don’t feel like you can make it until the end of the meeting to share, please alert me and I will call on your early,” the host of one LGBTQ meeting in New York I attended read aloud. Then: “If you want to share but you have difficulty speaking, please write what you would like to share in the chat and I will read it aloud for you.” I still can’t fathom how any member in attendance could have interpreted these announcements as anything other than disturbingly infantilising: one of the key ingredients for sobriety is personal responsibility.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, the language of one of AA’s best-known readings changed. The preamble has always read: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other.” On the last day of the 71st General Service Conference for the US and Canada, held virtually in April 2021, a vote was held on whether to change the wording of the Preamble from “a fellowship of men and women” to “a fellowship of people”. The motion passed. Many members were shocked. Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for its stubborn resistance to change: the first 164 pages of the Big Book have barely been amended since they were written nearly a century ago. The literature has saved thousands, maybe millions, of lives. “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” is one of AA’s unofficial mottos. Why risk changing something that works?
Another member, Justin D., says that another reason changes should rarely occur is that they are hard to reverse. At an LGBTQ meeting he attends in Baltimore, which began as a meeting for gays and lesbians, a young woman joined the group and began demanding changes to the opening literature because people were being misgendered. She called for a directive stating that only gender-neutral language should be used when calling on members to share. Group members reluctantly acquiesced to the woman’s demands. Not long afterwards, she stopped attending. Now, if members wanted to return the readings to their original form, they would have to propose it to the group and initiate a vote — which could result in accusations that they are trying to reintroduce trans-exclusionary language.
Elizabeth S. said that at a “queer-identified” meeting she attended, all of the opening readings were amended to include only gender-neutral language. However, she told me, one gender-specific pronoun had apparently managed to slip through the editing process. When the woman who read that particular announcement aloud arrived at the pronoun, Elizabeth said, she began to trip over her words and look nervously about the room, as if she was uncertain how to proceed.
Another member I spoke to, Bernadette R., remarked that for decades women have bristled at the male pronouns used in AA’s literature to describe God, or a Higher Power. “The female demographic is much bigger than the non-binary demographic. So why are they getting a space faster than women are?” She also mentioned her frustration with the new gender-neutral restrooms at the meeting she attends every week, which make many women feel uncomfortable. “Women deserve to feel safe,” she said.
And yet it has long been a principle in AA that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, or what wrongs you’ve committed — AA says “You belong here.” The only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking” (Tradition Three). Critical social justice ideology, which scoffs at the idea of redemption for those who may have transgressed, is inimical to AA’s core mission. If the programme doesn’t recommit to upholding Tradition 10, it could go the same way as the Washingtonians. In the meantime, many alcoholics with the “wrong politics” might choose not to join a group that could shun them for their problematic views. And, as it is said in AA, for a real alcoholic, “to drink is to die”.
Names have been changed to respect AA members’ anonymity. All agreed to participate in this article.
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